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Rebecca Traister talks about “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women”

Rebecca Traister found many of the gender conversations during the 2008 elections painful but necessary.

By / October 28, 2010

Traister was surprised to find herself sobbing when Hillary Clinton conceded defeat in the 2008 US presidential race.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

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Rebecca Traister covers women in politics for Salon.com. Her new book, "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women," takes us through the mixed pain and triumph of the women who made headlines in the 2008 presidential election. Recently I had a chance to talk to Traister about her book.

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Q. I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that until I read your book I didn't even think about the fact that when Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary she became the first woman in history to win a US presidential primary contest. Did Hillary’s story kind of get buried in the 2008 election coverage?

Think about the fact that no one told you that – before me! How stunning is that?

The story of Hillary as a historymaker was without a question buried during 2008. But I should qualify that and say that in part it was buried by Hillary. And we can’t leave that out of the equation. Most people now are critical of Mark Penn [Clinton's campaign adviser] and I am, too. But the advice that he was giving her, which was essentially to de-sex herself, was not out of line with historic experience and expectation about how you run female candidates. What those who have run have done historically is to present themselves as tough, avoid mentioning their own femininity or selling it at all costs and this is what we saw Hillary do. And part of that meant not making a big deal about the fact that she was the first woman candidate. [That strategy] gave a lot of us permission not think about the tremendous historical role that she was playing, and let me tell you, the media took advantage of that permission like nobody’s business. There was no acknowledgment.

Q. Somewhere down the line – maybe when we have our first woman president – will that be when historians will look back and say, “You know, Hillary Clinton really deserves a lot of credit”?

Without a doubt. And I think we’re hearing about it now, too. The conversations we’re having now about gender and politics in the midterm elections are very different from the conversations we were having during Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and even different from the ones we were having during Sarah Palin’s candidacy. Many of them are dismaying in many ways, depending on how you’d like to see women depicted on the stage, and there are many troubled candidacies, but what we are seeing is the expansion of number of models for how women can present themselves in political life. And while it can be maddening, infuriating, it is also how we’re going to get toward gender equality in politics. And that is coming straight off Hillary’s campaign.

I’m of the opinion that Hillary Clinton still could be our first female president. But if it’s not she, it certainly will be somebody who has Hillary to thank for it.

Q. During the 2008 campaign there were such marked differences between the way Hillary Clinton was treated and the way Sarah Palin was treated. Was that due to a beauty bias – and might it have worked the same way between two male candidates?

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