For those of us who still can't get enough of the 2008 Presidential elections, who hunt through books like Game Change like truffle pigs in Provence, Rebecca Traister's Big Girls Don't Cry is wonderful foraging ground. But for women it is much, much more than another campaign book.
It is a testament to Traister's book that this formerly mystified over-50 female Obama supporter now finally understands what the hell all the crying was about. In our delirious march to the drumbeat of righting a different wrong, we didn't see that an entire movement of awakened and extremely sensitized women were almost lost forever to McCain/Palin. Mostly this book is for and about them—the ones apparently still reeling from the stunted ride.
These women were still roiling that Hillary Clinton had been hounded out of the primary, when no other Democratic candidate had been pushed by so many before the convention-- by commentators, former friends, party stalwarts, angry men all—just as she was getting going and still getting votes, and for getting passed over as vice president.
Many women personalized her campaign, as though an insult to Hillary were a personal insult. Their rallying cry was, "I will not live to see a woman president." Traister says, "You get the candidates you get." I always felt there could be now and would be other female candidates in a way that Hillaryites didn't, and didn't share their 'now or never' sense of the campaign. But there is no question that Hillary being that candidate brought out the worst in men. It elicited wildly sexist comments from male audiences ("Iron My Shirt!") and commentators ("I am so glad you're not my wife!" "Shrillery!") and divided office workers in liberal workplaces into other-hating hostilely bemused camps.
The personal is the political for so much of the book: Hillary is most appreciated by the author in the personal; when she cries, struggles, fights, refuses to give in, endures, and suffers through a "shit-storm." The verbs of empathy often sound like the job description for a Biblical character, more than a President. Traister writes, "I noticed that her popularity rose when she was cuckolded, but was not particularly bothered by it, I was appalled by her Iraq vote, but not surprised by her unwillingness to play lady dove..." I was troubled by both, and it is, I think the essence of our difference in our reactions to Hillary—as though as feminists, we should just forgo a sincere position on foreign policy to "bad faith," something we have to play-act.
Perhaps a more accommodating woman, one with a less polarizing past or personality would have garnered less criticism from the wolf pack, as Traister calls the male press. A Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan? Have you heard her speak? I can't imagine anyone calling her shrill; I would love to speculate on whether Russert, Olbermann, and Matthews would have given her the same treatment.
In the end, Traister points out, the Democratic party did so little to redress the dramatic ways in which sexist taunts by the media became commonplace that a huge faction of America's progressive women almost deserted the Democratic party they felt deserted them. This fact is profoundly important, and is made convincingly, in this book.
There are big ideas raised freshly in the book, some reviewed exhaustively, others merely touched on, which new thinkers can begin to unpack. I was particularly compelled by the question of whether feminists can have different ideologies. This deep issue was raised when the McCain team cynically picked Sarah Palin in an effort to sweep up all the disaffected women who had been seemingly abandoned by Obama's not only winning, but not picking Hillary for VP. This two-fer left a lot of aggrieved women looking for someone to follow, no matter how hard Hillary tried to bring them into the Obama fold after the convention. Eventually, the issue of reproductive choice and other social issues brought most of them back to the party, but not at first.
There are Hillary diehards that are still angry today, two years later, and you still feel this anger in this book. They are no longer in danger of becoming Republicans, only disaffected Democrats, which the party and Obama can ill afford. It remains to be seen how much of a lesson the party has learned.
One of the reasons Hillary is a Rorschach test, is that we all write our own Hillarys based on our own projections. Must we be more ruthless to succeed? Less? Should we be more lovable? Less divisive? Must we be more aggressive to succeed in a man's world?
Doesn't Hillary have to be this tough? Could a woman that could have won Iowa be loved? Could she have won if she had started with the thrilling, non-ambivalent performances she ended with, in West Virginia, everything post Indiana?
Can you win and not give up your soul? These are all the things Traister and her friends and her mother talked about, she and I talked about, things I talked to my mother and friends about—it's part of the truly charming and occasionally girlish idiosyncrasy of this book, particularly if you're a girl.
Traister tells us that Hillary caught fire at the end of the road when she had nothing to lose. This is when she fired her advisors, stopped listening to everyone, and found her voice. This is when America liked her energy, the commentators gave her her due, when she wasn't on the attack but on the march.
Traister knows this, and wonders whether this Hillary could have won with this approach from the beginning. Her most trusted advisors think so. But it is in contrast to some of Traister's fears? I think so. Voice is something Obama had from the beginning and the electorate was hungering for. If so, would much of this thesis be unnecessary? Maybe.
But even if this is true, the issues raised by Traister remain vitally important. The Hillary archetype with its unabashed ambition and smart-scary persona incited revealing and terrified reactions from the male press and electorate. This had to be purged and studied before any woman could run again.
The nature of that experience alone created 18 million tiny cracks in the glass ceiling. The overall upshot of the election wasn't all bad for women, after all—"Political breakthroughs begat cultural breakthroughs begat comedy breakthroughs begat political breakthroughs," Traister writes.
New women's voices were needed to explain some of these weird new female issues, and women were suddenly exploding on the air. It was the birth of Rachel Maddow. It was the best year ever as an anchor for the then-declining Katie Couric, who took down Sarah Palin with unerring directness. It was the dawn of the feminist blogosphere, and the rise to national prominence of many new female media voices, like Ana Marie Cox, and sharp black female voices, notably Melissa Harris-Lacewell to hash out the black/feminist identity mess.
And this is how the 2008 election changed the world, and allowed for Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and the feminist press, and the feminist blogosphere, and more female presence on TV. And an assurance hopefully, that no woman, should she be Jennifer Granholm or Debbie Wassermann Shultz or Claire McCaskill or some female Barack Obama we have not yet heard of, will ever be treated like this again.
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