Interview: "Big Girls Don't Cry" Author Rebecca Traister
Post-mortems of the 2008 elections, with many pages dedicated to the women involved, are not in short supply. Examples include Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win by Washington Post reporter Anne Kornblut, You've Come a Long Way, Maybe: Sarah, Michelle, Hillary, and the Shaping of the New American Woman by broadcast personality Leslie Sanchez and Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.
One of the most recent entries, Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Change Everything For American Women, is by Rebecca Traister, author and senior writer for Salon.com. Many excellent reviews have been written already, and I would only be adding to them. I loved the writing, which is clear, coherent and comprehensive. I loved the sentiments, which are personal, political and pointed. And I loved the analysis, which I boil down to this: Maybe we should have been able to predict some of what happened to Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama, but it's unlikely that hindsight would or could have changed a single thing. It all had to happen more or less exactly as it did, we've got a lot of learning to do from it, and we are further along now than we were two years ago.
So instead, I'm offering up the results of a phone interview I conducted with Traister last week. I think you'll find her reflections fascinating.
The Interview with Rebecca Traister
JMZ for BH: How much of Clinton’s “failure” in what she presented was due to how hard the public is to read, both men and women? How much of it (the failure) was due to targeting issues, such as basing strategy on models and time-honored beliefs of how female voters, in the aggregate, act?
RT: I’m not a pollster or political strategist. I’m just telling the story, so the kind of guessing I’ll do is really as a civilian observer. I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about it, but I've never been on the polling end.
That said, my civilian sense is that while it may be true that voters are hard to read, it’s also true that, and my guess is that the electorate is changing more rapidly than we know.
But I have a larger complaint, that I have with the Democratic party. You can see my piece just published in The Nation, "Democrats: Remember the Ladies!". There’s been historical evidence, the history of women’s issues that led Hillary Clinton’s strategists to act the way they did. It’s easy for me to say this, but I hate the soccer mom stuff, the people pleasing stuff. That’s nuts - [the idea that we] find out what people want you to sell to them, and then sell it.
But the larger point is that I think they were relying on a lot of historical, and in fact what turned out to be dated evidence.
I do believe that there is a renewed appetite, and a re-engagement to talk about gender. Does that mean women are feminists like their moms and grandmoms? No, but I do think that people in politics – and in the Democratic party - have really failed to listen to, since Hillary Clinton ran, [the fact] that 19 million voters supported her. When she became her own candidate and stopped running as a man and [as someone who was] claiming her place in history, and really was allowed to come into her own, rather than be subdued and controlled, there was so obviously an appetite for female leadership. And we see it on the right: the right is selling women on a feminist-friendly message based on the Republican assumption that we like feminists more than we did in the last 30 years and I am very unhappy that Democrats aren’t paying attention to this.
That was probably a mistake that they [the Clinton campaign] made with youth voters but Obama did not. Not reaching out to young women was another mistake – they [the Clinton campaign] relied on outdated assumptions [that caused them to not reach out to young women].
JMZ for BH: Would you say that this change makes candidates have to be more honest, in that they must trust themselves and us to see that while they are women, they are not running because they are women? And the candidate must trust that the voters are seeing that they (the candidates) are competent by just being so?
RT: I’ve never believed in a notion that women vote in some giant estrogen-fueled block, I never believed that to be the case. It is not as though you put a woman in front of women and they can’t help themselves.
But one thing I was against most vociferously was that people would say that you are only voting for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman. Meaning that we -- women -- vote according to the absolutely lowest impulse?!
It’s my feeling that, provided that the candidate you are talking about represents, as well as his or her competitors, your ideals and policy beliefs, then voting for them with enthusiasm, because they are a woman or black or a member of any other minority that for more than two centuries has not been represented, that’s a progressive impulse.
The unspoken part of the accusation [that I was voting for Clinton because we were both women] was “and she’s a terrible candidate and you are only voting for her because…”. No. It’s an extreme rare circumstance that a man or woman will vote just based on identity -- of course it happens, but it’s not a widespread experience.
And those who deplore identify politics most are often those who identify with those groups who haven’t been shut out of power. They don’t know what it’s like to not see your identify reflected [in such positions of power].
To talk about these things -- to say perhaps it does matter to me -- these are progressive things we’re talking about. But as soon as you do, you get discounted, because people then put you in the “it’s the only reason” category of voters.
In the book, I write about how Jodi Kantor reports on an Obama-[David] Axelrod conversation that occurred before Obama decided to run and Axelrod asks, "You’re not so different, why you," and Obama says because kids would look up and see him, and their possibilities would be changed. This is a thrilling, explosive result of this presidential election.
The thing we could never say with pride was that it will be just as thrilling and explosive when people feel this about women, but not for two seconds would I consider voting for Sarah Palin. But still, if you have a candidate in front of you who represents your beliefs, figuring in identity is not a crime.
JMZ for BH: In the book you ask should gender trump political ambivalence. Have you answered this for yourself and if so, how?
RT: I’m proud to say that gender did figure into my vote. There were a lot of other reasons that were more important than gender, and the projections onto Obama were so unrealistic. They were very equivalent [as candidates] and I still think that’s true.
JMZ for BH: What role should media play in showing through its actions that women can have multiple styles of leadership, that strength in men and women do not have different languages though they may have some things not in common that we think of? Don’t these concepts of what we want in political candidates converge at some point?
RT: "Tough" itself can be masculine and feminine. This has to do with how language has given shape to ideas about gender -- we’ve constructed gender; to get away from those constructions takes forever. [But] we absolutely have a right to question the use of a word and the way that we gender them.
JMZ for BH: Does media have a responsibility to strip that out?
RT: I haven’t always abided by the smartest language rules about writing about men and women or gender, so I have some sympathy. The media is trying to describe people – as a writer these words give shape and color to characters so I wouldn’t want a world where we strip all that language away.
But I would like a world in which we expand and punch out the depth and limits of gender and reclaim them for men or for women, like issues of sensitivity and love and men -- why are they barred from those kinds of feminized words?
So I wouldn’t want to strip descriptive language for purely practical egalitarian reasons, but I would say that it’s smart to question these words. Diminishing uses should not be okay, we should look at that.
I called Ann Coulter “the thin pundit” and I have written in a gendered way about Sarah Palin. But we need to be able to look at that, and need to be conscious of that, make it something that we are talking about.
JMZ for BH: Where’s line between sexism and description?
RT: When people use words that are reductive, those of us who hear it should ask, why are you using that and the meaning it’s conveying.
Many thanks to Rebecca for her time and thoughts, and here is a great video interview of her with Betsy Reed of The Nation on GRITtv: