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Rebecca Traister On Why “Big Girls Don’t Cry” —— The 2008 Election

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Rebecca Traister Book Jacket photoRebecca Traister’s new book “Big Girls Don’t Cry” gives extraordinary insight into the presidential campaign of 2008 and an election she says that “changed everything for American women.”

This journalist and writer about politics and gender for Salon uses her coverage of the election as a jumping off point for her analysis of what happened during that history making year.

A reader emailed that she wanted Rebecca to be interviewed for this website. “Rebecca gave a lot of thought to the warp-speed with which women have transformed–and been transformed by–the political arena,” wrote my friend.

“…there is nothing wrong with wanting a woman to interrupt the history of white male presidential power. That’s actually a progressive impulse…”
Rebecca Traister

The more I read the book, the more questions I had for Rebecca about this transformative election and her non-teary title. She answered them all…

Rebecca Traister bookTHE WOMEN’S EYE: First, I have to ask you about the name of your book. You write that you cried when Hillary Clinton conceded the race. Hillary choked up in an emotional speech in New Hampshire. Why was the concept of crying so important that “Big Girls Don’t Cry” became the title?

REBECCA: Well, funnily enough, the title was “Big Girls Don’t Cry” before I realized how many women would wind up crying in the book.

A friend suggested it to me, and it immediately struck me as a great title, the perfect ironic reference to Hillary’s (non-) crying moment in New Hampshire.

As I wrote the book, and looked back on the instances of my own tears, and did interview after interview with women who, unprompted, described crying at some point during the election process, I realized that the title was more prophetic than I knew.

One key thing about tears that I think lots of people haven’t considered: when most women I know cry, it’s out of anger, frustration or exhaustion. It’s not about sadness, vulnerability or defeat. It’s a way of expressing fury, and the reason that fury comes out in tears I’m sure has a lot to do with the way we’ve long been conditioned not to express our fury in other ways –not to yell or throw things.

If we did those things, we’d be written off as bitches. So when you hear about lots of women crying, you’re not really hearing about women in weak moments, but about women expressing exasperation and rage.

“…I grew up in an academic house and felt that writers–people who got paid to put sentences to paper–were about as glamorous as movie stars.”

EYE: Just a bit about you. You’ve been a writer and keen observer of all kinds of social and political behavior, gender issues, and even dilly beans (“A Jar of Her Magic”). When did you know you had this critical eye and desire to write?

REBECCA: Oh, I am not sure I ever really knew either thing. It’s just what wound up happening, which is not to pretend that I’m not ambitious–I certainly am! But I grew up in an academic house and felt that writers–people who got paid to put sentences to paper–were about as glamorous as movie stars. There was no evidence that it was a career accessible to regular people.

I studied English and American Studies in college, and didn’t plan to write then either. I graduated with no idea of what I wanted to do, except move to New York, where I got a job working as a personal assistant to an actor, and then a year later, as an assistant at a magazine.

That wasn’t an editorial job (it was a coffee-and-faxing job) but I met young editors there who thought maybe I should apply to be a reporter/fact checker at a weekly New York newspaper. I got that job, and it was there that I began to want to be a journalist in earnest. It was also there that I got all my training.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

EYE: Author Anne Lamott called you the “most brilliant voice on feminism in this country today.” That’s a big handle. What kind of a feminist do you call yourself? How do you look at feminism today as compared to earlier generations?

REBECCA: It’s a huge handle, and I still can’t believe she was so kind! As for what kind of feminist I am–well, I’m just a feminist! I believe in working toward identifying gendered injustice and making the world a more equitable place for women, whether that means concerning myself (as a writer or in my personal life) with pay equity or domestic equity, political or pop cultural representation, ending physical abuse or talking about body image.

I am a writer, not an activist, and I don’t pretend to be an activist. There are people out there sweating much harder than I do to actually make the world a better place. I’m just telling stories about it. And that has its place too.

As for generational differences, I often feel very caught between them. I find myself agreeing with and disagreeing with older women and younger women, which makes it easier to report on the gaps between them (which, frankly, are not always as wide as we’re assured they are).

“I am warm to older and younger women, but also deeply critical of them as well.”

EYE: Connie Schultz in the Washington Post this week says you seem
“determined to alienate every female reader over 40” in the early pages
of the book. Was that really your intent?

REBECCA: Not at all. As I said above, I often have found myself siding with my elders over my juniors, though if it seems I come out “on the side of” younger feminism, it’s because I believe in practical ways, the future lies with them.

I write about all this in my book, too, about my increasing identification with older feminism, even if I began my career as a feminist journalist bucking against my elders slightly. So no, it was not my intention to alienate women over 40!

Incidentally, I’m less than five years from forty myself, so it’s not as though it’s another country or anything. I feel that my audience has always been perfectly evenly divided between college and twenty-something women, and women in their mid-40s and 50s.

But by the same token, I don’t blame Schultz for hearing dismissal in my words. A critical take of an older generation of feminists–along with a slightly bratty approach to the language we use with regard to other women– is definitely present in the book, and I wouldn’t pretend otherwise. I am warm to older and younger women, but also deeply critical of them as well.

“…it gave us all a chance to air out some new ideas about feminism.”

EYE: Did the election in 2008 breathe new life into the woman’s movement or did it create an entirely new way of looking at feminism today?

REBECCA: I don’t think it created a new way of looking at feminism so much as it gave us all a chance to air out some new ideas about feminism. I think the election offered a prism and a catalyst through which changes in attitude and approach that were already bubbling really got to blow a lid off.

It made all the ways in which the women’s movement had developed and regressed, exploded and receded, matured and changed and gotten younger suddenly visible to lots of people who had perhaps not been paying attention.

Hillary ClintonEYE: You supported John Edwards at the beginning of the race and then moved over to the Clinton camp. Your evolution was quite remarkable. What swayed you so to Hillary?

REBECCA: It was a slow sway. And it was certainly rooted in an increased awareness of the resistance she was facing. So from a certain angle you could say it had to do with the fact that she was a woman–an impulse that anti-Hillary people looked down their nose at.

But I would make a couple of points about that: the first is that there is nothing wrong with wanting a woman to interrupt the history of white male presidential power. That’s actually a progressive impulse, provided that the woman you’re rooting for reflects as well as any other potential candidate your priorities and ideology, which is the other thing about Hillary.

My investments in her experiences and the frustration I felt about her
treatment certainly wouldn’t have translated into a vote for her unless
I felt she was politically equivalent to her opponent, which I did.

By the end of the primaries, when she was meeting with so much rage at her decision to keep running, and being portrayed inaccurately as so much more of a centrist than Obama, and there was so much resentment that she wasn’t just dropping out, that’s when I was practically radicalized in my support for her.

“We tend not to like to draw too much attention to female achievement and history making in this country…”

EYE: You emphasize that Hillary was the first woman to win a primary in the history of this country. Yet that important fact was obscured by most. Why?

REBECCA: That is a complicated question with a complicated answer. We tend not to like to draw too much attention to female achievement and history making in this country, to not draw too much attention to the fact that women face gendered obstacles.

Feminism has been historically so demonized that everything related to it gets a little obscured. But what the country and the media hadn’t caught up with were the changing attitudes of an electorate that perhaps DID have a bigger tolerance and interest in hearing about women’s history-making than we had previously.

I think we’re much more engaged in a feminist conversation now than we were when the election kicked off.

EYE: You thought it was actor-comedian Michael Palin when you heard John McCain had announced a Palin as his running mate. How did Sarah Palin slip in under the radar of so many including yourself and yet make such a huge impact?

REBECCA: Well, whatever else you want to say about Palin, she is a gifted political player. Her ability to stay central and powerful within her party–even after quitting her job mid-way through her term!– is a testament to her skill at media manipulation.

She is charismatic–remember her killer speech at the Republican convention? So that’s part of how she made such an impact, in addition to the fact that she was the first Republican woman on a presidential ticket.

Sarah PalinAgain, we might like to pretend that we’re over sexism as a nation, but we obviously aren’t, and seeing women in places where they’ve never been before makes a huge impact on us.

As for why she was unknown before that–well, there are a lot of unknown governors out there. Palin was young (another critical factor in the kind of electric, surprising impression she made on the nation) and she had risen very quickly in Alaska. She was a true surprise candidate, and, I’m often sorry to say, an undeniable star.

EYE: Who is more determined, Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin? What is it about them that gives them this never-say-die quality?

REBECCA: Hillary has spent more years being more determined, but I would never underestimate Palin’s drive or resilience. They are such different politicians, with different skills and levels of competence, and they are obviously ideological opposites, but I think their experiences have made them both tough like Sherman tanks.

They just keep going. It’s remarkable. There’s a giddiness that I felt with Clinton (that I don’t with Palin because I’m on the opposite side of the fence from her politically, but which I can appreciate from afar) in watching a woman defy expectations, to fail to comply to conventional wisdom, to not do what pundits or advisors or those in power expect and want her to do.

Watching Clinton refuse to drop out of the primaries when everyone in
her party was pressing her to do so was just exhilarating for me,
because it was exploding expectations for female comportment, dynamiting new paths that other women will be able to take.

I imagine that Palin’s followers might feel something similar about her, even if her staying power personally drives me slightly mad.

EYE: Another fascinating woman emerged in 2008–First Lady Michelle Obama. You said that she was given a makeover at the convention. Can you explain.

REBECCA: I should say I have no idea whether Michelle submitted to a makeover, or whether she just, frankly, got made over. What I do know is that she started down the presidential campaign trail as an outspoken, truth-speaking, brilliant energetic woman who punctured not only the myths surrounding her husband, but – like I said about Hillary earlier – expectations for how women and wives were supposed to behave with regard to their more powerful mates.

Photo: Splash News

Michelle and Barack had begun as equal partners, professionally, educationally, and economically. Their power dynamic was thrown out of whack when he ran for president, and she was heroically determined to not simply allow old assumptions about wifely deference stand.

But she was faced not only with sexist resistance to powerful and outspoken women, but also racist resistance to powerful and outspoken African-American women. She was tagged as a sassy, emasculating black princess, and later as a stereotyped angry black woman.

And not enough feminists–many of whom who were otherwise engaged in writing about Hillary’s situation, which is not a defense, just an observation–came to her defense.

And so the campaign swooped in, and remade Michelle’s public presentation to be more palatable to the American appetite for First Lady presentability; she was repainted as unthreatening by emphasizing her roles as wife, mother, daughter, sister.

It wasn’t that these angles of her personality were fake – she was a wife, mother, sister, and daughter! It’s just that she was so much more, and a lot of that just got brushed to the side. I don’t blame this on Michelle. I see it as a depressing reflection of what America still demands from its women– or at least its ceremonial First Lady women–in order to embrace them.

EYE: What affect do you think the parodies on Saturday Night Live had on the election?

REBECCA: I think they had a huge effect! Many of us think that Sarah Palin really said she could see Russia from her house, which she didn’t, but was a great play on what she did say about the narrow maritime border between Alaska and Russia.

Saturday Night Live

Photo: Dana Edelson/NBC

What was remarkable about SNL was that it was an example of exactly what kind of ripple effect there is when we have women on the stage for the first time–ground-breaking female presidential and v-presidential candidates mean new angles and relevance for ground-breaking female news anchors (like Couric) providing material for ground-breaking female comedians (Poehler and Fey, Sam Bee and Kristin Schaal on the Daily Show), and in turn, the comedy work they do has a cultural and perhaps a political impact.

Whenever I hear the argument that as long as we have progressives (or
feminists) in office, why should it matter if they’re male or female–
or when I see criticisms of the focus on female firsts because who cares
if there are women comedians, or women directors, or women judges or women law school deans or women firefighters–I think of that kind of ripple effect, and exactly how much it does mean, and how wide the impact, of seeing women where we’ve never or rarely seen them before.

“…we are having conversations about gender now that we weren’t having three years ago…”

EYE: Do both Clinton and Palin have a better chance of running and
winning down the road as a result of what happened in 2008?

REBECCA: Yes. That doesn’t mean that they won’t face resistance (some of it extremely legitimate). But we are having conversations about gender now that we weren’t having three years ago, and while that doesn’t mean that we’ve fixed everything (anything?), it means we’re better equipped to handle female candidacy than we were some years ago, and that is a change for the better.

EYE: A “Women’s Eye” reader wants to know what advice you’d give to the rising generation of new-media writers.

REBECCA: My advice is very matronly: do your best to get stuff right, embrace the subjective freedoms that online journalism has opened up by forming strong, cogent opinions and expressing them forcefully but responsibly. Don’t chase scandal just for page views. Seek the meat of the story, figure out what makes it interesting, worth writing about, and go from there. This is very banal advice.

EYE: What was the biggest effect that the 2008 election had on you?

REBECCA: Well, both politically and personally, the experience of coming around to Hillary was pretty transformative. More practically and personally, I found a story that engaged and fascinated me enough to write a book about, which was a revelation!

That had never happened before. Ironically, the whole thing worked out to make me more optimistic about all our capacities for change than I had ever been before.

EYE: What’s next for you?

REBECCA: I have no idea!

Thanks, Rebecca! And thanks to my friend for suggesting you. Looking forward to reading your next idea.

To view a YouTube video of Rebecca reading from her book, click here.

QUESTION: What did you learn from the 2008 election?

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