Quick quiz: 1) What does P.U.M.A stand for? 2) Who was the original “Obama Girl?” (Hint: It’s not Sasha or Malia.) 3) What term of affection did Senator Obama call a Detroit TV reporter, a gaffe for which he paid a few hours of negative TV coverage until the next campaign gaffe arrived?
Rebecca Traister, a writer for Salon traces these and other campaign season contretemps in Big Girls Don’t Cry, her story of how the 2008 led to the consciousness-raising of young women who had until then refused to consider themselves feminists or to believe that sexism remains an animating force in American life.
(The answers: 1) Party Unity My Ass; 2) Amber Lee Ettinger, the underwear clad singer who pranced across YouTube proclaiming, “I Got A Crush On Obama;” 3) “Sweetie.” If you do not remember these episodes, bless your faulty memory.)
What lends political campaigns to the sort of analysis that Traister engages in are not the flare-ups that happen whenever there is a live microphone and a news hole on cable but the things they tell us about the populace who decide the outcome. In 2008, for example, we learned that America had made far more peace with its racial past and with its multi-ethnic future than many imagined. We learned that the Democratic Party-always an uneasy alliance of interests of African Americans, women, young people, union households and well-meaning liberals-was, once you unscrewed the lid, crawling with resentments as to who was the more aggrieved party. And we learned that if the country is yearning to head into a “post-racial” period, as some maintained, it is far from settling into a “post-gender” phase.
Ms. Traister concerns herself mostly with Hillary Clinton, arguing that because of her presidential run and hullabaloo she inspired, “by 2008, feminism was not only far hipper than it had been in decades but young women were taking control of the message.” But before we get to Ms. Traister’s take, it is worth pausing to note that as tempting as it is to deduce major sociological shifts in quadrennial elections, it is never really possible to separate the particular characters involved from the general climate in which they emerge. Was America actually ready to elect a black man in 2008, or was the country only ready to elect one who was charismatic, smart, electric on the stump and by all appearances unburdened by the country’s racial past? And, was the animosity that Hillary Clinton engendered among media talking heads, right-wingers and Obama-maniacs proof that sexism still exists, or that Ms. Clinton remains a deeply polarizing figure, one that even enlightened voters can have complicated feelings about?
Ms. Traister begins her story as a Clinton skeptic. A proud feminist dismayed at the way some of her peers begin their political observations with the phrase, “I’m not a feminist but . . .”-she becomes a Clintonite due to the chauvinistic media patter that accompanied Ms. Clinton’s slog through the primaries, especially on blogs and by frat-boy commenters on cable news.
“Their ardor for Clinton’s abasement had reverberated with an unmistakable vibe, the loosening of a clenched resentment that it had been a chick who had dared be confident about her ability to win the Democratic nomination,” Ms. Traister writes.
There is more than a hint of projection in Ms. Traister’s analysis, the kind that media critics of all kinds can succumb to when they feel that their point of view is being dismissed by the press. Ask anybody with a dog in a political fight if he thinks that the media is being fair to their side, and the answer will invariably be no. The right wing, with their ritual sneering at the “lamestream media,” has made a religion of this point.
Ms. Traister stands mystified by those in her social circle and elsewhere who line up behind Obama. But it is hard to know how much anyone who reviles Ms. Clinton is motivated by a sexism at women in general or by dislike at that woman in particular. Ms. Clinton after all is an imperfect paragon of social equality. If she were elected in 2008, it would have meant 25 years of White House occupancy by members of two families. Her husband’s record in the White House did not exactly send liberal hearts aflutter, and her own record in office, in which she introduced a bill to outlaw flag burning, unapologetically backed the Iraq War and voted to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group led to similar fears about what she would do in the Oval Office.
Ms. Traister laces her analysis with that of like-minded political bloggers and friends from New York who are similarly outraged by the tone of the cultural conversation and who gradually rally to Ms. Clinton’s side. This book is shrewd and smartly written, but if there is a weakness to Ms. Traister’s analysis it is that she relies too much on Internet chatter and on the insights of her group of friends. She traces each blog war that arose whenever there was a skirmish on the campaign trail and treats these online battles as if they really mattered, not only to politics but to the world off-screen. If you do not care that Latoya Peterson, the founder of the blog Racialicious stopped reading JackandJillPolitics midway through the campaign, or if you do not even know who these people are, then Big Girls Don’t Cry will seem pretty mystifying in parts.
Ms. Traister’s effort to recount every flare-up from the 2008 makes this book seem either too early or too late. The due date for campaign books about the last election was about ten months ago. A lot of Big Girls reads like a game of “Do you remember when we cared about” archeological shreds of a dim and distant and mostly insignificant past. But more importantly if there is sexism in society, for evidence one need not look to boneheaded comments made by MSNBC commentators or the vile commentary of the blogosphere. Indeed, one need only look to the campaign of Ms. Clinton, who, Ms. Traister notes, ran as the “First Father,” one unafraid to have her finger on the trigger of Air Force drones and reluctant to discuss her pathbreaking campaign until it was too late.
Ms. Traister can be pretty easy on Ms. Clinton, especially concerning the ways in which both Clintons stoked the nation’s racial fears over a black president. Ms. Clinton questioned Mr. Obama’s readiness to be commander-in-chief, she intimated that she needed to continue to run in case Mr. Obama was assassinated and painted herself as the candidate of the “hard-working” white underclass. These tactics were so effective that once the campaign was practically over, and most Democrats had begun to coalesce around Mr. Obama, Ms. Clinton still won the primary in overwhelmingly white working-class West Virginia by 40 points.
If nothing else, as Traister correctly surmises, Clinton paved the way for the national phenom that is Sarah Palin. On the paradox of Ms. Palin, Ms. Traister is especially sharp. She notes that on the one hand Ms. Palin is abomination for a feminist. Ms. Palin is against abortion rights, is utterly unprepared for serious policy questions, and “gained her power by doing everything modern women had believed they did not have to do: presenting herself as maternal and sexual, sucking up to men, evincing an absolute lack of native ambition.”
But Ms. Palin is also something of a feminist victory. She has a companionate marriage, where First Dude Todd claimed much of the household chores while she ran the state; she is unburdened by doubts about her readiness; and she unapologetically makes an appeal that Ms. Clinton failed to make until the very end of her political life: Vote for me because there should be more women in higher office. “In many ways,” Ms. Traister writes, “Palin embodied not only feminism’s gains, but some of its still unmet aspirations” and she correctly paints Ms. Palin as someone waltzing through the door that Ms. Clinton and so many others struggled to pry open.
If Ms. Traister is looking to wade into these waters again, a more interesting book than the one she has written would look at the effect that Palin is going to have in 2010 and beyond. Ms. Clinton’s campaign capped a 40-year struggle for women to be taken seriously in political life, and even though she lost, she signifies the end of the struggle. Ms. Palin, and those who come after her, will likely not need to wait their turn to assume their place in the corridors of power. We already live in a world where mainstream magazines like The Atlantic and Newsweek ruminate about “the end of men;” where women graduate college more often than men; and where women appear more poised to take advantage of economic shifts. The day when there actually will be a female head of state seems not that far off. What kind of woman that president is will matter greatly. That the president happens to be a woman will probably not.
Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women