Big Girls Don’t Cry: the Election That Changed Everything for American Women, by Rebecca Traister
This was a very difficult review for me to write. I have started and stopped it at least five times, reading and reviewing two more books in the interim. I’ve been trying to figure out why this is – part of the problem that I’m having is that it’s a huge book, in its scope and influence. But the real issue is that I always have trouble writing or talking about books that change my life, other than to say “read it” and then get angry if everyone doesn’t do so immediately. That’s how I feel about this book.
It’s a little odd that this would be a book to get added to the relatively small pantheon of “Books That Have Changed My Life.” It’s just a book about an election, after all, even if that election is the 2008 presidential election, the one that turned American politics completely on its ass. Except that it’s not, or at least, it wasn’t for me. Turns out, it took me until this book to discover that, for me, the personal isn’t just political. The political is fucking personal.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: this is a book about the 2008 presidential election, and specifically the Democratic primaries. It’s largely about how that election changed everything for American women, but it has a lot to say about race as well. And it is, above all things, a reminder for those of us jaded by the past two incredibly divisive years of our political present, just what a big deal this election was for us as a people.
When the 2008 election began, I was a California voter. I filled out the bubble enthusiastically for Obama, though Hillary ended up taking the state (and here, I must point something out: why is it that Obama was always known first and foremost by his last name and Hillary by her first? Is it because of her husband who came before her? Like most questions taken on by this book, it’s a simple question with a complicated answer). I had been an Obama supporter since shortly after the 2004 Democratic convention. My friend Andy and I would go out to a nearby English pub and talk about him, and then wonder aloud whether this is how people felt about Kennedy when they were our age. We did just that after the primaries, and then we got drunk and watched the results. In the intervening months, I managed to move to DC, registering in Virginia so I could vote in a swing state. Obama took Virginia by a very narrow lead, earning me both a drink and the promise from my boyfriend that we could get a dog (we did. His name is Murray). It was one of the most exciting nights of my life. I will never forget the moment where we looked around us and realized that the West Coast polls were about to close, that it was, for all intents and purposes, over. It was right after Virginia won. We counted down until 11PM, and then those three states flashed blue, and everyone screamed. People poured out of the bar and into the street. I got hugged by three total strangers. Cop cars stopped in the street, not to tell people to calm down, but to join in the celebration. Later, we got in my car and drove by the White House. We rolled down the windows, to hear people singing “Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye.” It was a beautiful sound, not because we hated Bush or it was funny, but because it really felt like the sound of change.
When I cast that first vote, in the Democratic primary, I pasted my “I Voted” sticker to a journal that I rarely used, and wrote something to the effect of “I hope I can look back on this years from now and know the right choice was made.” I spoke, of course, of my deep and abiding hope that Obama would take the election, as long of a shot as it seemed at the time. And that sentiment remained. I never once lost my confidence that it was the right choice, nor my hope that the world would be as convinced of it as I was – not through the ramping up of Afghanistan, even though it saw my family members deploy; not through the loss of the public option, even though it was my dearest wish, as someone with a pre-existing condition that kicked the shit out of my credit and my life and who was at the time unemployed; not through the tax cuts, as infuriating as they were after a year of unemployment. It wasn’t until after reading this book that I felt any sort of ambivalence about that page in my personal history.
Big Girls Don’t Cry is an incredible book. It challenged my assumptions, it exposed media narratives that I didn’t know existed, and it proved to me that as much pride as I take in being the kind of person that questions everything, that sees through bullshit and calls it out – I dropped the ball on this one. A lot of us did.
Rebecca Traister, like me, was not a Hillary supporter in the beginning. She was, by her own admission, one of the few and embarrassed Edwards supporters. Unlike me, she ended up shifting her allegiance to Hillary and voting for her in the primaries. And during that journey, she saw and catalogued both the amazement of such a boundary-breaking race, and the disgust of what accompanied it. There were a lot of media narratives bouncing around during the Democratic primaries, and it would have been hard, if it weren’t your job, to follow them. Luckily, it was Ms. Traister’s job. And what a job she did, because without her meticulous reporting, a lot of us would have forgotten or failed to notice some of the most outrageous offenses of that period. I remember guys showing up to Hillary’s press conference and yelling “iron my shirt.” I remember the Hillary Nutcracker, and the bumper sticker that said I Love Country Music, with a picture of Hillary’s face and a tree in place of the word “country.” I remember Chris Matthews being a douche. But I didn’t remember the glee with which liberal commentators would predict her fall, their outrage when she didn’t concede. I didn’t suspect that there was any inaccuracy in their reporting of Obama as a clear frontrunner (Ms. Traister recalls a particular instance when the overwhelming message in New Hampshire was that Hillary was definitely going to lose, since her rally had been poorly attended and boring. Both she and Rachel Maddow remember being astounded, having attended her rally and observed both high turn-out and massive enthusiasm. Hillary ended up taking the state, in what the media would describe as an upset despite having referred to her win as an inevitability a year before). I remember myself referring to Clinton’s refusal to concede as not being “classy,” something I was deeply ashamed of after reading this book and understanding how wholeheartedly I bought into the media narrative of “any woman, just not this woman.” I never stopped to question just why, exactly, not this woman?
Rebecca Traister did. And the answer she comes up with is so obvious that it pains me not to have thought of it before. Hillary Clinton’s chief accusations – that she is too aggressive, too abrasive, too centrist, that she swept in on her husband’s coattails – are, Ms. Traister points out, all characteristics that she likely had to develop in response to the difficulties facing women in politics. She deals with the same questions later, in the person of Sarah Palin, though the question she asks is more of an aggrieved THIS WOMAN?!, a reaction I think most of us are familiar with. I remember very clearly when Sarah Palin was chosen as the Republican VP candidate. I was in a meeting, and I got a text from my friend Evy that said the following: “he picked a FUCKING chick.” I checked the news immediately, and indeed – he had picked a chick. At the time, I nor anyone else knew anything about her. I remember being disturbed by some of the earlier media narratives about her – the focus on her looks, for instance. This was shortly overtaken by my horror that this woman – this woman, this lipstick-wearing, g-dropping, idiot from Alaska that was trading on every female stereotype to ingratiate herself to the patriarchal assholes that were so offended over Hillary’s blatant ambition – was closer to the presidency than any woman before her. All the sudden, Hillary didn’t look bad, she looked godlike. I hoped with all my might that Obama would choose her as his running mate, even though theoretically that choice would be just as shallow as McCain’s disgusting attempt at manipulating what he surely saw as an American sisterhood, easily swayed by fellow vaginas, and/or chocolate.
I could go on. Traister also covers the important and sometimes polarizing roles of Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards. Like I said, this is a big book. But instead, I will just say this: this book changed my life. It made me question my outlook on the media, myself, and American women. It gave me a renewed awareness of both the awe of a primary that pitted a black man against a woman, and the historic grudges it unearthed. It made me both prouder to wear the badge of feminism and that much more aware of the weight of it, and the endless frustrations it entails. One thing that particularly stuck with me is how Traister conducted a survey through Salon of women who felt like their liberal male friends were overly hostile towards Hillary Clinton. She expected a small reply, but she got a huge one. Women being accused by liberal male friends because they were only supporting her “because she’s a woman.” Otherwise sensitive men referring to her as a bitch, saying that they hated how shrill her voice was, that they felt their balls shrivel up when she talks. I remember these things. I spoke out about them, at the time. But I wish I had spoken out more. And I know that I will in the future, in part because of this book. Maybe I’ll even get to be called shrill by my own right. And if I do, I will know that Hillary paved the way. I’ve always known that should I ever pursue politics, or indeed any field where women are underrepresented, I will be following a precedent set by Hillary Rodham Clinton. But it wasn’t until after reading this book that I felt this was something to be proud of.
Oh and incidentally? Big girls totally do cry. Lest you think that my hesitations about buying into the media narrative about how Obama = knight in shining armor and Hillary = witch, might compromise my support of the man, and the President – I cried like a baby when I read her account of that Tuesday night, when Obama got elected as the 44th President of the United State of America. As divisive, exhausting, and sometimes awful as the 2008 election was – it was also pretty goddamn historic. And though I look back on that earlier inscription with a deeper awareness of the complexity of that moment, I still believe wholeheartedly that I and this country made the right decision. However you voted, I can say with certainty that reading this book will make you glad, and proud, that you got to be part of that moment. I sure as hell am.