Here’s the main thing: Rebecca Traister can write her ass off. If anyone was going to be up to the Herculean task of summarizing what went down in the 2008 elections with regard to gender, race, and class it was Traister. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but I have already read a couple of the behind-the-scenes accounts of the election which were interesting, but ultimately forgettable. Reading Big Girls Don’t Cry brought back the most infuriating moments of the year leading up to the election. This isn’t the just story of the candidates; it’s the story of how the 2008 campaign brought out the still-raw feelings of the women’s movement. It’s about how on one hand, women are more influential and powerful than we have ever been, but on the other hand, women hold only about 17% of the seats in the House and Senate.
While I was reading the book, I couldn’t help reading sections out loud to my eternally patient roommates, like this: “What Palin so beguilingly represented…was a form of female power that was utterly digestible to those who had no intellectual or political use for actual women: feminism without the feminists.” I felt, quite often, like yelling, “Oh snap!”as if I were watching a freestyle battle and Traister was killing it against every sad sack pundit who botched getting to the deeper meanings of the 2008 election. When was the last time you read passages from a political book out loud because you found it so poignant and witty that you couldn’t help but share? Traister, a salon.com reporter who covered the election extensively, draws from own her reporting as well as acute analyses of MSNBC coverage, daytime television talk shows, and many, many print pieces. Incorporating such powerful voices as Melissa Lacewell-Harris, Jessica Valenti, Gloria Steinem, and Rachel Maddow, Traister examines the sexism endured by Hillary Clinton by both the conservative and liberal media, the divide among liberal woman voters, and the catapulting of Sarah Palin as the queen of “the new feminism.”
Traister’s examination is not limited to the political world, as she also weighs in other American cultural markers such as the Daily Show, Saturday Night Live, and reactions from her colleagues. Most of the book focuses on Hillary Clinton and the media’s perception of her, calling her a shrew, castrating, and as legendary sack of shit Dick Morris put it, her “hiding behind the apron strings.” I’m sure that a lot of us remember hearing people say these things on TV, and being shocked when no one chastised them. Big Girls Don’t Cry goes into great detail about the Clinton campaign, especially the press coverage, which was different that year because so many women were in a position to report on a woman running for her party’s nomination. Traister also dissects the coverage of Sarah Palin, as well as that of Michelle Obama. She notes how many women were promoted to cover these women, making the presence of a woman in the anchor’s seat a media event for Katie Couric, old news when Diane Sawyer and Gwen Ifill and Christiane Amanpour became anchors. Women comedians were big news too, as they shaped the way we looked at the candidates. Traister covers the comedy angle especially well. One of my favorites is the line superdelegate Donna Brazile cracked to Stephen Colbert -”Look, I’m a woman, so I like Hillary. I’m black, I like Obama. But I’m also grumpy, so I like John McCain.”
What I found most interesting in the book was Traister’s conflicting feelings about Sarah Palin and what a woman like that meant for the feminist movement. “I didn’t know which was worse: watching a grim cycle lurch once more into gear or acknowledging that the Republicans and John McCain, in their attempts to manipulate the female electorate, had walked through a door that had been left opened by my own party.” Despite Palin’s sex, she had nothing in common with the typically identified women’s movement; she didn’t believe in abortion, even in the case of rape or incest, she wanted to cut government funding that would disproportionately affect poor women of color and, not to belabor the point, she did seem like a perfect idiot. But despite her feelings about Palin, Traister still had to point out the sexism Palin underwent as well, even from liberal, feminist websites. The book is a reminder that while women may have come far, the 2008 serves as a glaring reminder that we still have a long way to go.