Our Hillary Hangover

A review of Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry.

A good campaign book has the same effect as finding a box of old love letters in your closet: You remember what it was that drew you in in the first place, or at least you remember what so amused you. Until reading Rebecca Traister’s lively account of the 2008 campaign, I had almost forgotten the endearingly blunt moment in which Michelle Obama referred to her husband as “snore-y and stinky” and sometimes called him and other black men “brother.” I had entirely forgotten about NILF s and PUMA s and Hillary Clinton nutcrackers and all the other delights that made that campaign so engaging for feminists and feminist haters alike.

Traister’s book masterfully reminds us that we have just lived through a historic moment when a woman, no matter how flawed she was, “came within spitting distance,” of a nomination for president. On this, Traister takes the opposite view from women writers such as Anne Kornblut, who in her recent book, Notes From the Cracked Ceiling, called the 2008 campaign a “severe letdown” to women and proof that feminism had failed. By contrast, Traister labels 2008 as the year when what was once called the “women’s liberation movement found thrilling new life.” Even the traumatic fight between younger and older feminists about Hillary (a subject revived this week in a cover story by Susan Faludi in Harper’s) Traister considers the “most rejuvenating things to happen to the feminist conversation in many, many decades.”

Traister is well-positioned to make the case. In her volumes of writing on important lady matters, mostly on Salon, she has always pulled off a difficult trick. Traister is not part of the feminist old guard (Erica Jong, Gloria Steinem),  whom she describes as “badly dated” and stricken with “earnest piety.” But she sees herself as too old in her mid-30s to join in what she calls the “online rabble” currently redefining feminism (Jessica Valenti of Feministing for example). Instead she was born into the “I’m not a feminist, but” generation although she eventually lost her patience for the blithe dismissal of the movement. Traister can be clever, caustic, wickedly funny, and as cynical as the next blogger, but it’s always clear that in her heart she cares. Thus the title of her new book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, which is half-ironic because of course she did cry—”gulped out sobs” in fact—when Hillary Clinton lost the primary in 2008. In Traister’s emotional landscape, there is no such thing as freedom from feminism—it can make her crazy and serve up infuriating, mixed-up versions of itself, but it will always be the anchor that buoys or sinks her mood. 

The basic outlines of Traister’s main story are familiar. Hillary surprised feminists by remaking herself as a successful candidate and then surprised them again by constantly manning up and letting them down. Some of this was not her fault.  The “bloodless” Mark Penn, as a Clinton adviser, makes his proper appearance in Traister’s book as the Iago of the drama, urging the candidate to scrupulously avoid reminding the voters of what she actually is—a strong, pioneering female candidate, or even just a female.  Traister dredges up the infamous Penn memo in which he tells her that voters see the president as the “father” of the country and do not want a “first mama.” Traister blames Penn and Clinton herself for failing to fly her feminist flag. But she also sees the larger truth, that the feminist flag might not have been the right way to go, and that Clinton’s candidacy forced women to ask themselves: “[W]hat did we have to give up to get inside?”

As with love letters, sometimes the details of past campaigns, however rich, are of the sort one would rather not dredge up, either because they are too painful or no longer resonate. I have no interest in revisiting the pairing “John and Elizabeth Edwards.” Ditto Monica Lewinsky. And I could have done without a whole chapter dissecting the blogosphere’s reaction to one op-ed by Gloria Steinem. On the other hand, the best anecdotes of pointless sexism—Tucker Carlson’s moronic musings on Hillary’s “castrating” voice, or the “I Wish Hillary Had Married O.J.” T-shirts—fall into the Lest We Forget category. And Traister’s chapter on how progressive men who were Obama supporters responded with surprising vitriol and disrespect toward Hillary still feels apt, given what a boy’s club the Obama White House remains.

The book’s best bid for relevance comes from the jolt that is the arrival of Sarah Palin. These days, the lady blogosphere’s main reaction is to wish Palin dead—a wish tempered, of course, by how good she is for pageviews. So it’s refreshing for Traister to recall a time when Palin was considered “seductive and seditious,” when a feminist could come to her defense because the media had shoved her back into the realm of “sex, scandal and maternity.” Traister reminds us of an early Esquire profile in which the Palin marriage seemed almost Obama-idyllic—Sarah in the kitchen teaching Levi how to cook, Todd going off to a corporate event to speak for her, and then the two of them switching places in the modern companionate fashion. Traister also reminds us that Palin once praised Hillary Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro, and  she quotes Elaine Lafferty, a former Ms. Editor, saying that Palin swore up and down to her tearfully that she was a feminist, and that Gloria Steinem was her hero. (Lafferty was on the McCain/Palin payroll. * But still.) Palin, Traister writes, “had me all disoriented” and tested “my own beliefs about how I respond to women in power.”

Ultimately, of course, Traister’s reaction narrows. She concludes that Palin is a “bastardization of everything feminism stood for” and a plague on our house. She has dreams of Palin kidnapping her cats and having lunch with her girlfriends while Traister bangs on the restaurant window. The mix of anxiety and hatred is too much. Traister drops her best foil long before she’s quite done with her self-examination or her exploration of what Palin means for the movement.

The most interesting debate in feminism right now is what the movement lost by becoming less communal and more concerned with personal empowerment, as Naomi Wolf outlined a recent piece in More, “What Price Happiness?” In the 1990s, raunch culture, outlined by Ariel Levy in Female Chauvinist Pigs, was the price of the navel-gazing. Now the cost to the movement has moved to the more serious realm of politics. The new crew of female politicians, taking Sarah Palin’s cue, define themselves as feminists while skipping over the progressive agenda that movement holds dear—as well as its history. They can do this because that agenda—reproductive rights, economic justice, combating violence against women—are not the only defining parts of the movement anymore and have not been for some time. In the new version of Mama Grizzly feminism, it’s enough that the candidates are women and are ready to let their voices rip, whatever those voices have to say. As Traister points out, it’s enough to give a lady anxious cat dreams. And this book is just the beginning of the long process of helping us sort it all out.

Correction, Sept. 21, 2010: This article incorrectly stated that Traister did not mention that Elaine Lafferty was a paid consultant to the McCain/Palin campaign. Traister did note that Lafferty “officially signed on as a McCain consultant.” (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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