This post is bumped up for the liveblog; new content is below.
The URL for the chat is: http://tinyurl.com/traisterPHB.
It’s been an interesting week at the Blend — chock full of liveblogs — and tonight we’ll have another. We normally speak with politicians or advocacy orgs, but this time we’re going to take a short trip back in history to analyze the 2008 election and women who played a major role during the campaign as all eyes were on not only Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, but Michelle Obama, Katie Couric and Tina Fey. Seen through this prism, it was an extraordinary time in politics.
This evening we will chat with Salon.com’s Rebecca Traister, who covers women in media, entertainment, and politics. Her new book has just dropped — Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women (published by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.).
Rebecca and I have met offline before; she was one of two writers honored in the Online Journalism category at the Women’s Media Center’s first annual WMC Media Awards (your blogmistress was the other recipient).
It will be exciting to jump into the time machine to revisit the runup to the 2008 elections from Rebecca’s perspective. Regular Blenders know that here on the blog it was a veritable rollercoaster of heated opinions, controversies, or scandals of one kind of another. And we can’t forget the Hillary vs. Obama camps and their fervent belief in their candidates.
In a Blend exclusive (and to prep readers for the chat), Free Press/Simon & Schuster has granted permission to bring you Rebecca’s introduction to “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” where she gives a shout-out to The Blend. The book excerpt is below the fold.
Excerpted from Big Girls Don’t Cry: the election that changed everything for American women / Rebecca Traister. Copyright ? 2010 by Rebecca Traister. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Exclusive to Pam’s House Blend:
The first time I entered a voting booth I was nine years old. It was 1984, and my parents had brought me with them so that I could pull the lever for the first woman ever to run on a major party ticket for vice president of the United States. I remember walking proudly with my father and mother and younger brother into the suburban Philadelphia firehouse five blocks from the house in which I grew up, where the poll watchers knew my parents by name because they were two of the very few registered Democrats in our district.
I remember the weight of the curtain closing behind me and my father lifting me up to turn the black lever to make the X appear next to Walter Mondale’s and Geraldine Ferraro’s names. I remember him putting me back down so that he could turn the buttons for the other Democrats, and then telling me to pull the rubber-covered metal bar back as hard as I could, until the machine made a clanging noise that meant my vote had been counted.
When we left the fire station my brother and I climbed into the back seat of our car and my mother turned to make sure our seat belts were fastened; my father looked at us through the rearview mirror. “I hope that someday you’ll have the chance to vote for a woman at the top of a presidential ticket,” he said before starting the car and driving us home.
Almost twenty-four years later, on Super Tuesday in February 2008, I walked into a cavernous school gymnasium in Brooklyn to cast my primary vote on Super Tuesday, for the first time in my voting life unsure of which lever to turn. It was the moment that could bring me closest to fulfilling my father’s wish: I could put the X next to the name of a woman and bring her closer to the top spot on the Democratic ticket. But I had spent months saying that I would never vote for her, that she was not my kind of candidate, not my kind of woman. Even though I was beginning to change my mind, my distaste for her felt entrenched, and perhaps self-defining.
I spent fifteen minutes behind the curtain, shoving levers back and forth. I considered the other name on the ballot, a man who was also not exactly my kind of candidate, but whose potential place at the top of the Democratic ticket would put him close to becoming the first African American president, a possibility just as thrilling as that of electing a woman. I wished that I didn’t have to choose between them. I wished that I could vote for them both. I wished that I could vote for someone else altogether. I mostly wished that it was a different woman’s name in front of me, one that didn’t fill me with ambivalence and vague foreboding.
I would never have imagined, as I stalled and fidgeted in that booth while a line of voters formed behind me, that four months later I would be ducking out of a cordoned-off press section in the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., pushing my way through throngs of people in search of a place where I could cry in private. Behind a soaring column I gulped out sobs of exhaustion and disappointment at the end of the campaign of the woman for whom I had not been sure I could vote, even seconds before pulling the rubber-covered bar to seal my choice.
This book is an attempt to tell a story of change, change that came to me, yes, but also to the country, to the Democratic and Republican parties, to the women’s movement, and to the White House. Over a period of just a few years, it seemed, the United States, its assumptions, its prejudices, its colors, shapes, sizes and vocabulary, had cracked open.
A woman, Hillary Clinton, won a state presidential primary contest for the first time in this nation’s history. Less than a year later a candidate for vice president of the United States concluded her appearance in a national debate by reaching for her newborn baby.
Whatever else there is to say about Sarah Palin or the reasons that her youngest son was on stage that night, that maternal reach was a roaring first in presidential politics. We have seen it once now. That means it is possible to see it again. In the first month of 2009 an African American woman moved into the White House, which was built in part by slaves, as the first lady of the United States. Michelle Obama is only the third first lady, though notably the third in a row, to have a postgraduate degree; she met her husband when she was assigned to mentor him at the law firm where she worked. He is now our first African American president.
These are not small things. These are changes that have piled up fast, creating a world that our grandmothers could barely have dreamed of, that many of our mothers thought they’d never live to see. They’re also changes that our grandmothers and mothers made possible and that will in turn alter the landscape for coming generations.
The events of the past few years provided a prism through which both past and future became briefly clearer.
Though a presidential election is by definition a political event, the cultural shifts made visible and made possible in 2008 took place well beyond the scope of purely presidential history. For a time it was very droll to credit Tina Fey with changing the course of the election and sealing John McCain’s electoral fate with her deadly impersonation of his running mate. But Fey, who had made history some years earlier by becoming the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live, would never have had the opportunity to make this impact had there not been a woman running for vice president.
Fey’s most cutting sketches would not have been possible if another woman, Katie Couric, who had made history by becoming the first solo female anchor of a nightly news broadcast, had not been in a position to elicit unintentionally comedic material from Sarah Palin.
And Palin, who had made history by becoming Alaska’s first female governor, would not have wound up as a mark for Fey and Couric had she not been hired to sop up the tears and the votes of those who had supported Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency.
Political breakthroughs begat cultural breakthroughs begat comedy breakthroughs begat political breakthroughs. The country was in a steady revisionist conversation with itself, with voters, with candidates, with pundits, with entertainers. It was a wild, dizzying ride. It is a poetic injustice that the drawn-out political marathon of 2008, a contest that at times seemed to drag on for decades rather than months, actually took place at breakneck media speed, and that it was narrated to us faster than we could absorb it. Once it would have taken years of retrospective investigative journalism to inform the American public of everything that had happened during a presidential election. In 2008 twenty-four-hour cable networks and the Internet offered hastily crafted daily tomes. We were fed sloppy synopses and cartoonish characters at rat-a-tat pace. Many of us, struggling to keep up, were happy to just get the Cliffs Notes version. But in the ceaseless cycle of revelation and analysis we lost depth, clarity and perspective on the story that was unfolding around us, as well as on how that story was itself changing and reshaping us.
My goal here is to tell the story of women and the 2008 presidential election, though not exactly the stories of the key women themselves. There are far better political reporters than I who have already begun to fill in the details surrounding why Hillary Clinton didn’t fire Mark Penn in January, why Michelle Obama thought it was a good idea to be honest about everything, why Sarah Palin didn’t just admit that she read the New York Times and move on.
These women are at the heart of this tale, but insider campaign rehash is neither my talent nor my particular concern. The story I aim to tell is the one about the country and its culture, how we all reacted to the arrival of these surprising new figures on the presidential stage and what they showed us about how far we had come and how far we had yet to go.
Yes, there was misogyny, and I will describe some of it, but that is not the revelation of this book. To say that Hillary Clinton faced sexism is practically meaningless. She was the first woman in American history to get within spitting distance of a nomination for president; of course she faced sexism. It’s far more interesting to examine the sometimes unlikely directions from which that sexism sprang, as well as the racism and classism that were often in high relief and aimed at other candidates, and why the manifestations of these prejudices still surprised us.
How ready were American voters for these women, and how ready were the women themselves? How prepared was the media to talk about them? How prepared were their political parties? What did their presence teach us about America’s female voters-those who were hounded for supporting women candidates, those who were hounded for not doing so, those who reported on them and those who were still trying to sort out what feminism meant some ninety years after American women gained the right to vote? In that last regard this book is not simply a narrative history but an argument, one that will not be popular with many who consider the 2008 presidential election as proof that feminism has failed. The political reporter Anne Kornblut has written that the contest was “a severe letdown, with damaging consequences” for women, and that it “set back the cause of equality in the political sphere by decades.” And one particularly dour blogger proclaimed in the summer of 2009 that “2008 was when feminism, the women’s liberation movement, ended up crashing.” I believe the opposite, that this was the year-the years, really-in which what was once called the women’s liberation movement found thrilling new life.
The impulse to declare social movements dead is as old as social movements themselves; the term postfeminist was used as early as 1919, a year before women gained the right to vote. The movement to increase liberties for women survived its first obit but has never lacked for premature mourners, or for critics eager to hold its wake. When people spoke, as they often did, about the state of feminism during the 2008 election, they mostly fell into one of two camps. One asserted that the women’s movement of the 1970s was dead because its goals had been more than accomplished, and that modern women, no longer troubled by inequity, did not assign any larger symbolic value to the election of a female president. The other wailed at the expiration of a feminist dream, averring that the mixed fortunes of 2008’s political women were emblematic of the unabated subjugation of women, and that not only had we not come very far at all, baby, but that perhaps we had slid backward.
Reality lay somewhere between, but also well beyond, these two diagnoses. The notion that we live in a world in which gender inequity has been satisfactorily redressed is about as persuasive as the proposition that Barack Obama’s election proved that racism was a stage through which the country had successfully passed. But failing to recognize the vast distances women have traveled in the past halfcentury, let alone the past several centuries, was just as dishonest.
Progress does not happen in a straight line, as any historian of America’s founding and revolutionary rupture, the abolition and suffrage campaigns, and the social movements of the 1960s can attest. The path toward perfecting our union has long been marked by semicircles and switchbacks, regress, tragedy and surprising forward bounds. Small advances spark resistance, resistance that in return provokes propellant bursts of reactive fury. The 2008 presidential contest electrified and enraged, radicalized and engaged us; it opened old wounds, and in doing so created new investments in the struggle toward equality. It recharged conversations-some ugly, some hopeful-that were perhaps in danger of going unfinished.
The events surrounding the election did not provide a static snapshot of where women or feminism or America was; the events themselves were formative, catalytic, changing the positions and shaping the consciousness of American women and men at every turn.
The campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, flawed and unsuccessful though they may have been, the arrival of Michelle Obama on Pennsylvania Avenue, the cultural shifts and uncomfortable exchanges these women prompted, the eye-opening revelations about the progress of women in early twenty-first-century America were in fact the most rejuvenating things to happen to the feminist conversation in many, many decades. They created and nourished a new generation of politically engaged Americans and left us with a story worth telling, hopefully far into the future.
. . .
I am a feminist journalist allied neither with the generations of second-wave (or third-wave) activists that preceded me, nor with the online rabble of younger women who are revivifying and redefining the movement as I type. I was born in 1975 to a mother who taught me not by instruction but by example that it was not only possible for a woman to participate fully in academic, professional and economic spheres, but pretty much expected. She did not go to marches or talk to me about the patriarchy; her political activism had been forged during the civil rights movement and she spent more time telling me how she used to drive to Chicago to listen to Jesse Jackson preach on Sundays. An English professor, my mother worked throughout my childhood, but also did all the cooking, cleaning, laundry and child care in our house. My father believed fervently in the intellectual and political parity of women, but not so much in doing the dishes.
In adolescence I found a few friends with mothers whose consciousness had been raised more directly by the second wave; with them I attended the March for Women’s Lives in Washington in 1992; I wore pro-choice buttons on my coat. In college I studied eighteenth-century literature from a feminist perspective and listened to the Indigo Girls.
But having been a teenager in the backlash 1980s and 1990s, when even the girls at my crunchy Quaker high school prefaced their feminist observations with the defensive caveat “I’m not a feminist, but . . .” and having held my first journalism job at a gloriously musty boys’ club newspaper where any story pitch that smacked of gendered discontent would have been laughed out of the room, I assumed that although my interest in women’s issues might shape my personal life, it would not find a public, let alone professional outlet.
By the time the 2008 election season kicked off, I was not only earning my living writing about gender, but I was doing so in an atmosphere in which looking at the world from a feminist perspective had, improbably, become hot. When I was hired by Salon in 2003 it was as a staff writer for the “Life” section, a squishy category that included stories about relationships, sex, children, religion, health: girl stuff. A few of my early pieces touched on gender politics. To my surprise and that of my editors, these pieces generated attention, page views and lots of florid comments. I wrote more about feminism; the comments and traffic kept rolling in. And so I had a new beat, a lens through which I could examine politics, the media, entertainment, and social and sexual conventions.
My approach was not doctrinaire. After covering a thirtiethanniversary discussion of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying in 2003, I wrote a bratty review headlined “The Feminine Antiques.” I played with verboten words like battle-axe and bitch; I dubbed Florida politician Katherine Harris a “chad harpy” and Ann Coulter a “thin political pundit.” Fascinated by the often ham-handed attempts of second-wavers to make their movement meaningful to a younger generation, I wrote critically about the 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, where older leaders of big feminist groups were unable or unwilling to engage the thousands of eager young women who had shown up to march with them, as well as about the troubled history and shaky future of the word feminism. While reporting a story about incorporating questions of morality into the abortion debate, a piece that questioned the bland language of “choice” to which a generation of activists clung, I found myself on the receiving end of a tirade from Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal; she screamed at me over the phone, asking why I would write something so superficial and divisive when women around the world were dying of fistula.
Women around the world were dying of fistula, but I didn’t believe that that should prevent young people from reassessing signifiers of what had become a badly dated movement. I didn’t want to water down feminism or sex it up or dumb it down or sell it out.
But I did believe that in order to be taken seriously by serious young women, the conversation had to be drained of some of its earnest piety. Talking about gender in the new millennium required us, I thought, to get over ourselves a little bit, to dispense with the sacred cows, to question power and cultivate new ideas and leaders.
My early tenure at Salon coincided with the development of a few online sites created by young women anxious to form a modern feminist community, women whose ideas echoed my own. The most prominent of these was Feministing, founded by a twentyfive-year-old Queens native, Jessica Valenti, who was busting her chops to reach people her age whom she believed were hungry for more coverage about women, power and politics. She was right. As the online world exploded in many directions, each month seemed to bring a new site with feminist content, with names like Feministe, Shakespeare’s Sister, Pandagon, Echidne of the Snakes, Angry Black Bitch, Angry Brown Butch, I Blame the Patriarchy, Writes Like She Talks, Majikthise, Pam’s House Blend, Shapely Prose, Racialicious, Brownfemipower, Bitch PhD, Feminist Law Professors and Womanist Musings. At various points there were about six publications calling themselves The F Word. My musty boys’ club newspaper hired a writer who began to cover business and media through an unapologetically feminist lens. In 2004 the Center for New Words hosted the Women, Action & the Media Conference for feminist journalists, which in its first year drew a hundred people, and five years later six hundred.
Funnily enough, as my youthful commentariat company got broader I found myself becoming a shade less irreverent toward my elders, nodding in agreement with some of the more traditionally old-school feminist figures, the ones whom younger activists sometimes railed against, among them Linda Hirshman and Leslie Bennetts, who exhorted wealthy, educated women to stop dropping out of the workforce to care for their kids, and Ariel Levy, a writer of my vintage whose book Female Chauvinist Pigs questioned the purported sexual empowerment of a “Girls Gone Wild” generation. In 2008 I gave an appreciative talk at the thirty-fifth-anniversary celebration of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying.
That’s where I was when Hillary Clinton announced her campaign for the presidency: a feminist caught between old and new, senior and junior, retro and nouveau, wanting to poke my elders with a stick even as I found myself agreeing with them, and wanting to celebrate the achievements of my younger peers, even when I found some of their commentary short-sighted and overly self-celebratory.
The prospect of a Clinton candidacy was exciting to those of us who wrote about women and power, not least because it promised to be good copy: the story of a much loathed but highly competent woman boarding the presidential roller-coaster and making an unprecedented grab for the brass ring.
But I could not have predicted the kind of electoral rapture that was about to overtake us all. If I foresaw the fury Clinton would provoke, I had no idea of the loyalty she would rouse or the way her campaign would open so many eyes to the realities of sexism. I had no inkling that there would be both Obamas to consider, that the contest between two candidates vying to be the first woman or the first African American nominee would obsess the nation for the better part of a year. I could not have summoned Sarah Palin from my worst nightmare, nor imagined the way she would inspire women on the right to lay claim to what they saw as their share of the feminist legacy. I could never have guessed how many of the questions that bedeviled the feminist world-questions of generational difference, race, class, sex, sexism, abortion, choice, the place of feminism in a Democratic agenda and humor in a feminist agenda-would get so widely aired to an electorate that may never have considered these issues before.
Whether you were a devoted Hillaryite or a Feminist for Barack, a Republican who wore a “Kiss My Lipstick!” button or a self-identified patriot who could not believe that Michelle Obama wouldn’t be proud of her country, you were thinking about women and power and perception. If you put an “I Wish Hillary Had Married O.J.” bumper sticker on your car or wore a “Sarah Palin Is a Cunt” T-shirt, you were broadcasting messages about gender. If you hugged Michelle in a church basement in Indiana, lined up for a Palin rally in Pennsylvania, voted for Hillary in Guam; if you loved Rachel Maddow’s commentary about the election or thought that Chris Matthews was kind of a prick; if you cheered when Campbell Brown defended Palin’s expensive wardrobe or snarfed your beer when Samantha Bee forced Republican conventioneers to describe Bristol Palin’s decision to keep her baby as a “choice”; if you were a young progressive guy who wished the Hillary supporters would shut up, a Hillary supporter who wished the PUMAs would go away or a PUMA who wished that everyone would just choke on it already, then you were talking and thinking about and making women’s history in America.
“Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women”
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Free Press (September 14, 2010)
Also available as an e-book.
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