Two years after the 2008 presidential election, it can be easy to forget its remarkable impact on the role of women in U.S. politics. In Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women, Rebecca Traister, a senior writer at Salon.com, looks back at how the American political landscape was transformed during that campaign by women like Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama, and Elizabeth Edwards. In telling that story, she explores the broader cultural reactions to these women, from sexism in the mainstream news media to comedian Tina Fey's "deadly" Palin impression. Traister recently talked with U.S. News about how the 2008 presidential election redefined the way that the U.S. media and electorate think about women and political power. Excerpts:
What would President Obama think of your book?
Among the attitudes that were propagated during the 2008 election was the idea that to talk about women's issues was to be anti-Obama. If you were talking about the sexism that Hillary faced, you were doing so because you were anti-Obama. I would hope that my book would help him understand why so many people were as distressed as they were by the conversations about gender that were happening. I should add that I supported him in the general election wholeheartedly.
How about Sarah Palin?
I suspect she would not like the book, because I'm very negative about her. But if she read it, she would find that there's a lot in there that I hope has treated her with thought and care and respect. I do believe that, in many ways, she reflects a new generation of female politician: one who is young, who balances work and family in ways that were only made possible by the advancements of the second wave. So I have an enormous amount of respect and appreciation for the changes that she represents and for how we perceive women in politics.
Hillary Clinton's popularity surged after she "cried" on the campaign trail. Do we only rally behind humbled women?
That's an argument that had been made about Hillary for a long time after the [Monica] Lewinsky situation: that in order to be loved, she had to be brought low, because we couldn't embrace the super-powerful woman. Now, there is a depressing truth to this. Everybody loves Hillary right now, and it's a lot easier to love Hillary once she's lost and is no longer threatening the hero. We love competition and unrelenting ambition and stick-to-itiveness in football stars and military greats, but we don't like it in pain-in-the-ass women. We love when those pain-in-the-ass women have lost and are now cooperating and playing well with others in the State Department, for instance, or the Senate.
Are American women waiting for a "perfect" female candidate?
There are a couple of different questions there. The first is: have we set the bar for perfection for a hypothetical female candidate too high? Yes. That's one of the big problems we have to get over. Then there's the identification part, which is the personalization of whoever this mystical woman is going to be—that we're going to be able to cheer her and have a full-hearted connection to her and see ourselves in her. That's something that we really had to come to grips with when Hillary ran. In order to get near that power, she had to change in a lot of ways. But then she ran this unbelievable campaign and many women still didn't support her at the end. But it brought us back down to earth a bit. Palin is doing the same thing by making us realize that actually, if we are ever to imagine getting equal participation, we're going to not just be imagining these perfect figures. We're going to be seeing women in all shapes and sizes, with all kinds of politics. And some of them are going to be smart, and some of them aren't going to be; and some are going to be pure, and some are going to be corrupt. We're going to have to get used to the fact that women are no more perfect at this than the men who have been doing this for the past couple centuries.
Feminism, as it has been commonly understood as a sort of liberal social project, has always been intended to benefit all women. Palin and the Mama Grizzlies are all beneficiaries of feminism, and their acknowledgment of that, by the way, is right on. What's not compatible is the future for feminism that Palin and her Republican patrons seem to be pushing. They're talking about the empowerment of women, but they seem to be talking about the empowerment of themselves. They are not pushing policies that are going to further empower other women to move forward. It's not just about reproductive rights; it's about a whole range of labor, healthcare, and economic issues. They're just not on the side that supports things that are good for women.