"Big Girls Don't Cry": The election that changed everything for women

Salon's Rebecca Traister explains what we missed about Hillary, Palin and Michelle -- and how 2008 made history

Published September 12, 2010 6:01PM (EDT)

Rebecca Traister
Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister's extraordinary new book, "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women," draws on pieces she wrote for Salon during the 2008 election -- about Hillary and Palin and Michelle, about politics and gender and her own thorny relationships to each. But it is also the election as you've never read it before, a book that renders those now-familiar stories in a compulsively readable narrative and hammers home just how transformative the moment really was. (An excerpt from the book will run in Salon on Monday.)

To discuss the book, Salon asked Curtis Sittenfeld, author of the acclaimed novels "American Wife" (a compassionate, fictionalized history of Laura Bush) and "Prep" (a keenly observed coming-of-age tale), to interview Traister over the phone. A transcript of their conversation follows.

For me, reading this book, there were so many revelations. I thought I had followed the election closely, but as I read I kept thinking, "Oh, I never saw that. I never realized that." I think a lot of people who read the book will have a similar reaction to mine, but I also think that before cracking it open, before buying it, people might think: What is there that's left to say about the 2008 election? Do you feel like you're fighting an uphill battle in terms of that perception?

When Michiko Kakutani wrote her "Game Change" review in the New York Times, she started with some sentiment like, "Ugh, who needs another book about the election?" But my reaction to that -- and every other book that is going to come out about the election, including mine -- is that, oh my God, everything in America was busted open during that election. Between race and gender and Obama and Hillary and Palin, there was so much that had never happened before in American history. There will be scores more books about this election, and each of them will offer their own set of revelations about this election, which happens to be a completely gripping narrative, by the way. The greatest thing that happened to me writing this book was remembering how great the story of the election is, so even if you lived it, even though I'd written about it as it was taking place, when I went back to write about it in retrospect, I was like, "Did that really happen?"

In 50 years it could be a magnificent miniseries or something. What are some examples of big stories that people either don't remember or weren't even aware of at the time?

Here's a thing that I didn't know at the time. When Hillary won New Hampshire, she became the first woman in American history to win a primary. I mean, I sort of knew that, of course, what she was doing was historic. But this was a massive thing, a change in 220 years of presidential history. I didn't know, and it was my job to know.

And I went back and looked at the New York Times article that sort of summed up the events the next day: Hillary Clinton and McCain win New Hampshire. The article goes into great detail about her crying and all that. But it doesn't mention that this was the first time in American history that a woman had won a presidential primary.

There were lots of smaller things, too. When I tell people about the NPR producer who compared Hillary to Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction," people would say "What?! Somebody said that?!"

Yeah, I felt that way reading it.

A lot of the misogyny, as well as the racism. A lot of that stuff on television, because there were so many channels going at the same time, and we were all struggling to keep up, we missed so many of the things that were being said. 

That actually leads into my next question, which is about how you make this very convincing case for how shabbily Hillary Clinton was treated with regard to gender. Again and again people would say, it's not that I object to a woman being president, it's that I object to Hillary specifically. But then there's plenty of evidence to suggest, no, you do object to a woman. When did you personally start to see that pattern?

I actually assumed that anti-Hillary misogyny would take the form that it did in the beginning, the Hillary nutcrackers and the "two fat thighs and a left wing" jokes. This loutish, mostly right wing anti-Hillary spew that we have gotten for decades.

The thing that had a radicalizing impact on me began after [Hillary lost in] Iowa. Because there was this pile-on, and to me it was mind-bending. It was coming often from people on the left. It was like something they had been keeping inside as they bit their tongues and covered this woman who had the gall to be the front-runner and the "inevitable" candidate, which was the word that they threw out there. And finally she had shown weakness, and they were just going nuts.

I wrote a piece for Salon about how, despite the fact that I was not a Hillary supporter, had I lived in New Hampshire I would have voted for her that week, because I was so pissed off. I didn't know it at the time, but Rachel Maddow said something very similar about feeling like she wanted to defend her on air. There was a video made by Dana Milbank at the Washington Post, just laughing, sneering at Hillary for giving a rally where she answered all the voters' questions and it went on for a long time. Showing these voters yawning and saying, "Whoa, she's such a snooze." I began to see in this very active, palpable way how she was being talked about as Tracy Flick, or Margaret from Dennis the Menace, or Hermione Granger -- you know, the know it all girl. And that's when I began to switch.

The evolution of your feelings toward Hillary is really a central part of the book.

Well I was no fan of Hillary going in. For a long time, prior to her campaign, my feelings were negligible. In fact, I felt a kind of embarrassment that women were expected to have such strong feelings about Hillary. I admired her from a distance, but politically I had less and less in common with her as she moved to the center.

I was one of those few, proud, now deeply embarrassed John Edwards supporters. So when it came to super Tuesday I had to choose between her and Obama, about whom I felt roughly equivalent. I wound up almost flipping a coin and voting for Hillary, but I was still completely ambivalent about her.

Eventually I became a lot more aware of the ways in which not only Hillary but also her supporters were being talked about. I became increasingly sensitive to the scorn directed at her, and it built and built as she continued to fight, and it drove me nuts. Because I thought her continuing to fight was awesome and hilarious. I thought it was completely redefining how we view women and our expectations for them in public and political life. She would not comply. She would not give in. She would not do what the pundits wanted her to do, what her opponents wanted her to do, what reporters were insisting that she do, what everyone was telling her was the smart thing to do or, in one case, the classy thing to do. She just kept going.

But the more she did that, the more anger -- biting anger -- I began to see, both in the media and amongst the people I knew, and amongst Obama supporters, and that was what began to radicalize me in my support for Clinton, so that by the end I was an ardent Hillary supporter. That does not mean that I did not still find fault with her. I did, and I do. And there were a lot of terrible missteps she made during that campaign. But I was a devoted Hillary supporter by the end, so much so that I, with much humiliation, actually wound up crying after she conceded. I was in the [National Building Museum covering the story for Salon], and I had to run out of the press area, and I was trying to find a place behind a column, and I'm, like, choking out sobs, and I realize I'm standing next to Matt Drudge.

Moving on from Hillary, you also talk about the way Sarah Palin was supposedly much more of a centrist as governor. And how in some ways the reception of her -- the frosty reception to her, especially by progressive women -- pushed her to the right and helped make her the Tea Partier she is. I can't stand Sarah Palin, but is she the fault of people like me? Did we make her what she is?

I don't think people who objected to Sarah Palin are to blame for Palin's turning rightward. Whose fault it is that Sarah Palin has become Sarah Palin is a really complicated question. To a large degree, it's Sarah Palin's fault. To a large degree, it's the fault of Republicans who thought they could bring her in as a toy, a young attractive Hillary replacement. They didn't ask any questions about her, they didn't consider her as a real person and a real candidate with a real history. And in part the intense, visceral loathing of the American left, of feminists, of Democratic women helped push Palin further right. As her onetime adviser Elaine Lafferty said to me, you go where it's warm, which I think is a great line, and Palin was being embraced by these incredible social conservatives. She went where it was warm. 

But the reasons for the visceral attitude about Palin from many women, including me, including you, also have a complicated history. They stem in part from the fact that we got why she was going to be so effective. She behaved in very retro ways, ways we'd been fighting for years to not have to behave. People often like to put it in high school terms, and I try to avoid this but there's an obvious truth to it. We knew there was a mean girl element. And I think that's reductive, but it's not bad, actually, as a descriptor of the kind of instinct that overtook a lot of American women.

In that analogy, are American women the mean girls, or is Sarah Palin the mean girl?

Both, actually. And, God this is reductive, but I think we understood, whether or not we were able to put it together at the time, that in part we got a Sarah Palin because of our inability to deal with a Hillary Clinton. That does not mean, oh, Hillary should have won. It means that Hillary as a mold-breaking, ball-busting, aggressive, relentless female candidate encountered a level of resistance from within her own party -- and again, I don't mean that she should have won, I mean that she should have been treated better, and that her historical place should have been recognized more, and it wasn't. And so it was the limits of our tolerance, and of a Democratic tolerance for this new kind of woman -- a relentless, competitive, noncompliant woman -- that opened a door for McCain to bring in Palin to begin with.

So you see Palin as more compliant, less competitive, less ball-busting.

Well, by some standards, she was. But Palin, now, is Clinton-like in her refusal to relent at this point. Their politics are wildly divergent, but Palin's path in some ways does mirror Clinton's in the last part of the primary season, in that everyone keeps predicting she's done and she's not. When she stopped being governor, I thought, well, that's the end of her. Too bad I'm writing a book about her, no one's going to care about her in a year. She sends ridiculous tweets, and people think that's going to be the end of her. She defies every bit of conventional wisdom, and that is very much as Hillary was in the second half of the primary season.

What do you think Sarah Palin will do next?

 I think she'll run for president, I mean I have no evidence ....

 In 2012?

Yes! I think she'll run for president, or emperor, or master of the universe, or whatever position is available. And it could be 2012, it could be 2016, it could be 2016 against Hillary, which would be a show for the ages, really.

You'll have to write a sequel if that happens.

I mean I think that we would all just grab popcorn and sit there, riveted, that entire year, right?

Maybe Michelle could run, too, in 2016.

Well you've covered Michelle. Do you think Michelle wants to run?

If I had to guess, I'd guess no, but it wouldn't shock me if the answer were yes. Here's my Michelle question for you: I remember you wrote a piece after the Democratic National Convention where, in addition to expressing admiration for Michelle, you expressed some disappointment about the fact that she's this very bright, very educated, very successful woman who seems to have to minimize herself and her accomplishments for the sake of winning votes. And I felt like in this book, you were more understanding of the choices she's made. Would you agree or disagree with that?

I would agree. I wasn't harsh towards Michelle, but I was upset about what had been done to Michelle. And I still am. I think in this story she's one of the best examples of the limits of our abilities to stretch when it comes to our expectations for women. Her situation was also deeply complicated by the fact that in addition to being an unbelievably brilliant, energetic, engaged, opinionated, professional, successful woman, she's also a black woman. The ways in which she was treated as an angry black woman, the ways in which there was always suspicion of her because she spoke too freely about her husband and was not respectful enough of him, those things were always deeply sexist and racist in ways that were ignored for far too long.

At the convention, she got this tremendous makeover, and I got why she got the makeover. This was a big leap that the United States was about to make in electing an African-American president. And everything that could be scary about it to those that found the idea of African-Americans in the White House scary and threatening had to be smoothed down, and Michelle got the brunt of a lot of that. But it was so depressing to me that this was the only way we could make her palatable, and it lasts until now -- to make her the wife, the mother, the gardener, interested in kids. None of that stuff is inauthentic. She's a wife, and she's a mother, and she cares deeply about those things. But every other aspect of her personality -- all of which were so complicated and interesting and modern -- were just stripped away. And the fact that that's the woman whose approval ratings can be super high is endlessly depressing to me.

If you think I'm more understanding in the book, it's probably true, because after I made a rather harsh assessment of the situation, very soon after Obama was elected, there were several people, including Patricia Williams in the Nation, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Latoya Peterson of Racialicious, several people made arguments in print and to me about the ways in which holding up Michelle Obama as a maternal ideal, a wifely ideal and a sartorial ideal are actually progressive because African-American women have rarely been seen as those kind of ideals. And that was very eye-opening to me, and one of the many instances during the election and while writing the book that the whiteness of my feminism and my perspective was exposed to me.

I don't feel any of the frustration that some feminists feel with Michelle Obama. I feel almost defensive of her.

I think you're right to feel defensive. She's given every indication of having never really wanted to be a part of this to begin with. I don't blame her for any of the choices she's made. But what I find fault with is the American expectations for femininity and for black femininity. I mean look, as soon as she left her freaking garden, and went to Spain ...

Yeah, what's your take on that? How do you think race and gender are tied up in that story?

It's the whole spoiled rich lady thing, which is a barb that's been thrown at Michelle. It's every kind of stereotype thrown at her over the years she's been in the national spotlight. She's been portrayed as the sassy, emasculating wife to Barack. She's been portrayed as the black American princess. This country right now is so stirred up in its aggression toward Obama that I think it's a kind of miracle that even with her work in the garden and on childhood obesity and keeping as quiet as humanly possible that her approval ratings have stayed so high. And that story kind of broke the wall for her. It wasn't really about her trip to Spain. It was a lot of people who have been stirred up into this level of aggression toward Obama in general, getting just the excuse they needed to aim a little bit of it at Michelle.

I definitely felt like there was a very racist component in play, too. Like, of course the first lady stays at a five-star hotel. Do you think she should stay at the Holiday Inn Express? It's almost like people are thinking, "But a black woman doesn't stay at a five-star hotel."

Like she's too big for her britches or something, but why are her britches supposed to be small? I mean there is historical precedent for this. People did get pissed off at Nancy Regan when she did something expensive in the White House. It's not just race. But yes, I think the characterization of it, as with most everything that has to do with Michelle, is racialized.

Is there any public figure not known to be a friend to feminism whom you'd love to have read your book?

I kind of automatically thought of Chris Matthews, but there are any number of intense Obama supporters who I would love to have read the book. There are a lot of people who just wrote off and who continue to write off concern with these issues. There are a lot of people in the Democratic Party I would like to have read this book.

There's such an assumption that people who supported Hillary, or who have a feminist beef with Sarah Palin, or people who care about this stuff, or people who complain because reproductive rights keep getting traded away, are just these whine machines. And we just allow that perception to continue and it just builds on itself. So you have more distance, on the left, between feminism and progressivism. This is part of my mission, to explain that it isn't just angry victimization, it's agitating for continued social progress, it's participating in the American conversation. That, in fact, what we are dealing with is a really complex story in American history.

By Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."

MORE FROM Curtis Sittenfeld

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