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.