Brilliant New Book About Gender and 2008 Election

It is increasingly easy for political observers to maintain constant forward movement, scarcely looking back, rarely pausing to process--much less thoroughly analyze--the meaning and significance of past events. Faced with ever more abbreviated news cycles, most of us can barely keep up, much less secure the temporal or substantive means for reflection. It is heartening and invigorating, therefore, to read Rebecca Traister's* Big Girls Don't Cry, which makes a persuasive case not just for the arguments and perspectives it sets forth about gender and the 2008 elections, but also for the very existence of the genre it confidently inhabits. Traister seamlessly integrates reporting, analysis, and personal narrative into a captivating and indispensable account.

BGDC provides the opportunity to reflect, with lowered blood pressure and some much-needed perspective, upon historic cultural shifts. The tale of gender and the 2008 race seems weirdly and unfairly threatened with invisibility; even while particular moments endure, it's odd just how quickly national attention to massively important and controversial issues faded away. Traister recalls the good, bad, and ugly of the primary and general elections, providing context and interpretation regarding events that were often viewed in isolation when they occurred. And she does so in language that is routinely sublime; much of her prose jauntily gnaws on the page (Clinton "had not changed her name after marrying her big-pawed law school swain"; Rachel Maddow succeeded "thanks to a combination of brisk thinking and galumphing good cheer"), causing this reader to alternately grin and scurry to a dictionary.

The rise, fall, and rejuvenation of Hillary Clinton forms the heart of the story, and her candidacy is particularly fascinating--both regarding her own decisions and actions as well as in the reactions she engendered. BGDC traverses these minefields with acuity and grace, addressing the vast array of forces projected from and upon the Clinton campaign. Given the overwhelming crush of scrutiny and commentary directed at Clinton's remarkable run, it seems almost unfathomable that the enduring female image of 2008 is Sarah Palin; BGDC prevents the initial thoughts and emotions about Clinton from escaping consideration by drawing upon the views of women who struggled with the Obama vs. Clinton decision.

Traister's interviews, the subjects of which include high-profile feminist leaders, celebrities, part-time bloggers, and campaign rally attendees, are fascinating. I had long wondered what Katie Couric thought about her interview with Palin, how Geraldine Ferrarro viewed her comments about Obama in retrospect, whether Rachel Maddow minded being the one woman amidst a room full of pneumatic dudes at MSNBC; now I know. I'm also newly conscious of the perspectives of many others, all of whom gave careful thought to the election--and fantastic testimony to Traister.

Clinton's arc provides the analytical foundation, but it also frames the related tentacular outgrowths in politics, society, and the press: The comediennes who so memorably capitalized on the election. Media figures seemingly unmoored from the moderating influence of superego, revealing cheerily oblivious chauvinism (Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann) and impressively mettlesome candor about gender bias (Couric, Campbell Brown). The criticism of Clinton by Obama supporters who, even when genuinely disagreeing with her policy positions, couched their disapproval in the language of misogyny. And the women who defended her on feminist grounds . . . and then were faced with the living incarnation of feminist cognitive dissonance, Sarah Palin.

Traister is, I think, more sanguine than I about the implications of this tumult, concluding that "in 2008 we had inched further toward ensuring that the inequalities of the present will surprise the inheritors of the future." I hope so . . . and I wonder. Did 2008 raise American expectations, as BGDC asserts, or rather raise the stakes of coming battles? If the inheritors of the future someday find quaint the idea that feminism once advanced the goals for women of reproductive rights, health care access, and cultural and legal equality of opportunity, and the F-word's future definition instead represents aspirational female success within hoary notions of gendered expectations and opportunities . . . well, that would be unfortunate.

Some grim entertainment value comes from BGDC's account of women who fought to dilate the feminist tent to include issues beyond (or relating to, or enmeshed with, depending on whom you ask) gender, but then struggled with intellectual contortions to exclude Sarah Palin from the club. The intersectionalism debate is beyond my aptitude--though I'm not unsympathetic to Linda Hirshman's quoted observation that "[e]verything is always a contest of one good against another . . . you can't have politics if you don't take care of yourself"--but BGDC seems fair to the various sides and provides an obliging rundown of the ideas for readers (like me) who are not fully versed in intra-feminist debates.

Relatedly, while I'm sure that BGDC will be devoured by women who regularly think about these issues, its accessibility makes it an excellent and important read for those of us who are not regular participants in feminist debates. The issues Traister covers are too often ghettoized or overlooked, and it would be a shame if the book reached only those who are already sophisticated observers of its subject matter. (Thinking about this, on a hunch I looked up BGDC's reviewers at a dozen or so major news outlets, and not a single one was male. Hmm.) While Traister notes the many improvements resulting from 2008, there is still much to be done, and Big Girls Don't Cry advances that vital work with precisely the kind of incisive, thoughtful, and personal approach required by such a complicated and contentious subject matter. Traister's book is riveting and edifying, and hopefully her first of many.

* In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I've met and corresponded with Traister regarding some of the issues about which she writes--though with so little expertise on my part that I was startled to read my name in the acknowledgments. While it may seem undignified to heartily endorse a book in which my name appears, I'm reassured by the words of John Steinbeck: "Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard."