What, Exactly, Did The Presidential Election Change For Women?


“It was narrated to us faster than we could absorb it,” writes Rebecca Traister of the 2008 election. “In the ceaseless cycle of revelation and analysis we lost depth, clarity, and perspective.” Not anymore, regarding what it meant for women.

This is where Traister comes in, and has come in for years, with incisive and elegant writing in Salon and elsewhere on the subject of women in politics. Traister’s new book, Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women does this on the broadest scale yet, taking on the experiences and representation of women in that pathbreaking election. Remember that? It’s all here, from Hillary’s tears to Palin’s antics to generational tensions. We sat down with Traister to discuss the election’s impact and aftermath, and how women might regain some of their political momentum.

Jezebel: You write about how the election exposed generational fault lines. We actually met at a lunch for a book about Hillary, where certain prominent older feminists stood up and said that young women were voting for Obama to get back at their mothers.

Rebecca Traister: As often happened at lunches about Hillary, within moments there was a furious conflagration about how young women didn’t know anything about feminism. I found that the election offered a sort of match that lit what was already pretty dry tinder. It wasn’t so much that Hillary made different generations of women angry at each other. It’s that Hillary gave them the excuse to have the fight they’d been spoiling to have for a very long time.

You could go back and hear the same conversations around the foundation of the feminist and lefty blogosphere and hear young women saying, ‘Well, the women of the traditional feminist organizations aren’t listening to us, so we’re moving into our own realms.” Some of the older women — I’m using older women and young women very broadly, I don’t meant to be talking in derisive generalizations — you could hear them say, “These young women don’t take their rights seriously, they blog all day, they’re not activists.”

J: Did this mindset — that younger women just didn’t understand — also strengthen older women’s identification with Hillary?

RT: These were women who, many of whom, had already spent many years identifying with Hillary Clinton. Hillary had been an explosive figure in American political culture to a generation that had been the first one to largely break into the work force, to have two-career marriages, to balance family and work. There had never been a First Lady like Hillary before. She inspired such passionate identification among these women who’d never seen themselves reflected in public life.

It wasn’t just how the young women were treating Hillary, it was how the media was treating Hillary that forced a further identification, or a re-identification, with Hillary, and a sense also that her gender combined with her age — as we know there’s an ever-decreasing value on women as they age. A lot of women roughly Hillary’s age who saw the push to get her off the stage, to make her quit, to make her disappear, to make her stop, as very much in line with their experiences of feeling pushed off the stage, you know, ‘Nobody cares about you anymore.’

J: You write that the Hillary Clinton campaign had had a chance at some of the inspiration that the Obama campaign offered, but that it missed that opportunity.

RT: I’m not so naïve to say that if Hillary had presented herself as a feminist candidate, she wouldn’t have scared everyone off. And I don’t mean to say she should have done it some other super-feminist way. These were the circumstances that female candidates have faced for some time — the ambivalence with which feminism has been held not only by the right, but within her own party, for decades. I don’t mean to blame her for that. What I do think was a real error was not reaching out to young women earlier. I think there were a lot of young women out there who would have been thrilled, even without her representing herself as busting through a glass ceiling and ‘you go girl,”…who would have loved to have been directly addressed, taken seriously, brought in the campaign earlier. It was a terrible error on the part of Mark Penn and it could have been game changing, I think.

J: Instead, you write, what ended up galvanizing young women and others around Hillary was seeing how she was treated in the media… It’s still amazing to go back and watch that footage. It’s interesting that these were mostly older guys on MSNBC and Fox, and yet you also argue that there was also sexism among younger male Obama supporters when it came to Hillary.

RT: At the time, I wrote about what I perceived as a complicated misogynist vibe coming from some of the young male Obama devotees in the last stages of the primary cycle. I think one of the reasons that I was so struck by it — and this is not to give some pass to all younger men — is that there is such a marked generational change among men. There’s more of an awareness of gender, they’re often raised by feminist moms and working moms. Men who are [at least] used to the idea of equally splitting domestic duties; they’re active fathers.

I had actually come to expect much more from young men. We’re very lucky to live with a new generation of men, and I think our kids will be luckier still. But this was an instance in which some old attitudes seemed to bubble up among younger men.

J: You also argue in the book that media created by and for women, some of it new, made a major impact on the course of the election.

RT: Take something like Tina Fey becoming the first head writer of Saturday Night Live. On the face of it, you can see someone saying it doesn’t matter. But then you combine that with Katie Couric becoming the first female news anchor, which itself was met with some derision. And you combine that with Sarah Palin. When you put it all together, you had Couric interviewing Palin, sinking the Republican candidacy, and Fey using that material to inspire these incredible campaign-sinking sketches. It was a trio of women, all of whom were first [in their fields], and they were in this position [to talk about this] because Hillary Clinton had come before that and been the first woman to come close to a presidential nomination.

So all of those little minor things, — “Why are you women worried about who’s writing Saturday Night Live, or sitting in a news broadcast in an antiquated old newsroom?” — this was an instance in which we could see how all these things big and small combined,, not just to change an election outcome, but also to change American history.

J: And these exceptional women at the top could also tap into and be supported by all of these women-centered Internet spaces that hadn’t existed before.

RT: Ultimately I think it’s been a terrifically great thing. There are all kinds of places now that consider a feminist space for coverage as part of their regular editorial content, and a community of commenters who become involved in the conversation, who meet each other, who network in some way. They’re reaching quite young women that might not have otherwise been thinking about this stuff had they not followed that story about Brad Pitt.

But the fact of the easy availability of this kind of conversation now — it dilutes slightly the intensity of investment. There was once a time when you might [get involved with] the women’s movement, whatever form it took, because of some instance of injustice in your own life; you were motivated to get involved and become an activist…but with the blogosphere the point of entry is so much easier.

Jezebel: So after the election, what did all of that catharsis achieve? You quote Jehmu Greene saying that because women felt mobilized by the election, they were angrier over the Stupak amendment -– but what good did that do?

RT: This is one of the daunting questions before us. I do think people are angrier. I don’t mean just women. Women and men are angrier about women’s issues than they’ve been.

J: I think the problem is that it’s so diffuse. The election was something that everyone could participate in, and now the ways that change happens feel less big and people feel less energized by them.

RT: That’s why women of a different generation complain that young women are so passive, that we don’t care about the gradual erosion of reproductive rights, because we haven’t had to fight that big, energizing, exciting fight [like they did].

No one wants the kind of excitement that’s like, abortion’s illegal — but there are different sets of problems now and often they’re more subtle. And that’s exactly what’s great about the election. And that’s part of why I wish there were more Democratic women candidates and more energy there, because those are the people you can focus your energy on.

It’s not so simple as to say that feminism is going to proceed by electing a woman president — but these are the instances that can mobilize us as groups, when we have some sort of concrete goal or identifiable issue we can rally around. The election is a great gift in that regard, it’s something everyone’s paying attention to at once. But that’s part of why we need to think about more female candidates who can bring us together, and bring together different generations and forms of communication in a shared goal.

Buy Big Girls Don’t Cry here.

*Disclosure: The books contains interviews with several Jezebel contributors, and references to their work. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin