October 2010

Koa Beck

nonfiction

Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women by Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister’s all-encompassing book on the cultural impact of the 2008 presidential election on women voters covers a lot of ground in, surprisingly, very few pages. Traister, a Salon.com reporter who covered the election extensively, draws from own her reporting as well as acute analyses of MSNBC coverage, daytime television talk shows, and many, many print pieces. Incorporating such powerful voices as Melissa Lacewell-Harris (now Harris-Perry), Jessica Valenti, Gloria Steinem, and Rachel Maddow, Traister examines the sexism endured by Hillary Clinton by both the conservative and liberal media, the divide among liberal woman voters, and the catapulting of Sarah Palin as the queen of “the new feminism.”

Traister’s examination is not limited to the political world, as she also weighs in other American cultural markers such as Feministing.com, Saturday Night Live, and reactions from her colleagues. Her study of the origins of the female vote intersects with contemporary feminism as she boldly investigates how President Obama’s campaign brought the question of racial discrimination before that of gender. Traister interviews Gloria Steinem about her explosive op-ed in The New York Times, “Women Are Never Front-Runners,” addressing the troubling pull quote, “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life” -- the statement that ignited a fire among modern feminists of all classes, races, and orientations.

Traister articulates well how Clinton’s campaign was received by self-identified feminists, writing that “[i]t was a contemporary iteration of Betty Friedan’s problem that had no name, a maddening cycle of vague hunches and self-righteous denials that left many of us feeling as though we were going insane.” Traister also notes the generational gap between young liberal feminists and their women’s lib marching mothers, divided on the crux of gender as the sole criteria for feminist progression.

Her resounding narration of the feminist movement -- its history, changes, and disappointments -- is gripping, as she explains, blow-by-blow, how the political climate of 2008 brought gender to the surface of American consciousness. The voice of Big Girls Don’t Cry is complex, balancing a reporter’s objective view with a narrow tolerance for nonsense.

When Palin begins to ascend as a political celebrity, Traister is quick to inform the reader: “What Palin so beguilingly represented, not only to the Deutsch but to the general public, was a form of female power that was utterly digestible to those who had no intellectual or political use for actual women: feminism without the feminists… The pro-woman rhetoric surrounding Palin’s nomination, on the other hand, was a crafty bastardization of everything feminism had stood for.”

Traister herself assumes many forms in the text: the silent interviewer of powerful female pundits, a contemplative reporter at Bill Clinton’s side, and a disgruntled John Edwards supporter. But lingering just beneath the sonorous voice of Big Girls Don’t Cry is Traister’s own personal sentiments and struggles with the election as a female Democrat voter -- an emotive, yet tastefully employed component of the book that functions as a dual narrative. In including a few sparing details about her own travels to attend rallies, hear speeches, and speak with her politically polarized friends, Traister brings a distinctive engrossing element and an immediacy to her points on America’s sexist culture and women voters.

When recalling the eerie rise of Palin in a post-Clinton campaign world, Traister shares with readers, “I didn’t know which was worse: watching a grim cycle lurch once more into gear or acknowledging that the Republicans and John McCain, in their attempts to manipulate the female electorate, had walked through a door that had been left opened by my own party.”

Traister’s mastery in reconciling her own thoughts and misgivings with the much larger and emphatic narration of her book speaks to her incredible prowess as a writer and researcher. A sharp observer of American culture, American media, and politically-minded women, Traister has produced an evocative meditation on modern feminism that is paired with the distinguishing voice of one woman voter -- Traister. This enthralling and well-researched read is a tapestry of feminist voices, speaking from all the different corners of academia, media, and the blogosphere, all chiming in with an opinion worth hearing on America’s most gripping election yet.

Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women by Rebecca Traister
Free Press
ISBN: 1439150281
352 Pages