Rebecca Traister

Salon's political reporter examines the battle of the sexes in the 2008 presidential race.

One of the things that sets your book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, apart from the myriad other books about the 2008 presidential election and contemporary politics is that it’s really readable and engaging for those of us who aren’t political junkies.
The truth is I’m not really a political junkie either. I’ve never been a traditional political beat reporter—though I’ve reported on politics before—but I’m not a policy wonk. And it was really just this moment where there was a national narrative that seemed to be, if not mirroring, then strongly relating to so much of what the country was going through and the issues that I was dealing with in my work and in my life. It was really one of those moments where a big national story seemed to engage totally with a larger American story.

Did having that distance help you when recapping the events of the election?
In retrospect, during the campaign I felt sad that I wasn’t caught up in Obama mania...because everyone seemed to be having so much fun. But I think it was probably useful professionally that I wasn’t. It enabled a kind of perspective that I think helped me see the story a little bit differently. So I’m grateful for it. But at the time I wanted to be an Obama maniac, and I experienced some of that around the general election. I certainly experienced it right around the actual election. It was probably the most thrilling moment I’ve experienced as an American. But I didn’t have the fever during the primaries. I guess I didn’t catch the fever at all. And there were moments I wished I could.

A lot of the book is culled from your reporting for during the election. Was writing the book in retrospect a different game compared to writing the reports in real time?
It was totally different. My beat at Salon—which has for a long time been women and politics and media and culture—led me to be covering certainly the Clinton campaign, covering the gender politics of this woman running for president. But it never occurred to me when I was writing columns about Clinton and her candidacy that it was a book. It might have crossed my mind, but at that point there was so much frustration with Hillary Clinton that I think I probably would have shut myself down.... So really the moment when I decided that I wanted to write a book about the election—or more precisely, a story about the country and women—was after Sarah Palin had come in. And somehow Palin’s entrance into the race, it was like something clicked together...into this narrative arc. I saw how the story of Clinton’s campaign—and with it the other women who were making news: Elizabeth Edwards and Michelle Obama—was melded in with the entrance of Sarah Palin on the scene. And of course at that point I didn’t even know what a big and long-lasting impact Palin was going to have on our political life. Or our cultural life. Suddenly it became a kind of epic story about women and politics.

You also tie your own personal story in with the book, which few political authors do. Do you view this in part as a memoir?
I’d woven my story into the book but I never considered it a memoir. I guess in some small way it is.... It really is about a youngish woman’s interest in and engagement with the gender politics in her country, and gender and the presidency.

I think it’s also the first text to cite Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets as a reference text.
[Laughs] It’s really good—it’s totally good. I recommend it to everybody. It really offers insight into the former first pets.

You mention in the book that there was a paper-thin line between Clinton and Obama. Do you think an Obama-Clinton ticket would have won, or would that have been too much minority for the country to handle?
Obama’s victory made me very optimistic about what the country could handle. Also, Clinton’s near-win of the primary made me super-optimistic. There are a lot of people out there who think that Clinton’s loss and Palin’s subsequent loss add up to a big bummer for American women and the women’s movement, feminism and progress and all that. I completely disagree. I’m hugely optimistic, and 2008 made me optimistic—despite all the setbacks and anxieties and nastiness it provoked—about the country’s capacity to change beyond what history tells us. I didn’t root for an Obama-Clinton ticket at all; I just didn’t think it was gonna happen. But yes, I think they would have won. I think they could win in the future. I think she could win in the future. I’m not saying that the kind of difficulties I chronicle in this book when it comes to gender and race don’t still pertain—there are a lot of challenges we still have to get through. But my God, I’m optimistic about our capacity to vote for people who don’t look like our presidents in the past.

Not to be a buzzkill, but what’s your take on the news that came out recently about the number of women in Congress potentially losing for the first time since 1978?
That’s very depressing. Having just said that I’m wildly optimistic, I’m now depressed [Laughs]. I co-wrote an op-ed this weekend about how Democrats have to do more, and I think as a Democrat my biggest concern is, first of all, that it seems quite likely that there are going to be Democratic women losing seats. Secondly, I wish that there were more women in both parties running—though I’m no fan of the Mamma Grizzlies. There’s no question that there’s more work to do.... I think that Clinton and Palin, in very different ways, have done a lot to expand our vision of what a female leader can look like, and that means that we could have women down the road in many shapes, sizes, colors, ages and ideologies who will be more electable than history tells us they will be.

Do you think that the divided party lines have affected the standards that women in politics are held to?
I think I make it pretty clear in the book that I’m a dedicated Democrat, and that I’m extremely critical of Sarah Palin and many of the other Republican policy choices. But that said...I don’t think it’s a good idea to not take those women seriously because we disagree with them. I think mocking and making fun of and certainly deploying sexist or misogynist language against them is a grave error. It leaves people on the left open to charges of hypocrisy, and I just think it’s a bad idea to underestimate your adversary—and it’s an especially bad idea to underestimate them in gender terms.

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