In a week when Nancy Pelosi—who is second in the line of presidential succession— adorned the number two spot on David Letterman’s Top Ten as the porn star “found in hotel room drunk and naked with Charlie Sheen,” can there be any doubt that sexism in America is alive and well? Well, maybe. The time when individuals in high public office were accorded, if not esteem, then at least the respect due their office is at best a distant memory, a seemingly quaint tradition observed decades ago when those officials were all men. Is this a coincidence?

“Gentlemanly” manners, once relied upon to ensure civility, also included the special treatment accorded to women, the “gentle” —  i.e., weaker— sex. Chivalry is now considered sexist, a logical outcome of the emancipation of women in our fight for equality. Yet by extension, if a man can be the butt of tasteless attempts at humor, then a woman is equally subject to such offense. I don’t think the practice is defensible, but you really can’t have it both ways.

Focusing on the looks of a woman candidate rather than her record, however, is clearly sexist. The clothes, hair and appearance of women running for office are much more frequently commented upon than those of their male counterparts. (The coifs of John Edwards and Rod Blagojevich are the exceptions to the rule, but there were reasons, especially in the case of Edwards.) Apart from belittling women with the implication that only the wrapper matters because there is nothing of substance inside, the practice harms not just the candidate but the voters, by depriving them of the particulars they need to make an informed choice. An egregious example is the ad posted by a conservative blog in Missouri supporting Republican Roy Blunt’s run for the Senate against Democrat Robin Carnahan. “Blunt for Senate ’10,” the ad reads under pictures of two women: candidate Carnahan and sitting Sen. Claire McCaskill, also a Democrat. “Because Missouri’s already got frumpy, middle-aged blonde progressive with bad hair covered.” That goes well beyond negative campaigning. It’s mean and personal, and sexist to boot.

In her new book, Big Girls Don’t Cry (Free Press, $26), Rebecca Traister examines the 2008 election through a feminist lens. She scrutinizes American society, the women newly arrived on the political stage, and “what they showed us about how far we had come and how far we had yet to go.” Subtitled “The Election That Changed Everything for American Women,” BGDC mostly lives up to its billing. The problem is, as Traister herself makes clear while chronicling the slings and arrows that assailed the groundbreaking candidates, an that awful lot still hasn’t changed.

Only a news junkie like me still finds the 2008 election fascinating. But in this so-called Year of the [Republican] Woman, Traister’s book is well worth your time. It’s a lively read, entertaining and enlightening, filled with insightful observations. Tracing the rifts in second-wave feminism that were exacerbated by the candidacies of Clinton and Obama, the author knowledgeably investigates the competing loyalties and priorities of sexual identity, race, class, age, religion and professional status that ruptured the loose-knit coalition that was based on gender alone.

It wasn’t just the women running for office in 2008 who drew unwonted attention. Traister demonstrates how the election transformed popular culture as women journalists and comedians stepped onto center stage. Among the many were Katie Couric, whose gentle but direct and persistent questioning revealed Sarah Palin’s unpreparedness for prime time; Gwen Ifill, who moderated the vice-presidential debate; Campbell Brown, who called out the McCain campaign for its “chauvinistic treatment” of Palin and later defended her against the media frenzy whipped up by the disclosure of her clothing expenditures; and newcomer Rachel Maddow, whose brainy commentary coupled with wit and humor earned her a nightly hour-long show. Traister notes, however, that these women’s willingness to take on Palin “fed an appetite for girl-on-girl combat.” Her own columns that criticized Palin had a larger readership than any she’d written before or since.

“If Katie Couric was the nail in Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential coffin,” Traister writes, “the hammer was Tina Fey.” Funny women like Fey and Amy Poehler and Wanda Sykes played an integral role in shaping the public’s perception of the issues. Like Jon Stewart, they became authoritative figures; but for a change, these were women who were dominating YouTube.

Traister believes the florescence of so many women on the national scene was fueled by the increasing numbers of women who were commanding attention from the highest perches in Washington: senators, Speaker of the House, cabinet members, including the Secretary of State and potentially even the White House. Political journalists, who had always been overwhelmingly male and white, had reflected the white male power structure. Now, the media began to respond to a new appetite for women who would interview and interpret as well as execute and lead.

But Traister’s observations are by no means limited to the cultural scene and the political arena, and her analyses of the principal players are particularly thought-provoking. What Sarah Palin “so beguilingly represented” in 2008, she writes, “was utterly digestible to those who had no intellectual or political use for actual women: feminism without the feminists.” Palin’s “faux feminism,” according to Traister, was a “crafty bastardization of everything feminism had stood for.” She argues that conservatives’ appropriation of feminist discourse for the purpose of revoking hard-won rights—with reproductive rights as a prime example—is not only incompatible with feminism, but “fundamentally antifeminist and antifemale.”

Whereas Palin capitalized on her femininity and made her good looks a strategic part of her campaign, Clinton clothed hers in pants suits rather than high heels. As Traister points out, Clinton’s femininity was “based on competence and an assumption of authority that upended gender expectations.” It “had nothing to do with the flirtatious or the traditionally feminine. It was authority that was threatening because it so closely and calmly resembled the kind of power that the guys on the presidential stage had never questioned their right to wield.”

Tracing a pattern that she first noticed as the primary season continued into the spring, Traister writes that predominantly white, privileged, young men “were starry-eyed about Obama and puffed with outsized antipathy toward Clinton.” She found this puzzling, since the candidates’ ideas were not that different. Obama’s “lyrical language [at the 2004 Democratic convention] made flesh would have looked a lot like Hillary’s voting record,” she observes. In the past, “vitriol about her voice, her looks, her presumption” had been the province of right-wing “blowhards,” not young progressives. Traister fills many pages with the words of young women — Obama supporters — who flooded her inbox with complaints about the sometimes veiled and often outright sexism of their male counterparts.

Yet this was pablum compared with Clinton’s excoriation by the mainstream media, and Traister rehearses the most egregiously offensive moments. She recounts, for example, the televised reactions of Tim Russert, Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens to Clinton’s assertion that she wouldn’t be “bullied” out of the race when most male pundits were urging her to give up and get out. The three spoke of Clinton’s “self-pity and self-righteousness.” Hitchens said that if Clinton “knew how [her “welling up and sobbing”] made her look . . . alternately soppy and bitchy, she’d stop it.” Traister adds that at the end of the episode, “Russert thanked both men ‘for writing and thinking and talking with intelligence.’ “

I confess that I had a very difficult time deciding between Clinton and Obama. Like many, I lamented having to choose between them. But I found the contention of Clinton’s opponents that she would do anything to be elected, including pandering to special interests and compromising on important principles, to be unfair. President Obama’s critics on both left and right are now saying the same about him. These people live in an ideological fantasyland. They don’t understand that politics is the art of compromise, the art of the possible — deciding what you have to give up in order to get most of what you want. Sure, I’d like to have seen the public option in the healthcare reform bill. But when the choice is between an imperfect bill that corrects many inequities or no bill at all, I think the choice is clear. Similarly, a politician can’t write her ideas into law unless she’s managed to be elected by temporarily setting aside some of her ideals. That‘s not dishonest, it’s realistic.

In the final chapter of BGDC, Traister reviews the aftermath of the election: the changes that appear to be permanent and those that are fading, the fates of the losers as well as the winners, the state of feminism and its possible future trajectory.

Discussing Clinton’s success and popularity as Secretary of State after losing her historic presidential bid, Traister cites Gloria Steinem’s rueful comment: “It’s always been okay for women to sing the blues. Just not so good for us to win. We all know deep in our hearts if we want to be loved we have to lose.” Steinem never thought Clinton could win, but Traister never doubted the possibility that she might: “The difference between Steinem’s and my perspective on possibility demonstrated the changes in four decades in America.” Older women who supported Clinton, she’d written in an earlier chapter, feared they’d never see a woman as president if Clinton lost, but the younger women who supported Obama knew it was just a matter of time.

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  • Eddie Vega November 2, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    A deeply insightful piece on the 2008 election and its implications for women in politics and media. The question for me is will there ever come a time when jokesters will draw a line between sarcasm — which intends to destroy the subject — and satire — which intends to improve human conduct by pointing out how silly and laughable it can sometimes be.