Tavis: Rebecca Traister is the senior writer at Salon.com and author of the new text, Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women. She joins us tonight from New York. Rebecca, good to have you on this program.
Rebecca Traister: It’s a pleasure to be here, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me start by asking the question that this book really wrestles with, the question of whether or not this election really did in fact change the way that we think of women in power. You argue yes. Tell me why.
Traister: Well, I argue that it’s changed the way we think of women in power. I definitely don’t want to suggest that it’s fixed, the way we think of women in power. I don’t want to suggest that everything’s okay now. But I think that what we saw during the 2008 election cycle was this expansion of roles for women within a presidential cycle.
I mean, you saw Hillary Clinton who not only was the first woman to get as close as any woman has to her party’s nomination for the presidency. You also saw Sarah Palin and both of these women really didn’t behave in the ways that we thought women maybe would behave. This completely opened our eyes to different ways that we might see female candidates.
They were competitive, they occasionally behaved erratically, they sometimes behaved badly, they sometimes behaved well, people supported them, people supported them often, most strongly when they advocated feminist or purportedly feminist positions which many people had thought, “Oh, no, nobody wants to hear women power.” In fact, we saw both candidates in very different ways attract really strong women’s following.
So what I’m arguing in part is that their presence has helped us to expand our capacity for being able to accept female candidates. You know, we’ve had none of them, or very few of them, certainly for the presidency before now, and now we have all these new models of women in power.
Tavis: 2008, obviously, is just two years ago, Rebecca, and put another way, it is so late in the game. What I mean to suggest by that is there are countries all around the world that are way ahead of us. One thinks, of course, of Margaret Thatcher immediately in the U.K., but I could go around the globe, as you well know.
You write the book here about women who’ve ascended to the heights of political office. Why are we so on the late freight here? Put another way, are we more sexist than other countries?
Traister: Well, I think there is certainly no arguing that the United States has a woman problem and this is one. I mean, looking at the presidencies and the leadership around the world, I mean, I don’t think anybody has the pat answer to that especially since, in part, we were founded as a democracy that was supposed to represent all kinds of different people and give them a voice. And we know that we have had many problems not only with women, but with racial ethnic minorities.
You know, we’ve had a line until now of white guys running our country and it’s been unbroken. I don’t know that there’s an answer for that. I mean, I think that the country was founded in part with a cowboy ethos. I think there is something very male when we talk about the founding fathers that has persisted in our notions of what leadership should look like, that it should be paternal.
Tavis: Rebecca, respectfully though, every country to my mind has pretty much been established along those same lines. I ask again, then, why are we so slow on this issue?
Traister: Well, countries have been established along those lines, but they’ve also had early examples of female leadership. I mean, look at Elizabeth the First in England. That was a very long time ago. You know, Catherine the Great, Cleopatra. Even if they’ve been within monarchy, as we have seen other countries get used to the idea of having a female lead them and often into battle, you know, much sooner than that’s happened here, are we more sexist?
Perhaps, but it’s not quite that clean-cut an answer because the United States in part has led the women’s movement. The second wave of feminism was burst here in the United States in the 1960’s and the 1970’s and really led the way for a lot of other western countries.
So, yes, perhaps things have been harder here for women, but there has also been more explosive progress here for women. I agree with you. This 2008 election was evidence of exactly how late we are to the party, but at least we’re beginning to throw one now.
Tavis: Speaking of that late arrival in 2008, of course, that moment heralded in large part because of Hillary Clinton, who you referenced earlier. There were people around Mrs. Clinton, now Secretary of State, advising her to not show her feminine side. Was that good advice or bad advice?
Traister: Well, it had been conventional wisdom for some time because there had been such anxiety and antipathy toward the idea of a female leader, basically, any woman who was going to compete. And this is a message that’s not just true in politics. Ask many women in the business world, in the professional world, and they’re told you don’t want to be too feminine. You want to maybe try to pass.
So that was the advice that Hillary got and that she took. I do think it was a mistake because one of the things that happened early in the campaign was that she barred herself from using the kind of emotional, you know, energizing language that might have been too feminized for her, but which Barack Obama was using to great effect and really connecting to people in perhaps a very feminine way and connecting to female voters. So it did put Hillary at a disadvantage.
That said, I’m not sure that, if she’d let a sort of feminist flag fly early, it would have won her the election. But I do know that, at the end of her primary race, she began to talk more openly and with more energy about being a woman and a woman’s leader. People really flocked to her and it did go over well and we might have had to go through the Hillary campaign before we sort of knew that we were ready to be led by a strong woman’s leader.
When we saw Sarah Palin come in, she immediately started talking about herself as a woman’s leader in the very first speech that she gave. She put herself in line with Hillary Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro and said she was gonna break the glass ceiling. She had no shyness about positioning herself in history as, you know, the woman who was gonna break the glass ceiling.
Tavis: I want to ask more questions about Sarah Palin relative to that 2008 election. I also want to talk about the growing number of women running for major offices in this election, certainly in the State of California, a Senate candidate, a gubernatorial candidate and others across the country. Women in the Tea Party, we’ll talk about that in just a second on our web – I shouldn’t say just a second. I’m out of time right now.
More of this conversation on our website with Rebecca Traister. Her new book is called Big Girls Don’t Cry. Again, go to the website, pbs.org, for more of our conversation with her, which I’m gonna do right now.
[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.