Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for Ameri... answers five questions from Deborah Siegel, author of Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild, about generational catfighting, gender equity in politics, wrestling with structure, and writing history while living it.
Deborah Siegel: You’ve honed your chops as a journalist writing online, maneuvering with sass and depth in a world of instantaneous reportage. What felt different about writing your first book? What challenges did writing history while living it pose?
Rebecca Traister: Mostly what felt different about writing the book was trying to wrestle it into structural shape. Structure has always been the hardest part of writing features for me. I often have real trouble finding my beginning, middle and end, and often when I do make something work, it's by accident and I find myself staring at the page and thinking "Wait, how did I do that?" Structure is a part of writing that I feel I have almost no conscious control over. This book did allow me to use the chronological narrative of the election as my structural guide, which was such a bonus in part because the twists and turns of that particular election make is such a fun, suspenseful story -- even knowing how it all turned out!
Also, the sheer length of immersion in the crazy-writing-obsessive-mode was pretty staggering. As a journalist, I had certainly experienced that phase of feature-writing in which I was pulling all-nighters, eating and breathing and sleeping and dreaming the piece for days at a time. But at some point partway through the book, I realized that trying to make the writing a normal job, beginning at 9 and ending at 7 just wasn't working. I had to give in to the obsession a bit, and spent endless weeks (months?) in stomach-curdling hell, waking up in the middle of the night thinking that the cats lying on top of me in bed were actually Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. I'm sorry to report that this was the case, because I would prefer a model of book writing that was less insane. But at least for this one, it required an extended trip to crazy town.
As for writing history as it was being made: I'm a little bit used to that from regular journalism, in which you have to accept that you can't be telling every part of every story, responding to every other reporter and analyst out there. You have to pick your story, research it responsibly, and then tell it. But the book did feel like a bigger responsibility, and I was anxious to include and not to repeat other people's takes without credit, and there was just so much media out there. So it was daunting. Add to that the fear that came from other books on the same topics -- notably Game Change and Notes from the Cracked Ceiling -- coming out while I was still writing. There was such relief in realizing that there was little overlap between what I was working on and what was in these other books, but it was stressful.
Deborah: Conflict propels your narrative—media conflict, feminist conflict, conflict within yourself. I’m compelled, both as a reader and as a writer, by the way you weave personal narrative with political storytelling. Who are your role model for this kind of writing? Whose writing has shaped you, or who are the writers in your genre that you most admire?
Rebecca: Oh this is a very tough question because most of the writers I admire write in a style that is utterly unlike my own. In a non-professional capacity, I read almost entirely fiction! That said, there are lots of contemporary journalists and essayists -- Ariel Levy, Sandra Tsing-Loh, Megan Daum, Margaret Talbot -- whose work I read compulsively and admire beyond measure.
But I guess the people who formed my idea of what it might be like to write in the first person while simultaneously reporting on compelling issues (and also the writers who made me believe it was possible to write about both high and low culture with both gravity and good humor) were Calvin Trillin and Nora Ephron, whose essays I have been reading since I was a kid (literally -- my dad read me Trillin's food writing when I was a very little girl).
Deborah: You write critically about the media fixation on the generation gap among women voters on the left. Overlooked in your otherwise careful (supercareful!) reconstruction of the media record from that time is an oped Courtney Martin (an Obama supporter) and I (a Hillary supporter) wrote together for The Washington Post. At the time, too, this piece got relatively little play. It’s true that the media loves a catfight but there were some of us out there consciously trying to undercut that overriding image of flying furr. How do you think feminists across generations can effectively heal the rifts caused by the 2008 election going forth?
Rebecca: Funny you should ask, because a couple of paragraphs about that excellent piece ("Come Together? Yes, We Can") were in the book until very late in the editing process. I can't honestly remember if it was me or my editor who finally trimmed them, but the reasoning behind it was that I had tried to make the point at the start of that chapter that the fixation on the generational-catfight was in some ways distorted, wishful thinking destruction-narrative on the part of the media. And then at the end I cite examples of the different generations of women talking to each other constructively. I felt like I had made the point that women were talking to each other above and beyond the catfight story-line, and wanted to focus more aggressively on what you point out about those voices (including your op-ed) being ignored at the time -- not just by the media but by many of the women who actually did want to keep fighting with each other. The story of learning from each other and cooperation and communication through the vivid disagreements over Clinton and Obama was being ignored, not just by the media but by lots of women (besides you and Courtney!) who were furious, and are still furious at each other.
Deborah: In a chapter titled “The Most Restricting Forces,” you write: “Though I thought I understood something about the racially frought history of the second wave, the election offered many moments of revelations about contemporary tensions.” What surprised you most, and why?
Rebecca: Well, when I first read “Women are Never Front-Runners,” the Steinem op-ed that gave that chapter its title, I confessed to my editor at the time, as well as to my mother, that I had not been aware of so much lingering resentment from a generation of older feminists toward black men. I had thought I partially understood the frustrations felt by black women toward a feminist movement they felt to be exclusive and unconcerned with their perspectives or priorities (though as I write in the book, when it came to that op-ed, I myself didn't consider the perspectives of the black women reading it for far too long after it was published). But what I had been really naive about was about this sense that black men get to go before women of any color. That sounds very stupid of me in retrospect, but it's true. Really, there was so much that became clearer to me during the 2008 election about the depth and multi-directionality of lingering resentments when it came to issues of social and political advancement, and questions of race, gender, class and age.
About this time last year, I was in the midst of writing those chapters on the long history of cooperation and competition between civil rights and feminist movements, about the stereotypes applied in every direction, about the resentments toward black men, older white women, etc. that were burning so bright in the midst of the primary. I was obsessing over history -- the abolition and suffrage movements, the mid-twentieth century antiwar and civil rights and feminist movements -- and over conversations happening outside the campaign proper -- between Gloria Steinem and Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Robin Morgan. I was so turned inside out, trying to account for and understand the variety of perspectives. Then I literally had a dream about the remarkable race speech Barack Obama gave in Philadelphia in spring of 2008. I dreamt the whole speech, which I had not actually gone back and read since he'd given it a year and a half earlier. I woke up babbling to my husband about how the only people Obama cited when talking about racism were Geraldine Ferraro and his own (white) grandmother -- perfect emblems of the populations of older white women who were being vilified in some quarters -- and my husband suggested, quite rationally, that I should perhaps take a look at the actual speech, as opposed to relying on my unconscious reconstruction of it. But sure enough, my dream had been correct. And I kind of couldn't believe it. I was like "Even Barack Obama was participating in the conversation about who got where first and whose prejudices we should be examining!"
Deborah: At root, yours is a book about women and power. You note that we began the 2008 election with one kind of powerful woman (Clinton) and ended up with another—her polar opposite in many ways (Palin). Given what’s transpired in popular and political culture since you finished the book, how sanguine are you these days about the kind of feminine power America seems ready to accept?
Rebecca: I'm actually way more sanguine than most of my peers and friends are. I still disagree with every word that comes out of Sarah Palin's mouth. I am completely ideologically opposed to her and the candidates she's thrown her support behind; I would have voted against every single one of her Mama Grizzlies with fierce determination in November. And yet. I am happy to see the models of how women might comport themselves, how they might behave, compete and represent themselves, expand to the degree that I feel they have in the past two (or really, four) years. Sure, Palin started out as Clinton's polar opposite when it comes to our ideas about presentable, digestible femininity -- she was young and pretty and seemingly amenable in ways that big bad threateningly capable Hillary Clinton was not. But the truth is, young and pretty is in fact a crucial expansion of possibility for women in politics (I'm not saying it can't be taken to terrible ends, leaving us with a beauty contest for president -- but then again, a version of that has been true for men at least since Kennedy beat Nixon on television). But more than that, I'm not sure that Palin's such a Hillary opposite anymore. Ideologically, of course -- in every conceivable way. But one of the things that made me love Hillary as she campaigned was the way she eventually began to buck conventional wisdom and failed to comply with the authority in her own party (by refusing to drop out of the primaries) and seemed to gain confidence and support by really dynamiting her own path. One thing I have to say about Palin, and it's something that makes me appreciate what she's doing, even though again I would oppose her at every practical turn, is that she too has gone off the rails -- not just in terms of being a little nuts, which she is (and which is a trait not so rare in partisan politics) -- but in terms of actually completely running her own show, determining her own direction, driving the (often male) authority in her party about the bend. She is managing to piss everyone off, to really live up to her billing as a maverick, and I cannot help but feel that this opens up more doors for women in politics. Not to imitate Palin, but to go their own way, to get out of old musty ideas for how they should behave and respond and campaign and compete and concede and comply. We saw a bit of it in 2010, when candidates like Meg Whitman and Jane Norton and Krystal Ball openly called out sexism and talked about it and responded to it -- this was history making! Women were never supposed to do that, for fear it would make them look like victims! But there are real changes happening, attitudes being altered by the number of women -- some of them awful, yes, just like there are some awful men out there -- competing publicly. I have long believed that if what we're talking about is true gender equity in politics, we need women not only to vote for but to vote against, and we're getting them. It's dispiriting to some, I understand, but it will be what politics looks like if we ever really had gender parity -- just as many stupid, corrupt, nutty women as there are stupid, corrupt, nutty men in office.
My real complaint has been the extreme focus of the media only on the insane and inane women (Angle and O'Donnell were the obvious examples), as opposed to a) the insane and inane men (John Raese, who claimed he couldn't remember Sonia Sotomayor's name? The guy in Colorado who said that a bike sharing program was a threat to civil liberties?) and b) the competent, high-achieving and nimble women (even those I wouldn't vote for if you paid me, but who weren't stupid and weren't crazy) who were competing in the midterms. But overall, I am pleased so many different kinds of women out there, am happy to see some of the best having won, and some of the worst having lost. I'm depressed about politics, but actually not about women in politics.
Rebecca Traister is the author of Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for Amerc... (Free Press), and a contributor to Salon.com, where she has written about women in politics, media and entertainment since 2003. She has also written for the New York Observer, Elle, The Nation, The New York Times, the Washington Post and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn. Visit her website at www.rebeccatraister.com.
Deborah Siegel, a co-creator of She Writes, is currently beginning a project about the gendering of childhood in the early years of life. Visit her Tumblr blog The Pink and Blue Diaries and read more about her work at www.deborahsiegel.net.
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