Big Girls Don't Cry

The first time I entered a voting booth I was nine years old. It was 1984, and my parents had brought me with them so that I could pull the lever for the first woman ever to run on a major party ticket for vice president of the United States…

Almost twenty-four years later, on Super Tuesday in February 2008, I walked into a cavernous school gymnasium in Brooklyn to cast my primary vote on Super Tuesday, for the first time in my voting life unsure of which lever to turn. It was the moment that could bring me closest to fulfilling my father's wish: I could put the X next to the name of a woman and bring her closer to the top spot on the Democratic ticket. But I had spent months saying I would never vote for her, that she was not my kind of candidate, not my kind of woman. Even though I was beginning to change my mind, my distaste for her felt entrenched, and perhaps self-defining.

I spent fifteen minutes behind the curtain, shoving levers back and forth. I considered the other name on the ballot, a man who was also not exactly my kind of candidate, but whose potential place at the top of the Democratic ticket would put him close to becoming the first African American president, a possibility just as thrilling as that of electing a woman. I wished that I didn't have to choose between them. I wished that I could vote for them both. I wished that I could vote for someone else altogether. I mostly wished that it was a different woman's name in front of me, one that didn't fill me with ambivalence and vague foreboding.

I would never have imagined, as I stalled and fidgeted in that booth while a line of voters formed behind me, that four months later I would be ducking out of a cordoned-off press section in the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., pushing my way through throngs of people in search of a place where I could cry in private. Behind a soaring column I gulped out sobs of exhaustion and disappointment at the end of the campaign of the woman for whom I had not been sure I could vote, even seconds before pulling the rubber-covered bar to seal my choice.
Thus begins Rebecca Traister's book Big Girls Don't Cry, her account of the 2008 election and thesis arguing that, ultimately, it was good for feminism, because if you loved or hated Hillary Clinton, or loved or hated Sarah Palin, or loved or hated Michelle Obama, and expressed that love or hatred in any way, or if you were "a young progressive guy who wished the Hillary supporters would shut up, a Hillary supporter who wished the PUMAs would go away or a PUMA who wished that everyone would just choke on it already, then you were talking and thinking about and making women's history in America."

What makes the book great is that it not merely a keen portrait of an election season largely defined by female trailblazers and the misogyny flung at them (although it is that), but it's also a memoir, tracing Traister's own journey through a campaign that made her reexamine her own feminism.

It's this part of the book that is particularly meaningful to me.

It's no secret that I was not a fan of Hillary Clinton back in the primordial ooze of the '08 election (circa 2006) when Clinton was presumed to be the inevitable (and unstoppable) nominee, and Barack Obama was just some senator from Illinois who gave good speech. I wrote posts explaining why I didn't want her to be the nominee, and why I didn't think she should be. They are embarrassing, regrettable stuff—reeking of the evidence that I had internalized media narratives about Hillary Clinton. I was uncharacteristically uncritical of information delivered to me about Clinton from the same media whose pernicious narratives I spent my days deconstructing and dismantling.

I was wrong about Hillary Clinton.

And that was not the only grim realization I had during the 2008 election.

Traister interviewed me in the course of writing her book, as Amanda Marcotte's and my lamentable stint with the Edwards campaign was "one of the first campaign scandals of the election cycle [and it] involved young feminists." I spoke with her at length about my experience with the Edwards campaign, about Shakesville's Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Obama Sexism Watches, about my own evolving regard for Clinton, and about how my being so wrong about Clinton revealed to me the cracks in my own feminism to which I needed to tend. From page 45 of Big Girls Don't Cry:
Two years after the campaign McEwan recalled how much she had loved Elizabeth (Edwards), before and even after she had called to dismiss her from her job. "I liked Elizabeth even more than John," she said, mentioning the most obvious comparison: "The two of them together—[John] would talk about the economy, and [Elizabeth] would talk about health care—in a weird way, it was Bill and Hillary all over again, wasn't it? It was two for one. God, the irony." She paused, and I assumed that she was referring to what would become John Edwards's own turgid sex scandal. But she was talking about something else: "I suspected that Elizabeth was the brains of the operation, and I'd thought the same thing about Hillary. But when I had the chance to support the brains of the operation, I chose the partnership. I literally went for the team that still had the dude on it."
I share that particular excerpt not just to underline why Traister's own journey traced in Big Girls Don't Cry is meaningful to me, but also because Traister captures that moment in our conversation so perfectly—and I cannot more convincingly convey her talent and integrity as a writer than by sharing her accurate rendering with an audience who knows me.

I've not finished the book yet, but it is captivating, infuriating, exhilarating, and brilliant. I cannot say it more plainly: Buy this book.

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