Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Lisa Harris (lrph) Mon 10 Jan 11 13:23
I am so pleased to welcome Rebecca Traister to Inkwell.vue! Rebecca Traister is the author of Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American women. She has written about women in politics, media and entertainment for Salon since 2003. She has also written for the New York Observer, Elle, The Nation, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn. Leading our discussion is The WELL's own Fawn Fitter. Freelance writer Fawn Fitter is a feminist, a bit of a political junkie, and a founding host of the WELL's Byline conference. Thank you both for joining us for the next couple of weeks.
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Mon 10 Jan 11 15:11
I've been admiring Rebecca Traister's writing about women and politics since her first piece on the topic for Salon. Her most recent piece ran on Saturday -- an article about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and how, ever since Traister's book came out, Giffords's name has come up repeatedly as one strong example of the future of women in American politics. I'll circle back to the topic of the book -- the 2008 presidential election and its ramifications for American women, both in and out of politics -- in a bit. But let's start out by dragging the conversation 3 years forward. Rebecca, do you think this past weekend's tragedy is gender-specific,, and what kind of effect (if any) do you think it's going to have on the future of female politicians in the US?
Rebecca Traister (rtraister) Tue 11 Jan 11 13:11
Hi Fawn, and thanks Lisa for such a great introduction. What a sad way to kick off two weeks of conversation, but of course, Fawn, it's absolutely the story that we've all been thinking about for days now. Your question is a great one. As to the issue of whether the shooting was gender-specific: I think it's impossible to know at this point what motivated it. Obviously there's been a lot of conversation about political rhetoric, mental illness, the targeting of Giffords, previous death threats, but the truth is that we still know very very little about why this happened. What we know about the context of the situation is gender specific: Giffords is the first American female politician who has been targeted in an assassination attempt. In a very broad sense, the gendered angle follows: we now have more female politicians. Giffords is a member of a generation of young, ambitious, tenacious women who have entered congress, governor's mansions, state legislatures. She was the youngest woman elected to Congress. So in some very broadly-drawn sense, there is certainly a gender story here; when we have more women political leaders, more women will face the dangers of political leadership in a country filled with guns and people eager to use them. I am not sure whether or not the event will have any immediate, discernible impact on the future of female politicians. This is a story with so many angles -- guns, mental illness, the power of the media, language, security, the state of affairs in Arizona, the tragedy of all those injured and dead in the attack, the questions about Giffords' potential recovery -- that it's just difficult to imagine what we'll take away just yet. Certainly, Giffords -- who as I wrote in Salon has been one of the most energetic, effective and competitive women in politics in recent years -- was not, until this horror, a politician about whom many people outside of Arizona knew a lot. In a terrible, tragic way, the horror of the attack makes visible the figure of the successful, female politician, a politician who was doing her job in the most direct way possible -- meeting with constituents in the district she represents. This might be very wrong, but if anything, I think that learning more about Giffords, her career, her politics, her approach to campaigning and winning and serving, might further inspire women to follow in her political footsteps, and the tragedy of the shooting would not deter them. More broadly speaking, though, I do wonder if a violent political climate, the threat and language of hate and opposition (that comes from both sides of the aisle) might deter lots of people, men and women, from seeking office in coming years. It's all just so scary.
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Wed 12 Jan 11 00:06
Speaking of the language of hate and opposition, one of the early chapters in your book talks about the misogyny directed at Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign. She was painted as being too much a woman for the Oval Office, and yet -- by virtue of her ambition -- also somehow not womanly enough. And then along came Sarah Palin, who (for the most part) wasn't criticized for her femininity OR her ambition. From my point of view, at least, the right wing was lauding Palin for the very traits for which it was demonizing Clinton. What did you make of it?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Wed 12 Jan 11 12:36
Along those lines, I'm wondering if you think women in politics have found their own 'voice' yet? I always thought Hillary Clinton and now Sarah Palin came off trying to sound like tough guys, instead of just being themselves and letting their own voice come through. Hillary apologized and said she "heard the message", and I expect Sarah to pick up a gun and go off shooting with Dick Cheney at almost every moment. I never get a sense of who they really are. That wasn't the case with Gabrielle Giffords, she comes across as quite genuine.
Rebecca Traister (rtraister) Wed 12 Jan 11 15:14
Well, the reactions were a little more complicated than that, in that both women had been, historically, praised and criticized for reasons having to do with gender. Palin was criticized, or questioned, about her abilities to lead and mother simultaneously -- during her time as governor and as a vice-presidential candidate. It's also important to note that a lot of the criticism (as opposed to celebration) of Palin's brand of femininity, and her pit-bull-in-lipstick brand of aggression, came from the left. Sometimes it came from feminists! Sometimes it came from me! So there is a degree to which ideological opponents looking to discredit a candidate will pick up the nearest stone possible to hurl. Unfortunately, when it comes to female candidates, the stones are often related to gender and its expression. But it's also true that the different kinds of receptions that the women earned had to do with their different self-presentations, which in turn, I believe, had a lot to do with generational difference. Hillary was from a generation in which in order to succeed as the often the only woman in the room, the key was to hide your femininity as effectively as possible, to try to pass as male (and therefore, as competent). We saw this in her direct campaign strategy, led by Mark Penn, who openly urged her to try to convince the American public that she was their "king." Sarah Palin comes from a generation that, thanks in large part to the feminist victories of Clinton's peers, felt far more comfortable with power, and in her case, combining power with some very traditional expressions of femininity. For the record, while I had lots of trouble with Palin's winking brand of womanliness, and even more trouble with those in her own party who celebrated her for that kind of femininity (ad exec Donny Deutsch called her a "feminist ideal" because she wore skirts, and said he wanted her watching his kids), I think we get into troubling territory when we demonize it, because history and politics show us that traditionally beautiful, feminine women -- especially young ones -- have their own set of troubles being taken seriously. Part of what pushing for true gender equality will mean is seeing a spectrum of possible self-presentation for women: we should be able to see, and seriously consider, candidates who are old and young and pretty and plain and right and left and smart and stupid.
Rebecca Traister (rtraister) Wed 12 Jan 11 15:26
Hi Ted, I just saw your question and it's a great one. The question of finding a voice is one that Hillary herself raised. She told a reporter in New Hampshire that she thought that women had still not been able to find the full range of voices in which they might express themselves. And finding her "voice" was something that I think she DID manage to do by the end of her campaign. That said, I think Hillary's voice is a naturally tough one. I don't think that was inauthentic. I just think it wasn't ONLY tough. And for years she'd been trained that she could ONLY be tough if she wanted to be taken seriously. Once, when she admitted regret about the health care debacle of 1993, she was roundly castigated for showing weakness. So there had been a lifetime of experiences that had shown her that to show vulnerability of any sort would hurt her. But I do think she found a balance by the end of her time on the road -- simultaneously tough, direct and human -- and I think that balance made her come across as far more genuine than she had sounded in the past. As for Palin. I'm also not sure the shooting thing is inauthentic. I mean, the ACTUAL shooting thing, maybe, as criticism of her caribou-hunting prowess has recently demonstrated. But the fiercely competitive Palin? I believe that's who she really is, and that it's been who she really is since she was dubbed Sarah Barracuda playing high school basketball. So I don't fault her for a competitive, aggressive voice, even though, as her ideological opposite on nearly every issue she addresses, it also drives me nuts. But your larger point, about the authenticity of Gabrielle Giffords voice -- yes! And that's not all -- what about Amy Klobuchar, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Jennifer Granholm, Kirsten Gillibrand, and to be fair to the right, Susana Martinez and Nikki Haley? Again, these are members of another generation of women, a generation whose easier (though not easy!) access to powerful positions has afforded them the possibility of feeling a lot more comfortable and confident being themselves, whatever or whoever those selves might be. That said, I think we should also be wary of prizing authenticity in female candidates too much. Not because it wouldn't be great if they were authentic and spoke in their true voices, but because we don't want to be holding them to a different or higher standard than their male compatriots. Politics for some time has been a study in performance art. Male candidates perform their own images -- as tough guys and bowlers and hunters and happy family men and corn-dog enthusiasts -- and there's no reason to think that female candidates will or should behave differently as they advertise themselves to an image-conscious electorate.
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Wed 12 Jan 11 16:28
You're also bringing up another thing that happened a lot with Palin -- the whole attempt to redefine "feminism" to include any woman who has achieved politically or economically, even if she then fails to support, or even actively opposes, policies that would allow other women to do the same. You referred to it succinctly as "[a] vision in which personal empowerment had no correlation to progressive policy." In making it easier for women to embrace a female candidate, did the 2008 election also make it easier for women to embrace female candidates who aren't necessarily pro-woman, in a sort of "What's the matter with Kansas" way? And what do you think that portends?
Rebecca Traister (rtraister) Thu 13 Jan 11 15:42
The issue of redefining feminism is about a couple of things. The first is that feminism's definitions and boundaries have always been very fluid, up for debate. Since the dawn of time, the evolution of the fight for women's rights has involved an enormous amount of contention -- about abortion, pornography, sexuality, race. There's never been one club with guidelines. My thinking on this has shifted even since the book, in which I write about Palin's "faux" feminism. Of course I still agree that she and the mama grizzly candidates she supported in the last election actually worked in opposition to the further empowerment of women; of course I would still vote against all of them; of course I would never even remotely suggest that anyone should consider voting for them simply because they were female. But I also became slightly dismayed by the talk of how they weren't real feminists, not because I felt it was unfair to them, exactly, but because I thought it distorted something about feminism. There's no one who gets to decide who is a feminist or not -- no membership office, no renewal applications. Feminism will belong to those who fight hardest to define and embody it. And publicly throwing certain women out of the club only reinforces an antifeminist accusations that feminism is an exclusive club. There is so much more to say on this - the broader question of whether more women is good for women -- but I got caught between a story deadline and a reading tonight. More later tonight or tomorrow morning!
person of crevice (obizuth) Thu 13 Jan 11 19:54
just got here and got caught up, can't wait to hear more. rebecca, i LOVED teh book.
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Fri 14 Jan 11 11:45
I am in the middle of the book and loving it, as well.
Rebecca Traister (rtraister) Fri 14 Jan 11 13:14
Thank you! I'm back now, to continue where I semi-left off. Fawn, about the issue of embracing female candidates who aren't necessarily pro-woman. I don't think we have to (or should!) embrace them, vote for them or support them. But I do think that we need to recognize that they in themselves represent part of a move toward gender equity, in that they take the place of MALE candidates whom we oppose and who aren't necessarily pro-woman. In other words, were we to imagine true gender equity, it would include as many women to vote strenuously against as women to vote FOR. And in fact, that comes with a larger idea. Because if we want to move toward a more gender equitable future, but expect that it will be filled only with brilliant and admirable women with whom we agree, we actually set a bar way too high, and that hurts women. It hurt Hillary, for example. Lots of feminists did not support her because she wasn't the kind of woman or candidate they'd dreamed of as the first woman, because in the absence of female candidates, we'd created a fantasy of how smart and able and collaborative and wise the first woman would be. And then it turned out she was a compromising, maneuvering, slick politician -- like a million male politicians before her -- and so she was a disappointment. We have to begin to absorb the fact that if we're talking about a future in which there is really an even playing field, that field would be populated by women were were smart and stupid, and right and left, and young and old, and admirable and disappointing, and corrupt and moral, who we love and who we hate -- just like all the male politicians who have been so varied in their qualities for hundreds of years!
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Fri 14 Jan 11 13:20
I see your point, and yet I am wrestling with the idea that feminism means whatever the people who shout the loudest say it means, because that suggests that anyone can call anything feminism and have it be true! Do you think there were any moments (what the old Ms. magazine would have called "click" moments) in the 2008 election for people who hadn't really given a lot of thought to gender and politics?
A mundane ideal? (robertflink) Fri 14 Jan 11 13:34
I like the spirit of post #11 in that it voices the need to accept leaders (and other humans?) as part of the humble clay from which they arise. How democratic and egalitarian! Is it progress when we learn to accept the species as it is rather than how we want it to be? I suggest yes! We may come closer to the "ideal" when we eschew idealism.
Sam Delson (samiam) Fri 14 Jan 11 15:11
I'm reading the book and enjoying it. Liesl Schillinger's review in the New York Times contrasts "Big Girls Don't Cry" with Anne Kornblut's "Notes From the Cracked Ceiling." Kornblut wrote that 2008 was "a severe letdown ... (that) set back the cause of equality in the political sphere by decades." Why do you think your analysis is significantly more optimistic than Kornblut's?
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Fri 14 Jan 11 23:14
(For anyone reading this who doesn't have a WELL account, please email your questions for Rebecca to firstname.lastname@example.org. They'll be posted so she can respond to them.)
Rebecca Traister (rtraister) Sat 15 Jan 11 14:11
"anyone can call anything feminism and have it be true!" -- But alas, that's true! The idea that there's ever been a rule book or a set of prescribed guidelines for what feminism means might comfort us in moments like this -- when the meaning of the word is contested so hotly from the left -- but the fact is, since its inception, the "women's movement" has been split left right and center over issues of race, class, faith, pacifism, sexuality, leadership, pornography, everything you can imagine. And of course it must by its very nature be a constantly evolving, only very loosely defined movement, because representing "women" means representing such a varied set of perspectives, priorities, experiences etc.. It's a movement that has at many points in its history been built on discord and disagreement. I personally think this history, while creating an incredibly combustible movement, also gives feminism its strength, because it offers the possibility of steady evolution. All that said . . . I think that part of identifying as a feminist, and the key to defending it from what you view as a perversion of it or misinterpretation of its goals is being loud and persuasive and as clear as possible about what you believe it to stand for. And so for the record, I believe that working against reproductive freedom is an antifeminist act, because it privileges fetal life over female life, because in limiting women's abilities to control their bodies, their health, their reproduction, their sex lives and their families, what you're keeping them from participating fully and equally in the democracy, on personal, economic, professional and political levels. I believe that working against reform that would make health care more available to more people is fundamentally anti-woman. I believe that doing damage to social security is anti-feminist, because women rely on social security disproportionately more than men. I believe that feminists who believe in equalizing opportunities for women should support progressive labor and leave policies that would better allow women to balance the physical demands of motherhood with maintaining a work life and economic independence; I believe that it is incumbent on feminists to support equal pay and anti-discrimination legislation when it comes to gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and age. And anyone else out there who wants to call herself or himself a feminist is welcome to do so, but I would eagerly have tough conversations and fight for my views on each and every one of these subjects (and so many more!) with them. And that's my best guess at how best to keep a women's movement vital and strong. Whew. Now I feel tired.
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Sat 15 Jan 11 19:42
Standing ovation! When you were writing the book, the 2010 elections hadn't happened yet. If you could update the book to take that election cycle into account, what would change?
Rebecca Traister (rtraister) Sun 16 Jan 11 15:17
I wanted to address the earlier question about the different perspectives of my book and Anne Kornblut's book Notes from a Cracked Ceiling. I certainly can't speak for her, but I would venture a guess that our perspectives were different for no more fundamental a reason than that we had different perspectives! I know, not very gratifying a response. Also, Kornblut is a political beat reporter, and so she may have a grimmer idea of the gender dynamics specific to Washington, whereas my beat, and my book, covers feminism more broadly, so some of my optimism is drawn from pop culture, from the blogosphere, from the media. But also . . . if you read my book, you'll see that I'm not all sunshine and light. A lot of my book is devoted to chronicling the kind of sexism and double standards that leave Kornblut so depressed, so I get where she's coming from. It's just that -- again, perhaps because I have spent years writing about gender dynamics more broadly -- a lot of the sexism I was chronicling wasn't a surprise to me, I didn't see at as a step backward. Rather I saw it as the exposure of attitudes that we like to pretend we've gotten over but which of course we haven't. I feel like the exposure of them was really good for us when it comes to moving forward. Nothing is every going to get better if we just keep on ignoring the gender, race, class and sexual imbalances that still exist. I think that seeing it all hang out, as happened in 2008, spurs a lot of people into talking and thinking about moving forward, which in the big picture is good for progress. Does that make sense?
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Sun 16 Jan 11 23:09
I'm surprised that anyone was surprised by sexism
(fom) Sun 16 Jan 11 23:49
Joining in the standing ovation for #16. Also for the book, which I loved -- I found it riveting. (I'm an old second-wave feminist who went to consciousness-raising meetings in the sixties, etc.) I'm wondering how you envision Palin's political future, and worrying that there might be other women like her out there who will get somewhere even if Palin doesn't. At the same time, I want there to be women emerging throughout the political spectrum. It's confusing.
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Mon 17 Jan 11 08:42
As I read the book I am remembering what it felt like in 2008. That progressive male sexism that was everywhere. In my little neck ofthe woods this translated to really disliking the pro-Hillary folks in our area (Asheville, NC). I worked very hard for Obama and, for the most part, found the men to be ok, not voicing huge hate for Hillary herself, but strong dislike for her supporters. I found myself agreeing at times and being uncomfortable with it at times. I also was reminded of how, as a Jew, I am always doubly upset when a Jewish person does bad things (Bernie Madoff for example). Like they should know and do better just because they are Jewish. Makes no logical sense, but there it is. I felt the same about Hillary Clinton. I wanted her to do and be better because she was a woman. I resented her reliance on Mark Penn and wanted her to make smarter choices. I supported Obama even as I could see that Hillary was probably more progressive, or had been more progressive. But she wasn't perfect and I wanted her to be perfect. Like you, Rebecca, I was originally an Edwards supporter because of the more progressive plans he was talking about.
Rebecca Traister (rtraister) Mon 17 Jan 11 09:30
Regarding this, from fom, "I'm wondering how you envision Palin's political future, and worrying that there might be other women like her out there who will get somewhere even if Palin doesn't. At the same time, I want there to be women emerging throughout the political spectrum. It's confusing." Agreed about it being confusing!!! Also, with regard to envisioning Palin's future, I'm not sure there's anyone out there clairvoyant enough to actually do this~ The one thing I can say I sort of ruggedly admire about Palin (and I use that word advisedly, but mean it in the following way: that every time a woman defies expectations, she expands possibilities for other women to defy them in other ways) is that she is utterly unpredictable. I thought she was toast after quitting her governor's job, thought she was toast after she defended Doctor Laura's use of the N-word, I think she's toast now. But every other time, I've been wrong. All the conventional wisdom and history in the world seems absolutely lost on her. This is terrifying in some senses, in that as a politician I wish Palin COULD be stopped, but really fascinating in other ways, when you consider that all the conventional wisdom in the world (or at least in the United States) has been built around male conventions, and that as soon as you get new people into the mix, the rules that we've come to believe are unbendable begin to shift. A more cheerful example is Barack Obama: a history of racism and resistance, the absolute surety that young people do not show up at the polls -- all historically sound predictors of the impossibility of his presidential win -- wound up being proven wrong by his election. As for the terror that other women like Palin will get somewhere if she doesn't: yes, it is terrifying. But I would argue not by its nature particularly more terrifying than the notion that other men like Palin (ideologically speaking) are getting places. We're not used to seeing our ideological enemies take female shape to such a powerful degree, and it's unsettling and in ways that are very complicated, far more terrifying to us than seeing them in male form (because that we're used to -- see all of history!) But again, part of my argument -- tough as it is to keep my mind wrapped around it when I see Palin talking about Giffords shooting -- is about not expecting that women are by their natures going to be superior to the men who have been driving us round the bend for generations. (Not, I hasten to add, that all men drive us around the bend! Just that we're so used to seeing politicians -- those we root for and those we consider it our responsibility to stand against -- who are men, that it doesn't discomfit us to hate or love a male politician in the way that it unsettles us to feel either for a woman) Also, to Fawn, about being surprised that anyone was surprised by sexism: I know! Me too. But think about the world we live in and the messages that get transmitted. Everywhere you look, you hear warnings about "the end of men," the fact that women get more college degrees than men, the fact that job loss during the recession has left more women employed than men. There is a pervasive message out there that gender issues have been more than adequately redressed, and people hear and absorb that message, a) because it's there b) because it's easier than admitting that gender parity is an extraordinarily complex prospect that is going to demand a lot more work from all of us. The vilification of powerful women is so great that it leaves lots of people believing that women rule us all -- never mind the 17 percent of congress, the backwards media messages, the obvious anger toward women, the hypersexualization or princess-ification of little girls, the fact that labor and leave policies, old attitudes about domestic work and workplace expectations, leave women terribly disadvantaged when it comes to trying to maintain economic independence while also hit the ever-higher bar set for motherhood. Obviously, I could go on and on!
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Mon 17 Jan 11 17:34
My problem with the Palins of the world isn't so much "expecting that women are by their natures going to be superior to the men who have been driving us round the bend for generations" as it is expecting that women, as women, will be supportive of other women. Which I suppose is naive, because it imagines that all women will define "supportive of other women" in the same way, and that's as impossible as all men defining "supportive of men" in the same way. I think lots of people have ALWAYS believed women rule us all, if not openly then as the power behind the throne.
Rebecca Traister (rtraister) Tue 18 Jan 11 09:18
Fawn, I think that the as you suggest above, even the assumption that women are going to treat other women well, and be supportive of them, is a high standard and a frankly impractical one. It's not a matter of it being naive, I don't think. I just think that when a group is shut out of power for long enough, we develop this idea of how much finer they would be if they just had the access to power. This is how we get the idea that women would naturally be more collaborative, supportive, peaceful leaders. And many of them would be! (There is research, actually, that suggests as much, but it's so impossible to know if that research is based on how things would be if we had TRULY equal opportunity, or on the assumptions we make about women and their innate behaviors based on the imparities and expectations of current reality!) But those are precisely the standards and assumptions that led people to be disappointed in Hillary, as Julie points out above: she voted for the war! She was a compromiser! We thought she'd be better! We wanted the first woman to be perfect! Now, I am with you in my personal desire for women to be supportive of other women. I think it's incredibly important, and in my personal life, it may be one of the harshest standards to which I hold the women I know. It's not a BAD expectation or hope. That said, I wonder how that plays out when we get to situations like we saw in the midterms, when we had several women running against women. I am anxious to see that dynamic become more and more common -- after all, we don't blink an eye when a man runs against a man; that's the norm! But if we expect women to support each other, how will we ever get used to them competing against each other -- not just across party lines, but in primaries? This happened in New York this year: a young woman named Reshma Saujani challenged longtime incumbent Carolyn Maloney from within the party and many people were horrified! And I understand why, but I also understand that competition and challenge will be part of a bigger picture of actual political equality down the road, and so we have to clear space for it in our imaginations and our heads. But again, that doesn't mean that it's not absolutely incumbent on all of us to point out the ways in which Palin does not support other women (though, interestingly and grimly, what she did by going out and stumping for women in her own party -- the "mama grizzlies" -- in the midterms was a hell of a lot more supportive of women than anything the Democratic party did for its women in the midterms!). But obviously, the fact that she pushes policy that would impinge on the opportunities of other women to exercise their freedoms and rights MUST be pointed out, repeatedly and loudly.
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Tue 18 Jan 11 10:47
"Pushing policies that would impinge on the opportunities of other women" is exactly what I meant by "not supporting other women," but you said it so much more precisely. The idea that women should vote for other women based on their gender alone, regardless of their actual policies, seems odd, but as you point out in your book, there was definitely a strain of that going on. To get a little meta for a minute, you'd been writing about the election as it happened. Did you always have the idea for a book in mind, or did that come to you after the fact?
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