The best way I’ve found to explain it is through a contrast with the media’s reaction to Barack Obama’s candidacy. You have pundits like Andrew Sullivan waxing rhapsodic about how fantabulous it would be for America’s image, how great and glorious a morning it will be, when we have an African American taking the oath. You would never hear someone say that about a woman. Even if they’re talking about the historic nature of it, they don’t talk about it in such grand and soul-cleansing terms. And I think part of it is that in the history of this country, slavery, Jim Crow, and racism have been much uglier, more overt, nasty phenomena than sexism.
Sexism is here, sexism is present, but it’s been more paternalistic, and presented in soft, warm and fuzzy terms: “We want to protect the women! It’s not that we don’t like them.” Even when talking about being in battle, it’s, “We don’t want women to get hurt.” Women weren’t persecuted for burning their bras. Feminism is a different cause than civil rights. Slavery is kind of a moral scar for America, so we can be poetic about how great it’s going to be when we, at last, elect an African American.
There are two important points here, the first being that the media seems much more excited by the prospect of a black president than a female president. The second is that the world would be more excited by a black president than a female president. To take the second point, I think Michelle is right to note that the particular history of America is one of the reasons that people abroad would see a black president as a more historic step. Our place in the eyes of the world, after all, is in part defined by our historical role in the slave trade, and by what many see as a legacy of racism that extends to this day. Were a dark-skinned man with Algerian parents to be elected as the president of France, I think it would be a very, very big deal here and abroad (or at least as big a deal as French elections can be).
The gender issue is more complicated because every country and every society has “gender issues.” Some nations have already chosen female leaders, and some nations are beset by vastly more misogyny and sexism than the United States. So the election of a female American president, viewed through the various prisms of people abroad, will mean a variety of different things (yes, many countries have ugly racial histories, too, but there is still a distinction to be made, I think).
More broadly, I think people tend to overstate their excitement about electing the first female or black president. Here’s Fortini, from earlier in the conversation:
I was surprised to read in a recent New York Times article that some of them have formed a group, “Clinton Supporters Count Too,” and that they plan to campaign against Barack Obama in November, which seemed very surprising to me and certainly counterproductive in terms of women’s rights. If you compare McCain and Obama on the issue of reproductive rights, you have to consider that McCain will very likely appoint two pro-life Supreme Court justices. He also hasn’t supported the Fair Pay Act because he believes it would create frivolous lawsuits against big business. In his view, pay inequities should be dealt with through education and training. But that doesn’t address the fact that in the workplace gender-based pay discrimination remains a problem, nor does it leave women legal recourse if they experience such discrimination on the job.
I agree wholeheartedly with her point, but it begs the obvious questions: Would a female candidate who had the McCain position on these issues be attracting much support or excitement? Similarly, would African-Americans or “guilty” white liberals be supporting Alan Keyes? I am not asking these questions to be glib, or to fault people excited by the prospect of someone other than a white man assuming the office of the presidency (I am among the excited throngs). But they do seem to suggest that we are much more interested in policy outcomes than other considerations. To put it another way, we are more utilitarian than we like to believe. My favorite example of this is a conversation I always have a with a liberal relative, who frequently mentions his solemn wish for higher voter turnout. Whenever I ask him if he’d be in favor of 100% participation if it meant Republican supremacy at the polls, he answers that of course he would not be.