Why the Fuss Over Condi Rice?

It was an odd moment: Flipping between the BBC, Italy’s RAI UNO, German satellite TV, and the Polish evening news last night, I saw the same steely jaw featured on every one, with the same words being translated, presumably (I don’t do Italian or German) into different languages: “I grew up in a segregated neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama …” As usual, the world’s newspapers—or at least the ones I read, including the lefty Le Monde and the conservative Daily Telegraphalso dutifully reported the appointment of Condoleezza Rice in precisely the same terms as the American press: the first black woman, the symbol of a new Republican “inclusiveness,” etc., etc. It was noted, as it was meant to be noted, that she was standing next to a Hispanic man and another woman. It was noted, as it was meant to be noted, that her appointment, along with that of Colin Powell, was among President-elect Bush’s first: “ce n’est sans doute pas par hasard,” not by chance had this happened, wrote Le Monde, since Bush would, of course, want to reach out to the minority communities who hadn’t voted for him.

For a moment a sensation of national pride flickered: I’ve been an expat for a long time, but it still suddenly seemed quite an achievement, a real triumph over racism, for an American president to appoint a black man and a black woman to run American foreign policy. Then the sensation flickered out. Why is it, in fact, that the appointment of women and minorities to high office is such a big deal in the United States? It isn’t necessarily such a big deal everywhere else.

Admittedly, these issues aren’t the same everywhere. Several years ago, just about the time apartheid was winding down, a friend attended a conference during which an earnest American asked a South African speaker how many “minorities” there were in the South African government. He meant blacks. Um … the speaker replied, “Whites are the minority in South Africa.”

But the case of women, whose not-exactly-minority status is the same the world over, is comparable. In America, every appointment of a woman to high office—Madeleine Albright, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—is still accompanied by a great fanfare of self-congratulation and language about how anybody can achieve anything in the United States. Yet in the past decade alone, a good two-dozen women have served as prime minsters or elected presidents around the world—not counting monarchs—many of them in countries that most Americans would assume to be less “progressive,” or at least more male chauvinist, than the United States: They include (click here for a full list) Norway’s Gro Harlem Brundtland, Turkey’s Tansu Ciller, Poland’s Hanna Suchocka, as well as leaders of Bangladesh, France, Lithuania, Latvia, Canada, Burundi, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Guyana, Nicaragua, Switzerland, and New Zealand, among others.

In that same time, supposedly old-fashioned, heavily Catholic Ireland has had not one but two female presidents. Germany’s conservative Christian Democrats now have a female leader. Britain, the one nation that Hollywood always feels comfortable vilifying on the grounds of its stuffiness and its imperialist past, had a woman prime minister who so dominated national life throughout the 1980s that her own political party has never recovered from the shock of her exit. For that matter, in the past two decades Jews have held just about every other high Cabinet office in Britain, running the foreign ministry, defense ministry, home office (police and immigration), and treasury. At one point, one British politician famously sniffed that there were “more old Estonians than old Etonians” in Mrs. Thatcher’s Cabinet, but other than that, their presence was never much noticed, or their religion held to signify anything in particular.

I leave you, finally, with the case of Poland. Also heavily Catholic—I believe the figure hovers around 99 percent—and also very traditional, Poland is rarely thought of as a country notable for its feminist traditions. Yet at one point this year, Poland, which has already had a female prime minister, had a woman as its chief central banker (the equivalent of the Federal Reserve chairman); a Protestant for a prime minister (until his appointment, I didn’t even know there were Polish Protestants); and a Jewish foreign minister. The Jewish foreign minister, Bronislaw Geremek, has since resigned, in the wake of the collapse of the ruling coalition, but this week was elected chairman of his political party, a position that may give him another shot at high office. In the course of a rather tough leadership battle, the issue of his religion did not arise.

Contrast that to Joe Lieberman’s appointment as Gore’s running mate, widely hailed by Americans as indicative of American tolerance, talked about endlessly as some kind of breakthrough: If we still have to make such a fuss over these things, doesn’t that show how far we have to go?