Michelle, I think you're dead on that "because of the nebulous, non-aggressive nature of modern American sexism, many women are loath to talk about it lest they be labeled whinging purveyors of outdated victim politics." Steinem was waxing outrageous when she said gender was the most restrictive force in American life, but wasn't she right that Obama is "seen as unifying by his race while [Hillary] is seen as divisive by her sex"? And that more people you know are thrilled at the thought of pulling the lever for the first black president than for the first woman president?
I don't think Steinem does anybody any favors by overtly pitting the civil rights struggle against women's equality, as if we have to decide which trumps which. What should a black woman have thought reading that op-ed? But all the same, the comparison can be illuminating, because the bitter quality to racism means it's something people think more actively about triumphing over -- a problem nobody's angry about never gets solved -- while a lot of mild, "sweet" sexism languishes intact. I don't think I know anybody, personally, I'd really say is a racist; it's just not possible in polite company. But I know plenty of sexists, men and women, unconscious ones and even self-proclaimed, proud ones!
I often find discussions of sexism in the journalism industry tiresome, and I've certainly been "confident that I personally couldn't possibly ever harbor any such biases," as you put it, Michelle. But I felt more sympathetic to Steinem's op-ed in light of this appalling online test (I know, I know, I sound like a LiveJournal-addled teenager, but bear with me) measuring my feelings towards women in the workplace I took recently. It's called the Implicit Associations Test, and I wandered across it while reading Jason's great piece on discrimination against obese people. It measures your subconscious biases on various things like weight, race, etc.
Now, I work in an office. I play with the big boys. So I should have no problem thinking of women as professionals, right? I took the obesity, race, sexuality, and gender tests, and found that I had slight bias against obese people, no bias between blacks or whites, and slight bias against heterosexual people (yes), but the gender result was the most extreme. It was so physically hard for me to match "woman" with words like "manager," "career," and "salary" that my hand actually shook.
-- Eve Fairbanks