Maggie Gallagher

Forget about Gov. Sarah Palin.

Seventeen-year-old Bristol Palin is better qualified than Barack Obama to be president of the United States in at least one respect: Figuring out when a baby gets human rights is apparently not above her pay grade.

For better or for worse, John McCain's gutsy appointment of Sarah Palin, a 44-year-old mother of five signals a new era for women in America and perhaps the world.

Being a powerful woman poses special difficulties: Americans may pretend to enjoy (or aspire to) racial blindness, but not gender blindness. Women leaders must forge personal strategies for combining "feminine" with "powerful" even while living in a society like ours that pays lip service to the idea that gender doesn't matter anymore.

Newsflash: Of course it does. Sex is one of the more consistently powerful forces in the human psyche, and both men and women notice whether someone is female or male.

Generally, powerful female politicians fall into one of two archetypes: They are either Margaret Thatchers or Indira Gandhis.

Indira Ghandis come to power through their female family role, not in spite of it. They rise as daughters or wives in powerful political families to become mother figures -- playing off the "lady bountiful" ideal in traditional societies.

Margaret Thatchers are post-sexual figures. They're tough old biddies whose days as wives and mothers seem well behind them. Schoolmarms, crones -- they are classic female authority figures who can be trusted to exercise power "like men" because their disturbing and complicating female sexual persona has largely dissipated.

Hillary Clinton, as a pathbreaking female presidential candidate, struggled to combine both archetypes, and I think largely successfully. Hillary forged a way for a woman to appear tough and powerful enough to be president without altogether losing her female "brand."

But Gov. Sarah Palin is something completely new. She is still young, still beautiful, still in the middle of all the messy complications that the sexual role of being a woman brings -- a Down syndrome baby, a teenage daughter's pregnancy. The downsides are obvious; the potential for delegitmating Sarah Palin's candidacy remains intense.

But the potential upside for American women who are tired of pretending to be men, while remaining anxious to contribute all we can, is also intense.

Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.