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.
What we need here is a new sexual archetype for female achievement. And I think in Gov. Palin, we have an extraordinary one: pioneer woman.
A pioneer woman is a traditional figure. She stands beside her man -- not at war with him. She takes care of her home and her community. If her man is around, maybe she lets him kill the bear. But if he falls, or fails, she picks up the rifle and gets the job done, whatever the job is that needs to be done.
Here's the larger message of the Sarah Palin story:
Life is messy. First things first: Take care of your babies. You do what you have to do, and deep down you never give up on life. You refuse to choose. The unexpected will happen, but that's OK -- you can deal with it. You are resilient, optimistic, competent and caring.
How did McCain know? A moose-hunting pioneer woman is the perfect choice to be America's first female vice president.
Is Sarah Palin up to being president of the United States? Hey, listen, anyone who can raise five children while governing Alaska successfully enough to earn over an 80 percent approval rating -- I'm just not worried about.
Gov. Sarah Palin can do whatever she has to do, and she can do whatever needs to be done.