11/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Palin the Frontierswoman?

Many political commentators seem to have seized on the idea that Sarah Palin is a "frontierswoman," an old-time pioneer rather than a standard political type. They see her as a throwback to bygone Americans, those women who helped their men win the West (or in this case, the North).

In their dreamy vision, this Alaskan frontierswoman is (for J. R. Dunn in the American Thinker), "stalwart, stoic, tough, capable, but at the same time remaining feminine, deferring to the man." In his analysis of Palin, Alexander Cockburn picks up that theme, waxing even more poetic: He celebrates Palin as "the beautiful, intrepid frontierswoman, shoulder to shoulder with her man." In this election year at least, the prototypical frontierswoman is being cast as steady and strong, deferential and devoted, and most important of all, absolutely gorgeous.

Let's leave aside for the moment the question of whether Palin, ex-mayor and self described "hockey mom," resembles the portrait that commentators have painted. Is it even a remotely accurate portrayal of the original frontierswomen themselves? If we take a closer look at the tradition and history of this American character, we find otherwise.

Let's meet some of the best-known frontierswomen. Susanna Wright (1697-1784), for instance, never married, wrote poetry, and cultivated silkworms. Mary Jemison (1743-1833), though she married twice, was famous for standing not by her man but by the Senecas who had adopted her. Martha Cannary (a.k.a. Calamity Jane), described as "physically unattractive, stocky, independent-minded, and unrefined in the social graces," was an alcoholic who preferred to dress as a man. And by the way, Annie Oakley (1860-1926), who like Sarah Palin was a great shot, wasn't actually a frontierswoman - she just played one on the stage.

But given Palin's provenance, perhaps the commentators have in mind a cold-weather version of the frontierswoman? A polar pioneer-girl?

If we look towards Palin's part of the world and the history of the exploration of the Arctic Circle, the comparison becomes even more strained, because polar frontierswomen pretty much didn't exist. White women were simply not permitted to travel to the Arctic until very late in the game: Josephine Peary, wife of the famous explorer Robert, was the first white woman to winter over, during the 1890s. The Arctic was considered too tough an environment for white women to endure, despite the evident fact that native women had been living there for centuries.

Despite the official ban, there seem to have been a plucky few who made it to the polar regions prior to the twentieth century - but they had to do it disguised as men. Take the case of "John Fubbister," who signed on as an employee of the Hudson Bay Company in 1806. The company had a policy against hiring white women, though it employed indigenous women as cooks and domestic servants. Fubbister seems to have been a satisfactory employee, but one day "he" asked urgently to see his supervisor. Granted the interview, "he" collapsed on the hearth, opened "his" jacket and displayed what the supervisor vividly described in his diary as "a pair of beautiful round white Breasts." Fubbister confessed "his" deception, revealed "his" true name to be Isabel Gunn, and announced that "he" was pregnant and on the point of giving birth. Needless to say, Gunn was "discharged from yours Honours Service," shortly thereafter. Isabel Gunn was surely a frontierswoman if ever there was one, but she achieved this status only by posing as a man.

Which in a way brings us back to Palin, who seems eerily reminiscent of a man disguised as a woman, insofar as she tends to oppose issues that most American women support. She opposes a right to abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. She is skeptical about the threat of global warming and its impact on the polar environment. She opposes a ban on assault weapons.

In deeming Sarah Palin a frontierswoman, commentators have managed to get it backwards. Palin's survival, unlike Gunn's, is predicated on her looking like a woman, not a man, because Palin's self-characterization as a moose hunter, pistol packer, and hockey fan would seem far less appealing as the description of a male candidate for V.P.

Gender confusion would seem to be a theme of this Presidential contest: we've had Hillary Clinton, a woman who acted like a man; and Barack Obama, who's not afraid to get in touch with his feminine side and who some have characterized as the future "first woman president." This gender blurring might provide a clue to the real identity of that fantasy figure whom the pundits are drooling over. Perhaps, looking back once more to history, it's not Palin but the "stocky, independent-minded" frontiersperson in this race, otherwise known as Calamity McCain.