Born-Again Feminism

A woman shows her identity card while waiting to vote in Kabul Tyler Hicks / The New York Times-Redux

Among life's surreal experiences, few can compare with finding myself seated on a baroque bench, one of dozens lining the perimeter of an ornate drawing room in the palace of Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak in Abu Dhabi, chatting it up with three Ph.D.-endowed women sheathed in black abayas, sipping sweet hot tea and eating candies. "I think you Americans do not enjoy being women as much as we do," said one, peering into my face with an earnestness one usually associates with grim news delivered to next of kin.

Say what?

Pressed further, she allowed that American women, in their quest for equality with men, had surrendered some of their uniquely feminine traits and attendant pleasures. The occasion was a luncheon in honor of then–first lady Laura Bush given by Sheikha Fatima, widow of the founder of the United Arab Emirates, on the first stop of a four-country tour to launch a partnership to fight breast cancer. From the U.A.E. we traveled to Kuwait, where we met courageous women who, having just been granted the vote the year before, had recently run for public office. None won, but they ran.

It was an inspiring trip, as one might imagine. For me personally, having just turned in the manuscript for my book Save the Males, it was life-altering. Not to be rash, but I dare say I've become a born-again feminist after decades of feeling that feminism had veered off course. When the National Organization for Women turned out to protest golf-club memberships, I figured it was time to alphabetize the CDs. All done here.

I stand by my book's argument that males need to be saved to the extent that, too often, equality has become a zero-sum game in which girls' success has meant shortchanging boys. Like my friends in Abu Dhabi, I believe that American women have paid dearly for the privilege of having a voice in the conduct of their lives. Have they failed to enjoy being women? To each her own determination, but I would submit that in trying to find a place in a male-ordered world, women have paid more than their fair dues, much to the detriment of their mental health and their families.

But meeting women of the Middle East—breaking bread with them, seeing beyond the clouds of fabric, bearing witness to suffrage on the ground floor and the courage required for women to sally forth—combined to awaken something long dormant. Perhaps it is a matter of stakes and battles worth fighting. The struggle for free expression in cultures that condone sacrificing women to men's honor gets the blood pumping again.

I've been fortunate to meet some of the women included in this magazine and have been mesmerized by their intelligence, grace, and courage. While we Westerners have never had to contend with a Taliban or a theocratic state that treats women as subhuman, we are reminded that the rights we take for granted are not exactly growing mold.

Nevertheless, the feminism of my youth did grow stale and, over time, often became silly. Or so it seemed to me and, apparently, to many other women who became mothers and workers and knew that the real world of juggling career and family wasn't a calling but a curse. We were trying not just to be as good as men, but to be men. I have the neckties to prove it. It turns out that women make lousy men, a fact for which we should feel grateful rather than apologetic. As a group, we are worse at some things, but better at others—the very "others," it also turns out, that happen to be driving today's economy and that of the future.

Consequently, in the U.S. today, women hold a majority of the jobs, and dominate in colleges and professional schools. They also hold a majority of managerial and professional positions, and about half of all accounting, banking, and insurance jobs.

These socioeconomic facts don't mean that women have achieved perfect parity with men, who still dominate at the highest levels of business. As Hanna Rosin reported in The Atlantic, men are more assertive in the job market, tending, for example, to negotiate the terms of their first jobs out of college ( 57 percent, compared with only 7 percent of women). Men are also more self-assured and, perhaps relatedly, hold most upper-management positions. Only 3 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In Britain, debate has recently centered on the paucity of women in corporate-board positions and whether this gap should be addressed through quotas. Former trade minister Mervyn Davies says U.K.-listed companies in the FTSE 100 should have 25 percent female board membership by 2015. For now, owing largely to objections from accomplished women who feel patronized by the suggestion of quotas, companies will be left to meet the new standard voluntarily.

The most glaring lack of female participation is also the most ironic. Here in the U.S., the longest-running democracy on the planet, relatively few women hold legislative positions. Even though more women than ever ran in the recent midterm elections, fewer are serving now than in the previous Congress. Women hold only 17 seats in the 100-seat Senate and just 75 (roughly 16 percent) in the House of Representatives. Many developing countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, can boast far greater legislative participation by women. Three Kazakh women have so far applied for candidacy in the country's April 3 presidential election. In Liberia a woman is president.

Why are women lagging in this of all countries? It may be a matter of round pegs and square holes. Women have tried to fit into a male-constructed world and found it either uninviting or inflexible to their needs. They don't make it to the top of corporations because they find the long hours and travel impossible to manage with children at home. Too, they may find themselves alienated by masculine style, which psychologists Alice Eagly and Linda Carli describe as controlling, versus women's, which tends to take into greater consideration the rights of others.

The confounding factors are many, surely. But what we enlightened Westerners know is that empowering women empowers us all. Research shows that companies with more female employees make more money. And recent history makes clear that nations that oppress women are dangerous nations. Until women are equal partners in the human race, we are less secure and surely less interesting.

A year or so ago, I was asked to speak to the women's legislative caucus in South Carolina, the state with the fewest number of women serving in public office. I was asked to say something inspiring to encourage them to enter politics. I finally settled on lessons learned in the Middle East.

Women should run for public office, I told them, because … they can. Because other women around the world are watching to see how it's done. And because we are quite simply their role models—and their hope.

When women achieve parity in boardrooms and legislatures, they'll no longer have to twist into male versions of themselves but can help fashion a world that is a better fit for them and the human beings they create. You won't find me pushing for a Swedish model, in which "velvet dads" are penalized for not staying home with Baby. But somewhere between the abayas of Abu Dhabi and the pistol-packin', "man-up" mamas of Wingnut, America, is a strong, compassionate, heroic womanhood of which we can all feel a part and be proud sisters. And brothers, too.

Parker is a Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post columnist.