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Camille Paglia's sixth book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, will be published this month by Pantheon.Michael Lionstar

When she was appointed CEO of Yahoo last summer, 37-year-old Marissa Mayer received an avalanche of international press attention because of her pregnancy. Ms. Mayer deflected queries by proclaiming that she planned to work right up to the moment she went into labour and that her maternity leave would be very short – perhaps no more than a week or two.

Comment on this display of bravado was not entirely positive, especially from women. There was concern that Ms. Mayer's cavalier dismissal of the rigours of childbirth and the needs of a newborn infant would set back the decades-long campaign to make paid, extended maternity leave a basic right for female employees in every workplace.

With the birth of her son last Sunday, Ms. Mayer is back in the news and under the microscope. Her case crystallizes a long-standing debate within feminism. Are gender differences superficial products of social expectations and pressures? Or are they rooted in fundamental biological differences? And if the latter, to what degree, if any, are the processes of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and nursing limiting or disabling to women's aspirations for career advance and achievement?

Critics of Ms. Mayer have questioned whether she is underestimating the physiological effects of childbirth on both brain and body. Not all women are the same, but it has been suggested that hormonal changes during and after labour may facilitate the crucial emotional bonding of mother and child. Furthermore, that an infant has the potential capacity to sense a mother's state of high stress seems supported by the widely reported jumping response of the late-stage fetus to a parent's voice. Whether the infant internalizes a mother's stress in a negative or damaging way remains to be established.

Perhaps there is no greater issue facing contemporary women than the choices they must make about balancing home and work. Despite chronic feminist complaints that men are failing to do their share of domestic chores, men will never confront the same agonizing dilemma experienced by many women who have given birth and who feel forever instinctually tied to the living product of their own bodies. Men's contribution to procreation is a passing pinprick compared to the nine-month marathon of literal symbiosis between mother and fetus.

Working moms commonly testify that they feel guilty when they are away from their children and guilty when they are not at their jobs. Devoted fathers certainly miss their children deeply, but it does not seem to be with the same gnawing, primal anxiety that often afflicts women. Discussion of this matter has been hampered by partisan politics: Any linkage of woman to nature is equated with biological determinism and a conservative agenda, forcing women back into slavery in the kitchen.

Second-wave feminism has never dealt fairly and squarely with motherhood. While Betty Friedan's epochal 1963 manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, turned a spotlight on the frustrations of well-educated housewives with no professional outlet for their talents, Ms. Friedan herself wanted the women's movement to embrace mainstream wives and mothers. This was one reason for her quarrel with radical young lesbians (whom she tagged "the lavender menace") within the organization she co-founded in 1966, the National Organization for Women. It was a power struggle that she lost and that led to her departure from NOW.

The focus of second-wave feminism was, first, on opening up career doors and, second, on securing reproductive rights (which I strongly support). But that code phrase for abortion has consumed feminist activism for 40 years. This single-issue orientation, sometimes bordering on fanaticism, has obstructed due consideration of motherhood as an aspiration for perhaps the majority of women in the world. If feminism has receded in visibility and prestige, it is precisely because its vision of life's goals and rewards has become too narrow and elitist.

Now that virtually every career is an option for ambitious girls, it can no longer be considered regressive or reactionary to reintroduce discussion of marriage and motherhood to primary education. We certainly do not want to return to the simplistic duality of home economics classes for girls and wood shop for boys. But it is irresponsible for developed Western society to ignore the special gifts and burdens that devolve on women as the procreative sex.

Girls in high school should already be thinking about the trajectory of their future lives. Do they want a career or children or both? If the latter, should they have children at the start of their careers or later, when they are well-established? Each choice has its pros and cons, which teenagers deserve to hear fully aired. A young mother will lose competitive position at work but be full of exuberant energy and stamina for her children. An older mother will be less spontaneous and playful but can provide more stability and material advantages. On the other hand, women's fertility wanes with age, and pregnancy becomes more difficult and dangerous.

For the welfare of women, there should be massive adjustment of our tyrannically rigid system of higher education. Universities must adapt to women students who choose to have children early. Once admitted, students of either sex should have the option of part-time study or lengthy leaves of absence. This humane flexibility would also enrich the campus environment. Married students responsible for children would revolutionize the current academic discourse about gender, which is too often arrogantly divorced from practical reality.

Camille Paglia's sixth book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, will be published this month by Pantheon.