I was giving a speech about Western feminism to a group of India’s emerging movers and shakers, an audience of the most progressive women and men in the nation. On a panel with me was another divorced single parent, a charismatic, accomplished, charming Indian guy who lives in the U.S. and is a total winner by American standards. Together we described the division of domestic labor between women and men in this country (and chattered away about our respective custody schedules). The questions that followed, from both women and men, about how the genders sort out their roles in the West, revealed their sorrow for us both. No one was hostile. They understood that Western men and women had negotiated a different set of expectations and that our priorities were freedom, equality and so on. But the unspoken question was: How could you do that? How could you harm or even utterly transform the most important thing of all—the family?
Later, a lively, beautiful and bright young journalist confirmed and explained what I’d sensed in the audience. She said that Indian women know that Western feminism is coming, and that while they are thrilled at certain aspects of it—such as greater scope in their professional lives—they are terrified by what they see as the loss of the deepest personal attachments. She said they want to find a way to take the best of Western feminism but be spared what appears to them to be the brutal transformation of roles and general damage to relationships.
That trip, and others like it, shook me up. Feminists in the developing world have lessons to teach us, because their movement did not begin with French existentialism. Their version of equality is not usually that of a self-asserting, solitary individual; rather, it is rooted in a world view in which the individual’s needs and expectations are just one of a set of larger needs—those of family, of community, even of spirit—that should be, ideally, in harmony.
But if true happiness requires a state of harmony, well, Western women just may find it unattainable. Our corporate model seems designed to create maximum stress and misery in women.
New neuroscience increasingly reveals that the male and female brains are not identical. Male neurobiology, from millennia spent on the hunt, is wired to focus on a task to the exclusion of human dependencies. Women evolved to survey the environment, gather, produce goods and food, and raise small children in an entrepreneurial, flexible context in which every element is part of the greater whole. Women for the most part are not happy being compartmentalized in a bleak man-made workspace, isolated from family and social life, and alienated from their larger context. (Men aren’t that happy either, but the new brain science—see Michael Gurian’s What Could He Be Thinking?—suggests that they may tolerate it somewhat better.) The most fulfilled women I have ever met, in a career context, are those who produce their work the way our evolutionary model suggests we are meant to: in flexible, family-friendly environments, in which work hours can wrap around the ebbs and flows of the dramas of parenting, and in which a strong, respected community of other women understands these seemingly disparate forms of accomplishment and cheer each other on. After 40 years of women trying to fit into a postindustrial Western “male” model for work, we’ve seen that women can achieve in it just fine, and often they even outperform men—but that doesn’t mean it is the right model for most women’s deepest satisfaction.