Looking Back to Look Forward: Revisiting In a Different Voice

Carol Gilligan

Please cite this article as follows:
Gilligan, Carol. 2011. "Looking Back to Look Forward: Revisiting In a Different Voice." Classics@, Issue 9, "Defense Mechanisms," http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Classicsat

In the course of editing In a Different Voice, in the days before computers, Harvard University Press sent out the manuscript to be re-typed. Some weeks later, I went to pick it up. The typist, a young woman, lived in a brown, three-decker house in a working-class neighborhood of Somerville. I waited while she retrieved the manuscript, which she was so taken with, she explained, that she had given it to her cousin to read. Standing on the porch, I registered my delight in the realization that the appeal of my book was wider than I had imagined.
Some months after the book was published, the sales rep from the Press took me to lunch. As we waited for coffee, he asked the question that was clearly on his mind: Why is this book selling? I thought of the typist and her cousin who lived upstairs. People whose voices were dismissed felt heard.
Looking back now, it is perhaps easier to see that my title, In a Different Voice, calls for a new way of speaking, a change in the very terms of the conversation about ourselves and morality, women and men—about the human condition. In the old conversation, our ears were accustomed to hearing “He was an interesting talker; a man who had traveled all over the world and lived in half a dozen countries,” and “Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you are in.” I had borrowed these sentences from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (where they demonstrate the correct use of semi-colons and commas) to illustrate a point of view so widely assumed that for a long time we did not notice it. Once seen, the point of view shifted. In the newly illustrated 2008, fiftieth anniversary edition of The Elements of Style, the interesting talker has become “she” and Susan is pictured as a basset hound.
At the time I wrote In a Different Voice, I was aware of a problem in psychology that was in part a problem of method (the selection of boys and men only for studies of human development) and partly a problem of theory (a point of view from which men’s lives appeared interesting and women’s more or less of a mess). Clearly there was a problem, but in some ways the most interesting thing—at least to a psychologist’s eye—was that it had not been seen. Since I was among those who hadn’t seen it, despite the fact that I was teaching psychology, I asked: How could this have happened? In one sense, I was discovering the obvious.
Gender proved the tell-tale clue, not by locating the problem in women or men, but by pointing to where all this was coming from. A colleague in anthropology used to say that culture appears in the unspoken. Culture is the way of seeing and speaking that is so much a part of everyday living that it never has to be articulated. Fish don’t know they are swimming in water, until they are a fish out of water. It is when culture shifts that we recognize the ocean in which we have been drenched. What we had taken as natural or taken for granted becomes instead one way of seeing and speaking. By the 1970s, I along with many others had come to John Berger’s realization: “Never again will a single story be taken as though it’s the only one.”
In the changing culture of that time, in my early days of teaching, I heard myself respond to a woman’s question by saying, “That’s a great question, but it’s not what we’re talking about here.” And then found myself wondering, who is this “we” and what are we talking about? Reasonable questions at any time, but at the height of the women’s movement, I realized that I had aligned myself with a cultural standpoint from which women’s questions, however great, were for the most part beside the point. Writing In a Different Voice, I broke this alignment, divorcing myself from ways of speaking that portrayed men as humans and women as different. Recognizing the extent to which I had been swimming along as if it made sense to title a book The Psychological World of the Teenager: A Study of Normal Adolescent Boys, as Daniel and Judith Offer had done, or to move seamlessly from The Seasons of a Man’s Life to Stages of Adult Development, as Daniel Levinson had done, again in collaboration with his wife, I realized that neither men nor women were noticing the omission of girls and women, or seeing it as a problem. Psychologists had assumed a culture in which men were the measure of humanity, and autonomy and rationality (“masculine” qualities) were the markers of maturity. It was a culture that counted on women not speaking for themselves.
And here morality came into play. Not in the usual sense of establishing right and wrong, good and bad, but by enforcing women’s silence in the name of goodness. The good woman cared for others: she listened to their voices and responded to their needs and concerns. In itself, a good thing to do. But this ethic of feminine goodness was holding in place so-called normal, everyday conversations in which men spoke as if the omission of women was irrelevant or inconsequential and women overlooked or excused the omission of themselves.
Once it is clear that the different voice with its ethic of care resists these divisions, it becomes easier to grasp the reasons for common misunderstandings and mistranslations of my work, to recognize how parts of my original text contributed to these misunderstandings, and also to see how these misinterpretations reflect an assimilation of my work to the very gender norms and values I was contesting. And seeing this focuses the questions I want to raise in revisiting my 1982 book. Given the value of care and caring and the costs of carelessness, why is an ethic of care still embattled? What is the justice vs. care debate about? And what is the relationship of all this to women? Why are women’s voices still in the forefront in bringing these matters to our attention?
If anything, an ethic of care is more pressing now than at the time I first wrote about it, almost thirty years ago, and questions of gender are in some respects more difficult to raise and discuss. We live in a world increasingly alert to the reality of interdependence and the costs of isolation; we know that autonomy is an illusion—that people’s lives are interconnected. In 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had observed: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly affects all indirectly.” We understand more about trauma, its neurological as well as its psychological effects. In his first address to Congress, President Obama spoke about carelessness—its effects on health, education, the economy, the planet—and the need to replace an ethos of individual gain with an ethic of care and collective responsibility. But during the 2008 presidential campaign, where racist comments were not tolerated, it was still okay for media pundits to say that they instinctively crossed their legs at the mention of Hillary Clinton’s name, or to refer to her as a “hellish housewife,” witchy, bitchy, a “she-devil.” As one Fox News commentator put it, “When Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear ‘take out the garbage’.” Obama’s call to understand and then transcend longstanding and embittered conversations about race was not met with a similar call for a new conversation about gender. Why?
Indeed, why is the ethic of care still embattled? What is the academic debate over care vs. justice about? And what is its association with women and more generally with people’s lives? I cannot go further in talking about gender—a word I associated with Latin vocabulary—without speaking about its relation to patriarchy, an order of living based upon gender: where being a man means not being a woman and also being on top. The gender binary and hierarchy are the DNA of patriarchy—the building blocks of a patriarchal order. The word “patriarchy” means a hierarchy or rule of priests in which the hieros, the priest, is a pater, a father. In a patriarchal family or religion or culture, power and authority descend from a father or fathers, and human qualities designated masculine are privileged over those gendered feminine. By elevating some men over others (separating the men from the boys) and all men over women, patriarchy is an order of domination. But in separating fathers from mothers and daughters and sons, and bifurcating human qualities into masculine and feminine, patriarchy also creates rifts in the psyche, dividing everyone from parts of themselves.
In the gendered universe of patriarchy, care is a feminine ethic, not a universal one. Caring is what good women do, and the people who care are doing women’s work. They are devoted to others, responsive to their needs, attentive to their voices. They are selfless.
I entered the conversation about women and morality in the late 1960s, a time in the U.S. that witnessed a convergence of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the movement to stop atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, the movement to end poverty, the women’s movement, and the gay liberation movement. I was teaching at Harvard with Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst working in the Freudian tradition, and Lawrence Kohlberg, a cognitive-developmental psychologist working in the tradition of Piaget. To all these men—Freud and Erikson, Piaget and Kohlberg—women appeared deficient in development. Women’s investment in relationships was considered to be at the expense of a clear sense of self and women’s emotional responsiveness was said to compromise their capacity to think rationally and judge objectively. Thus the paradox noted in In a Different Voice: the very qualities that distinguished women’s moral goodness, their relational sensitivity and empathic concern, marked them as deficient in development.
In the 1970s, these assumptions were called into question. I remember interviewing a woman at that time, asking her to respond to one of the dilemmas used in assessing moral development, and she looked at me and said: “Do you want to know what I think? Or do you want to know what I really think?” Indicating that she had learned to think in a way that differed from how she really thought.
I was interested in identity and moral development, and began to explore people’s responses to actual situations of moral conflict and choice, times when the sense of self, the I, comes to the fore in the question “What am I going to do?” and moral language (should, ought, right, wrong, good, bad) comes into play in the questions “What should I do?” or “What is the right or good thing to do?” My study was prompted by an observation I made in teaching a discussion section of Kohlberg’s course on moral and political choice. I noticed that the men in my class—some in preppy outfits, cooperative and polite, others long-haired in jeans and Gandhi shirts—although eager to talk about the injustice of the Vietnam War, fell silent when the conversation turned to the ethics of draft resistance. They were aware that if they said what they were really thinking, namely that their thoughts about resisting the draft hinged in part on relationships and feelings, they would sound like women and be scored at a lower stage of moral development. I interviewed these students at the end of their sophomore year, asking about their experiences of moral conflict and choice, and planned to interview them again as seniors when they would be facing the draft—but then President Nixon ended the draft.
This was in 1973, the year the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion, giving women a decisive voice in a choice the court now deemed legitimate. I resumed my study, focusing on the decision of whether to continue or abort a pregnancy. I was totally blind to gender at the time, but what started as a study involving men became a study with women. And in that historical moment, following the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, selflessness, long seen as the epitome of feminine goodness, suddenly appeared morally problematic. It signified an abdication of voice and an evasion of responsibility and relationship.
Listening to women, I was struck over and over again by the power of the opposition between selfishness and selflessness to shape women’s moral judgments and guide the choices they made. I would hear women call whatever they wanted to do (whether to have the baby or have an abortion) “selfish,” while describing doing what others wanted them to do as good. I remember Nina telling me that she was planning to have an abortion because her boyfriend wanted to finish law school and counted on her support. When I asked what she wanted to do, she said: “What’s wrong with doing something for someone you love?” Nothing, I said, and repeated my question. After several iterations of this conversation, with the word “selfish” ringing in my ears, I began asking women: If it’s good to be empathic with people and responsive to their needs, why is it selfish to respond to yourself? And in that historical moment, woman after woman said: “Good question.”
Listening to women thus led me to make a distinction I have come to see as pivotal to understanding care ethics. Within a patriarchal framework, care is a feminine ethic. Within a democratic framework, care is a human ethic. A feminist ethic of care is a different voice within a patriarchal culture because it joins reason with emotion, mind with body, self with relationships, men with women, resisting the divisions that maintain a patriarchal order. To borrow the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s distinction between thin and thick interpretations of cultures—or rather the psychologist Niobe Way’s use of these terms to contrast cultural stereotypes or clichés with an analysis of the culture itself—a feminist ethic of care rests on a thick rather than thin understanding of democracy. A thin interpretation of democracy homogenizes differences in the name of equality, whereas thick democracy rests on the premise that different voices are integral to the vitality of a democratic society.
To answer, then, the first question raised above: a feminist ethic of care is embattled because feminism is embattled. The culture wars in the U.S. have brought to the surface longstanding tensions in American society between the commitment to democratic institutions and values and the continuation of patriarchal privilege and power. The gains made in the 1960s and ’70s toward realizing the promise of a truly democratic society included direct challenges to patriarchal constructions of masculinity and femininity on the part of the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, and the gay liberation movement. To be a man did not necessarily mean becoming a soldier or preparing oneself for war; to be a woman did not necessitate becoming a mother or preparing oneself to bear and raise children. Both sexualities and families could take many forms. Yet abortion and gay marriage along with war remain to this day lightning-rod issues in American politics.
This brings me back to a major point: care and caring are not women’s issues, they are human concerns. Until we make explicit the gendered nature of the justice vs. care debate, we will continue to be mystified by its seeming intransigence. And we will not move forward in dealing with the real questions of how concerns about fairness and rights intersect with concerns about care and responsibility. The moral injunction—do not oppress, do not exercise power unfairly or take advantage of others—lives side by side with the moral injunction to not abandon, to not act carelessly or neglect people who need help, meaning everyone including oneself. But they draw on different aspects of ourselves. Fairness and rights are matters of rules and principles. The logic is clear. If women are persons and persons have rights, then women have rights. Caring requires paying attention, seeing, listening, responding with respect. Its logic is contextual, psychological. Care is a relational ethic, grounded in a premise of interdependence. But it is not selfless.
To see the justice vs. care debate for what it is, look through a gender lens: justice is aligned with reason, mind, and self—the attributes of “rational man”—and caring with emotion, body, and relationships—“feminine” qualities that like women in patriarchy are at once idealized and devalued. Care then becomes a subsidiary of justice, a matter of “special obligations” or interpersonal relationships. Although the patriarchal frame is not acknowledged, the gender binaries and hierarchies catch the listening ear. With this gendering of morality, manhood can readily become a license for carelessness (defended in the name of rights or freedom) and womanhood can imply a willingness to forego rights for the sake of preserving relationships and keeping the peace. But it is absurd to say that men don’t care or that women are not invested in justice.
The different voice, then, is identified not by gender but by theme. Its difference arises from joining reason with emotion, self with relationships. Undoing patriarchal splits and hierarchies, it articulates democratic norms and values: the importance of everyone having a voice, being listened to carefully, and heard with respect. The association of a care voice with women was an empirical observation, admitting exceptions and by no means limited to women, but for reasons I will go into, women are more apt to resist separating themselves from relationships. To give just one illustration, a medical student, when asked “How would you describe yourself to yourself?” says,
This sounds sort of strange, but I think maternal, with all its connotations. I see myself in a nurturing role, maybe not right now, but whenever that might be, as a physician, as a mother ... It’s hard to think of myself without thinking about other people...
She does not lack a sense of self, but she hears it as “strange” to describe herself as connecting with others rather than standing apart from them. In this way, she alerts us to a culture in which the self is presumed to be separate and to the difference between her response and a voice that says, “I would describe myself as an enthusiastic, passionate person who is slightly arrogant. Concerned, committed, very tired right now because I didn’t get much sleep last night.” Different voices. One mentions relationships in describing the self, one does not.
When the relational woman is judged to be good and the autonomous man is perceived as a principled moral agent, morality becomes aligned with and enforces the gender codes of a patriarchal order. In the culture of patriarchy (whether overt or hidden), the different voice with its ethic of care sounds feminine. Heard in its own right and on its own terms, it is a human voice. Listening to children, we hear the moral conviction in their cries “It’s not fair” and “You don’t care.” Given that children are less powerful than adults and rely on the latter’s care for their survival, concerns about justice and care are built into the human life cycle. The potential for oppression (using power unfairly) and for abandonment (acting carelessly) inheres in relationships, and an ethic of care speaks to these concerns.
When children are initiated into cultures that divide reason from emotion, mind from body, self from relationships, when these splits become tied to gender identity and the roles they are expected to play, they will feel pressed to reject or dissociate themselves from aspects of themselves that would lead them to appear unmanly or not what a woman should be. At seventeen, Gail reflects, “I have a tendency to keep things to myself, things that bother me, and anything that interrupted my sense of what I should be, I would kind of soak up into myself, as though I was a big sponge.” A high school senior, Fernando, one of the boys in Niobe Way’s studies of boys’ friendships and described in her book Deep Secrets, speaks about becoming a man. Asked what he sees as an ideal friendship, he says,
You gotta be funny, truthful. I just got to have fun with you, you know. I just don’t want to get tired of you right away. ’Cause if I get tired of you, you are not really my friend. Um, you gotta, I guess just be there for me? I guess. I don’t wanna sound too sissy-like ... I think I’ve matured in certain ways ... I know how to be a man. (p. 242)
Gail has learned to soak up anger (her own and that of others) in order to be “what I should be,” and Fernando, in learning how to be a man, has learned to regard wanting others to be there for him as “sissy-like.”
The initiation into patriarchy is driven by gender and enforced by shaming and exclusion. Its telltale signs are a loss of voice and memory, an inability to tell one’s story accurately. Thus the initiation of children into a patriarchal order leaves a legacy of loss and some of the scars we have come to associate with trauma. Twelve-year-old Becka, one of the girls described in Meeting at the Crossroads (Lyn Mikel Brown and my book on girls’ development), speaks of losing her sense of herself:
I wasn’t being happy, and I wasn’t sure of myself ... I wasn’t being ... with myself and I wasn’t thinking about myself. I just wanted to have this group of friends ... I was losing confidence in myself, I was losing track of myself really, and losing the kind of person I was. (p. 167)
As a high school junior, Nick, another of the boys in Way’s studies, speaks of losing his friends:
Friendships were actually more important when I was a kid, because I—always needed friends ... Um, I feel like, sort of sad that they are gone. But the friends I have now, you know, we try to make the best of it. You know, like I said friends do come and go but the friends that you have now, you try to make the best of it. (p. 155)
It is not surprising then that at times in development when children are initiated into the codes and scripts of patriarchal manhood and womanhood—times when it becomes essential for boys to act like “real boys” and for girls to become “good girls,” when those who do not are shamed, beaten, excluded, mocked, shunned and condemned—it is not surprising that these times in development are marked by signs of psychological distress. Among boys between the ages of five and seven, the age when boys who cross gender boundaries are called girls or gay or sissies or mama’s boys, there is a high incidence of learning and speech disorders, attention problems, and out of touch and out of control behavior. Boys show more signs of depression than girls until adolescence, the time when the division between good and bad girls sets in, enforced by often vicious practices of inclusion and exclusion. At adolescence, there is a heightened risk to girls’ resilience, reflected in a suddenly increased incidence among girls of depression, eating disorders, cutting and other forms of destructive behavior. In the late years of high school, around sixteen or seventeen—the time when Nick says, “I’m not close to anybody now”—the suicide rate rises sharply among boys, as does the rate of homicide.
Looking at such experiences, it becomes easier to understand the tenacity of patriarchy, even in societies committed to democratic institutions and values. The structures of domination become invisible because they have been internalized. Incorporated into the psyche, they appear not as manifestations of culture but as part of nature—part of us.
In the theories of Freud, Erikson, Piaget, Kohlberg, and their contemporary offshoots in psychoanalysis and cognitive psychology, the separation of the self from relationships and the elevation of mind over body, reason over emotion, appear as milestones along a developmental path, markers of progress toward maturity. The splits themselves have become naturalized and mistaken for development, or seen as a requisite of civilization. The loss of relationship suffered along the way is deemed necessary, part of the price we pay for growing up. The hand of patriarchy remains hidden in these accounts of development until suddenly it appears unmistakably: morality and development itself are premised on the internalization of the voice or law of the father.
In the first meeting Judy Chu and I have with the fathers of the four- and five-year-old boys we are observing, Alex takes the lead, the winter sky dark outside the windows of the school library. He speaks about Nick, his five-year-old son, being “out there”—emotionally open, vulnerable, exposed. The room becomes quiet as he continues:
He’s out there, he needs to really be out there, and I always feel, it’s always tricky how much you want to clamp down on him. And clamp down in the sense that he was getting into all sorts of trouble at school ... I always think about it, there’s spunk there ... he’s very spunky, and I hate for that to be squeezed out of him. As I believe it was squeezed out of me, you know, I was exactly like that.
“And you remember your spunk?” I ask him, wondering about the word, its sexual overtones, its evocation of life and joy. “Yeah,” he says. “How did you lose it?” I wonder. Alex hesitates. “I think I just got into trouble so much in school ... I remember, I think it took me until about tenth grade to figure that out.” It is as if he is fighting with memory as he speaks of having been good enough in school, getting good grades, “but every now and then I would remember, you know”—he breaks the sentence, then picks it up—“There’d be a parent–teacher conference where, you know, ‘This kid is out of control, there’s too much energy here,’ or something like that.” He recalls the words of his parents and teachers, but for himself, this otherwise very articulate man seems to be at a loss for words or to have no words for what he remembers—a sensation perhaps, a spirit rising, a liveliness that became linked with being “out of control” or having “too much energy.” “I just became good,” Alex says, “and decided, you know, to study hard and blend into the crowd, and go to track practice, that was it.” Tom, another father, interjects, “That sucked up the energy.” But Alex continues on his train of thought: “And it was, it’s sad.” Speaking of his five-year-old son, he says, “I really don’t want that to happen to him.” “So what’s the negative?” asks Michael, another father; “What did you lose?” Illustrating his point with his manner, Alex says matter-of-factly, “I think I lost my spunk.”
Alex is a professor, tenured at an early age at a prestigious university. He has separated from his wife; he is trying to become more connected with his children. He is a man struggling with issues that many men struggle with—how to be a good man, a father, now not to repeat his father’s patterns, how to live with himself and with women, how to raise a son and a daughter. And doing this from a position of advantage: he is high up on the patriarchal ladder, and he wants the best for his children. Which is where the quandary enters: Alex fears that Nick will walk the same path he has, and also that Nick will fall off that path. What Michael cherishes in his son Gabe, the qualities he sees that lead him to say “I hope he never loses that,” are “his sensitivity,” his “real joy” and the “delight he has in his friends.” The sadness that blanches Michael’s face suggests that joy and close friendships are things he now longs for.
In Essays on the History of Ethics, Michael Slote, a moral philosopher, highlights the advantages of integrating a philosophical with a psychological understanding of morality. In place of the usual distinctions philosophers make between Kantian (golden rule), utilitarian (greatest good), and Aristotelian or virtue ethics, he posits a psychological spectrum for moral theory, a continuum leading from separateness to connectedness. He finds this ordering at once more comprehensive and more explanatory of the differences in moral theories. Although he does not state it in these terms, he is advocating a paradigm shift, a reframing of moral theory in the light of care ethics.
Along the same lines, when Barack Obama grounded his campaign for the presidency in a call for “change we can believe in,” he was calling for a different voice. The response galvanized by this call captured the yearning for a new conversation to replace ones that were going nowhere. The hope aroused was audacious. Exhilaration filled the streets of New York on the night of his election, suggesting the release of energy that accompanies the move out of dissociation. Obama had encouraged us to know what we knew about the war in Iraq, about social justice, about the state of the economy, the country, our lives. On the night he received his party’s nomination he promised he would tell us the truth and listen to those who disagreed with him. The shift from the patriarchal manhood of George W. Bush (“the decider”) to the more democratic manhood of Barack Obama was palpable. And some of the disillusionment that has followed may reflect the disappointment in finding ourselves still mired in old battles, with less transparency than we had expected and less change than we had anticipated. Although dissections of Obama’s presidency have not zeroed in on issues of gender, his manhood has been questioned across the political spectrum, with Dick Cheney calling him “dithering” and “weak” and critics on the left faulting him for not standing up to the military and Wall Street. As a political scientist friend observed, health care, gendered feminine, is considered too expensive and not the government’s responsibility, while the military budget and Wall Street, gendered masculine, have gotten a relatively free pass. Perhaps we had believed that democracy would trump patriarchy at last.
The paradigm shift in the human sciences casts new light on these matters of gender. We were accustomed to seeing ourselves (or at least the men among us) as aggressive and competitive by nature, engaged whether rationally or irrationally in the pursuit of self-interest. The emerging consensus, reflected by the number of books now appearing with the word “empathy” or “cooperation” in their titles (The Age of Empathy, The Empathic Civilization, Why We Cooperate, etc.), portrays us as inherently empathic and cooperative beings, harboring within ourselves the capacity to love and to live democratically with others. Titling his book The Hard Bond, the sociologist Richard Sennett underscores the difficulty of “cooperation in a competitive world.” The psychologist’s question—my question—is what happens then to our capacity for empathy and cooperation, how do we lose our humanity? Or do we?
I come then to my final question: Why women? Are women’s voices still key in freeing democracy from the vestiges of patriarchy? I will argue that the issue is not one of essentialism or socialization, but one of development and initiation. It is not that women are essentially different from men or are all the same, or that men and women are socialized to play different roles, which is often the case. Instead, like a healthy body, a healthy psyche resists disease. There is an inherent tension between our human nature and the structures of patriarchy, leading the healthy psyche to resist an initiation that mandates a loss of voice and a sacrifice of relationship. It fights for freedom from dissociation, from the splits in consciousness that would keep parts of ourselves and our experience outside our awareness. How else would women have found the will to secure agency, property ownership, the vote, fair pay, and freedom, including freeing themselves from what Lyn Mikel Brown and I called “the tyranny of nice and kind?” How would any people free themselves from psychological as well as political colonization?
The neurobiologist Antonio Damasio tells us that we register our experience from moment to moment. In our bodies and our emotions, we pick up the music or “the feeling of what happens.” When we fail to record these signals in our minds and thoughts, our thoughts become divorced from our experience and we can readily fall under the sway of false authority. The grounds for love and for democracy fall away from under our feet.
In the early 1980s, following the completion of In a Different Voice, I began a study of girls’ development to fill in what was at the time a missing stretch of psychological history. Joseph Adelson, editor of the 1980 Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, had observed that girls had “simply not been much studied,” and that the psychology of adolescence contained a “subtle but unmistakable masculine bias,” leading to an over-emphasis on achievement, independence, and separation and a corresponding neglect of nurturance, intimacy, and relationships. Girls’ experiences in coming of age, a subject for playwrights and novelists, had remained for the most part unexplored by psychologists, and a masculine bias had led them to overlook the more “feminine” aspects of boys’ lives.
Knowing this, it becomes more apparent why eleven-year-old Amy’s voice was unsettling to many readers of In a Different Voice. It was a voice they had learned to silence or disparage, preferring the clarity of eleven-year-old Jake to what they heard as Amy’s equivocation. Responding to the question of whether a man named Heinz whose wife was dying of cancer should steal an overpriced drug to save her life, Jake says that he should because property is replaceable but life is not (“You couldn’t get Heinz’s wife again.”). In contrast, Amy says,
Well, I don’t think so. I think there might be other ways beside stealing it, like if he could borrow the money or make a loan or something, but he really shouldn’t steal the drug—but his wife shouldn’t die either.
Asked why he shouldn’t steal the drug, she says,
If he stole the drug, he might save her life then, but if he did, he might have to go to jail, and then his wife might get sicker again, and he couldn’t get more of the drug, and it might not be good. So, they should really just talk it out and find some other way to make the money.
There are many things one can notice in her response having to do with social class, the justice system, the active role she accords the unnamed wife in the decision making, and the narrative form her reasoning takes. But most striking perhaps is the recognition that Amy was not answering the interviewer’s question. The woman interviewing her had asked: “Should Heinz steal the drug?” (Would stealing be right or wrong?) whereas to Amy the question was: “Should Heinz steal the drug?” (Is stealing the best thing to do?). Suddenly her answer makes sense. There might, as she says, be better ways to solve this problem. Amy’s voice is unsettling because she gives voice to something that rings true to experience but is at odds with what has been socially constructed as reality or morality. The research on girls’ development exposed this gap between experience and a socially constructed reality.
A cardinal finding lay in the observation that, at the brink of adolescence, girls speak of feeling pressed to choose between having a voice and having relationships, a choice that psychologically makes no sense. To silence oneself and not say what one is thinking and feeling is to forego relationship—to give up on the possibility of living in connection with others. Conversely, in the absence of resonance, voice recedes into silence. Over and over again, my colleagues and I heard girls describe a crisis of relationship. Experiences of connectedness which up to that time had seemed ordinary and which they had taken for granted suddenly were called into question. Entering secondary education and becoming young women, they were encouraged to separate their minds from their bodies, their thoughts from their emotions, their honest voices from their relationships. In a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways, they were discouraged from saying what they saw or listening to what they heard. In coming of age, girls had to fend off pressures to silence themselves, paradoxically for the sake of having relationships.
My colleagues and I listened as girls named the various inducements held out and the rewards to be gained by keeping their thoughts and feelings to themselves. They were reading the culture in which they were coming of age, a culture uneasy about adolescent girls connecting with their bodies, where women’s desires and emotions are often suspect. We saw girls align themselves with the more highly valued masculine traits and denigrate other girls and women. Yet what struck me most in the course of this research were the clarity of girls’ honest voices and the tenacity of their resistance to silencing themselves for the sake of what they recognized to be a chimera of relationship. Even when succumbing to the pressures of initiation, articulate girls would narrate their experience and reflect on what was happening to them. The move into womanhood threatened to confuse their sense of what is true or real. In a conversation about whether it is ever good to tell a lie, eleven-year-old Elise, a fifth-grader in an urban public school, observes: “My house is wallpapered with lies.”
The following incident sums up the key developmental finding of the research. At the end of a five-year longitudinal, cross-sectional study involving nearly a hundred girls between the ages of seven and eighteen, diverse in ethnicity and social class background but having in common educational advantage, I go to speak with the girls to tell them how their voices are affecting women and men and to ask how they want to be involved now that my colleagues and I are presenting our findings and preparing to publish them in a book (Meeting at the Crossroads). The thirteen-year-olds respond without hesitation: “We want you to tell them everything we said, and we want our names in the book!” When I ask if they want their names next to excerpts from their interviews or at the front of the book, Tracy, perhaps anticipating how her nine-year-old self might be heard, says, “When we were nine, we were stupid.” I say it would never have occurred to me to use the word “stupid” because what struck me most about them when they were nine was how much they knew. At which point Tracy says, “I mean, when we were nine, we were honest.” Between nine and thirteen, an honest voice had come to seem or to sound stupid.
And yet it is a voice girls resist losing.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing into the present, psychiatrists and psychologists have noted that girls’ resilience is at heightened risk during adolescence, a risk commonly attributed to the effects of hormones or socialization. Listening to girls, my colleagues and I came instead to see their resilience as compromised when they find they must silence their honest voices in order to be accepted and loved. What is socially adaptive is psychologically costly and ultimately politically costly as well. The sacrifice of voice and relationships compromises psychological health and also the viability of a democratic society.
The ability of girls to articulate their initiation into the gendered splits and hierarchies that constitute and maintain a patriarchal order gives voice to a problem that is not simply a problem for girls. Taking in how astutely girls can read the human world around them, I found myself—the mother of boys—thinking: boys do this too. Yet the initiation of boys into a masculinity where being a boy means not being like a girl and also being dominant, typically occurs earlier in development, when they don’t yet have the range of experience and the cognitive capacities they will gain at adolescence. Little boys are equally astute in reading the human emotional world, including emotions that are being withheld: “Mama, why do you smile when you are sad?” five-year-old Tony asks. And when Alex, Nick’s father, expresses his remorse for having “lost it” and hit Nick the previous day, Nick says to his father, “You are afraid that if you hit me, when I grow up I’ll hit my children.” Alex had been hit by his father and had vowed to break the cycle. Five-year-old Nick picks up his fear that the cycle will now continue into the next generation.
At four and five, children are learning how things are. At adolescence, with secondary education and higher order thinking (the ability to think about thinking), they learn how things are said to be: how we talk about things, what is the right way to speak and to be. When it comes to issues of gender, girls tend to be given more leeway than boys up until adolescence, when they reach reproductive maturity. Just think of a boy coming to school in a dress. At adolescence, boys become more reflective, but when the shock of initiation hits girls at adolescence, they can more readily say what boys cannot openly express without casting doubts on their manhood.
We begin to understand why girls and women are key in exposing patriarchal structures, why they can play a leading role in transforming patriarchal into democratic practices. For reasons having to do with the later timing of their initiation, they can more readily give voice to aspects of human experience that otherwise tend to remain unspoken or unseen. But we can also understand the pressures on girls when they reach adolescence not to say what they are seeing or know what they know and to cede an honest voice in the interest of having relationships and getting ahead in the world.
Our studies of girls’ development extended for over ten years in a range of school and after-school settings and illuminated a trajectory of resistance. A healthy resistance to losses that are psychologically costly takes on the characteristics of a political resistance when girls speak truth to power. At fifteen, Amy responds to the Heinz dilemma by telling her interviewer “the situation is unreal.” Where would the cancer drug be, she asks, on a shelf in a drugstore? “I have a lot of trouble buying that story,” she says. When told by the camp director that her homesick cousin cannot call his parents because it is against the rules, Shaunya tells him, “Sorry, but he’s only seven. People are more important than rules.” When this open resistance can find no effective channel for expression, it may go underground and be held in silence, or it may become dissociated and held out of awareness, turning into a psychological resistance, a reluctance to know what one knows.
The later timing of girls’ encounter with the systemic enforcement of patriarchal gender codes and mores also means that girls’ resistance tends to be closer to consciousness and more accessible to recovery, whether through the associative patterns of memory and artistic endeavors or through shifts in societal and cultural resonances. To say that violence occurs when women’s voices are silent or silenced does not mean that women are not or cannot be violent. As a generalization, it is true that girls are more schooled in relationships, more adept in the processes of rupture and repair, and that violence itself is gendered masculine, associated with militarism and with honor. But the critical importance of women’s voices lies in the recognition that for a variety of reasons, women are more likely to recognize and name the patriarchal story as a false story. It is a story so patently false in its representation of women and men (it’s nonsense to say that women don’t think or men don’t feel, or that women have relationships and men have selves) that the question becomes: why are these gender stereotypes so persistent and why do we repeat them?
To return then to where I began, what stands in the way of listening to women? What keeps a woman from saying what she really feels and thinks? When I was interviewing pregnant women about abortion decisions, Larry Kohlberg, at that point my colleague on the faculty, had his Harvard class vote on whether abortion is a moral dilemma. He reported that they voted it was not because the fetus doesn’t have rights. I remember thinking: so, women were talking about nothing? There was no moral issue? What struck me at the time and still does today is the dissonance between the ways I heard and continue to hear women wrestle with the ethical issues involved in choosing whether to continue or abort a pregnancy and the terms of the public abortion debate. For many women, the overriding ethical questions have less to do with whether or not the fetus has rights in some abstract moral universe and more to do with how to resolve conflicts of responsibility and care. Yet it remains difficult for a woman to raise these concerns within the framework of the rights debate without being misheard or misunderstood, at worst called a murderer, or else told she is making a fuss over nothing.
In writing In a Different Voice, I became starkly aware that if I listened to the voices of women I would be challenging the voices of authority. I framed the argument of my book as a syllogism: if women’s voices differ from the voice of psychological and moral theory, is the problem in women or in the theory? My answer was both: there was a problem in theory—a need for a different voice—and this in turn created a problem for women and men living in a world where the reigning constructions of reality and morality did not jibe with their experience—a world where it was necessary for a woman to learn to think in a way that differed from the way she really thought if she wanted to be heard and understood. Bringing women’s voices into what was then called the human conversation changed the voice of that conversation by shifting the paradigm, changing the frame. Like a sound piercing a silence, women’s voices broke through a collective not knowing or dissociation. Once women were speaking more openly about their experiences, including their experiences of incest and other forms of abuse, it became easier for men to speak about their experiences of violation, leading to the exposure of the widespread priest sexual abuse scandal.
In The Birth of Pleasure, I raise the question: why are we so drawn to tragic love stories? and suggest it is because they tell a story we know and have to understand, a trauma story we otherwise tend to repeat. The tragic love story is the quintessential story of patriarchy—the story of Abraham and Isaac, Jepthe and his daughter, Agamemnon and Iphigenia. It conveys a willingness on the part of fathers to sacrifice love for the sake of hierarchy and honor, but also, more subtly, the recognition that love is the enemy of patriarchy, crossing its boundaries, dissolving its hierarchies, and thus challenging its most fundamental assumptions about how things are and how things have to be. Think of West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet. We know now that the failure to care leads to an inability to care and that the antithesis of voice is violence.
In the years since I wrote In a Different Voice, research in the human sciences has changed our understanding of the human condition. In The Age of Empathy (2010), the primatologist Frans de Waal calls for “a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature” (p. 7), noting that these assumptions have been skewed by the emphasis on competition and aggression. His research provides extensive evidence of the empathic nature of primates including humans, and scientists more generally now speak of “emotional intelligence,” the “relational self,” and the “feeling brain.” The old gender binaries are coming undone. But in this changing conversation, a history tends to be lost or rewritten: these insights came initially from listening to women who joined reason with emotion, self with relationship, mind with body. In an age of climate change, pandemics, and nuclear weapons, interdependence has become self-evident. And with this recognition, it becomes obvious, as Patricia Papperman writes, that “There is nothing exceptional about vulnerable people.” Vulnerability, once associated with women, is a characteristic of humans.
Looking forward then, we can expect a struggle. As long as the different voice sounds different, the tensions between democracy and patriarchy continue. Once the ethic of care is released from its subsidiary position within a justice framework, it can guide us by framing the struggle in a way that clarifies what is at stake and by illuminating a path of resistance grounded not in ideology but in our humanity. If along the path we lose our way, we can remind ourselves to listen for voice, to pay attention to how things are gendered, and to remember that within ourselves we have the ability to spot a false story.