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Conversation with Carol Gilligan

Carol Gilligan, Ph.D., named one of the 25 most influential Americans in 1996 by Time Magazine, has shown how the inclusion of women and girls’ voices changes the paradigm of psychology, opening up new ways of thinking about education and mental health. Her books include In a Different Voice, Meeting at the Crossroads, Between Voice and Silence, The Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy's Future, and The Birth of Pleasure. She recently released her first work of fiction, a novel, titled Kyra. Her latest book is Joining the Resistance (read an excerpt here). Together with her students, Gilligan founded the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development, and in 1997, she was appointed to Harvard’s first professorship in gender studies. Gilligan is currently a professor at New York University.

Carol Gilligan is on the Advisory Board of Feminist.com.


The following interview took place at the Women, Power & Peace Conference

Marianne Schnall: I recently interviewed Jane Fonda, and she talked so much about the influence that your work and writing had on her.

Carol Gilligan: Oh, she’s very generous. I admire her so much. I love her. She’s an inspiration, really.

MS: I was thinking about my interview with Jane, and this sort of wistfulness she expressed that it took her until sixty to come into what she felt was her true voice and her true power. As we’re sitting around talking at this conference about how all of us have the capacity to be Nobel Laureates - that we’re all capable of doing extraordinary things, and yet so many women have no idea of their own power and their true voice, which is so connected to your work. That seems like such an important component that still needs to be bridged.

CG: I agree with you. It’s the question that obsesses me right now. And I would say, it’s not even that women have no idea, but huge pressures are brought to bear on women to dismiss a truthful voice as “stupid”. That’s a quote from a girl. A thirteen-year-old who said, “When we were nine, we were stupid.” And I said to her, “You know,” - because she’d been in my studies, since she was nine, for five years. I said, “You know, it never would have occurred to me to use the word ‘stupid’ to describe you when you were nine. Because what struck me most about you, at that time, was how much she knew.” And she said, at thirteen, “I mean – when we were nine, we were honest.” So, huge pressures and enticements are given to us as women, to dismiss an honest voice as stupid, or, to hear it as crazy, or to see it as bad, or selfish, or wrong. So we know that voice – it’s just we’ve covered it with a label which, as we start to kind of reach for it, or it starts to come up, we’ve been inducted into a culture that would have us dismiss that voice, and take on – what would Gloria Steinem say? Become male impersonators. [laughs]

But the interesting thing, and this was the revelation of the work I did with my students on girls, was that’s not a male voice either. It’s a voice that boys take on much earlier to cover a much more emotionally open and intelligent voice of theirs that they learned to dismiss as “babyish” or as “sounding like a girl”. So what happens is the human voice gets shut down – earlier in boys, later in girls, and that human voice to me, right now, is absolutely crucial if humans, and the planet, and life on Earth is going to survive! The good news is, that voice is in each of us, and we all know it. It’s accessible. The bad news is, there are both psychologically and politically huge forces against listening to that voice. That you have to really contend with, either psychologically, personally or also as a society.

MS: It’s almost like women don’t even know this. Even for me, I just turned forty, but I feel like only recently, in my thirties that I was coming into a sense of who I truly am. And I look back and think, wow, I was on autopilot all that time – I’m having all these awakenings myself. And I have a nine-year-old daughter...

CG: That might explain this. [laughs] In part!

MS: And when she asks questions, or worries that she looks fat, or things like that, I really have to breathe deeply and think about how I am going to talk to her. But it’s a challenge – there’s no guidebook for this. Everything you are saying is so true, but how do we go about helping that along, in order to change society so that it can support those shifts that need to take place?

CG: I think that’s exactly the right question. That’s the question. But I think it’s easier – to me, it’s easier and harder. Which is – there’s no book that’s going to tell you how to do this. Because, first of all, the good news is – we don’t have to introduce something that’s not there! That voice is in your nine-year-old daughter. And she will resist coming to hear it as a stupid voice. And the point is, that’s a healthy resistance and how do you join that resistance. And when I was doing this work with girls, I started reading about the history of effective resistance movements. How do you resist? Really - honestly? It would be like how do you resist eating food that’s really bad for your body. How do you resist taking in a culture that’s really bad for your psyche, that leads you to come to dismiss or criticize or hate the most vital parts of you.

I had a fifteen-year-old in one of my studies, an Indian, Eastern American girl – she said, “The voice that stands up for what I believe in has been buried deep inside me.” The good news? It’s there. The question is, it’s been buried. Now, nobody buries that voice without a lot of incentive to do it, a reward for doing it. So then you have to say, “Well, who has a stake in that voice being buried?” And I would say, the people who have a stake in perpetuating long-standing systems of oppression which are in contradiction with our values and vision as a democratic society. You know, that sustains slavery with democracy, and patriarchy with democracy, and economic inequality which is worsening now – and all of those forces have a stake in silencing that voice that would resist not seeing what you’re seeing, and not knowing what you know, basically.

So – on the one hand, a lot of people have nine-year-old girls in their houses, or four year-old boys, and are in exactly the dilemma you’re in. So that’s the leverage. But – if you think you can go to the self-help section of the store and buy a book – what you have to do is form connections with other parents, and other citizens and teachers, because what we’re talking about is changing the culture. If you knew that you were living in a toxic environment, you would have to ask, how do you strengthen the immune system of children? Because the body has a natural immunity to disease. Well, the psyche has a natural immunity. So how do we strengthen healthy resistance in children – a lot of my work is about that.

And boy – I’ll tell you something, we heard Rigoberta Menchu Tum say this morning, “The minute you touch power, you’re different.” When I did that speaking - saying here are the points where psychological health, actually the grounds for political health, that is for real democracy, are coming into conflict with an initiation process that would basically suppress the immune system. And the force that was unleashed against my work at that point was rather daunting! [laughs] I was just a psychologist with a bunch of students studying girls voices – suddenly the American Enterprise Institute is going after me [laughs], major media…

MS: You knew you were on to something.

CG: Yeah! I published a book, “The Birth of Pleasure” saying, we’re witnessing the end game of patriarchy, and the contradiction between democracy and patriarchy is out in the open now - and boy, did the media go after me for that! Then my friends said, you must really be on to something. [laughs]

MS: How do you see the connection between your work and this conference?

CG: Oh – it couldn’t be more totally aligned. Yeah. And V-Day – stop violence against women, stop traumatizing women. Women, power and peace – because women’s voices bring the truth of relationships – it’s not that that’s a women’s truth, but men speaking in a conversation in which women have no voice, or no voice that’s connected with women’s experience, can talk as if they’re not living in relationship. You know, because I've lived in New England for so many years I love the Emerson example: Ralph Waldo Emerson sitting in his study in Concord writing about autonomy, how autonomous the individual is. Meanwhile he's maintained by this household that is feeding him, doing his laundry [laughs]. Once these people start to speak – he can’t talk about autonomy in the same way. So the theory of Emerson and autonomy and all that is built on that, is contingent on these women not speaking or saying, “Yes, Ralph Waldo, you are the most autonomous man,” and in other words disappearing. Do you know what I mean?

The point is, women’s voices are essential to a conversation that will give voice to the relational nature of human beings and the human condition, which is the condition for peace. My work is so in line with this conference [laughs] – it’s like, oh wow – I’ve been listening to these amazing women, just astonishing. And one of the messages of the conference too is, can we know what we know? Which is a big theme in my work as a psychologist, the pressures on us to disassociate, to separate our minds from our bodies, and our thoughts from our emotions and ourselves from our relationships.

MS: This is the second Women & Power conference you have participated in. What do you think the presence of the Nobel Laureates brings to this event?

CG: Oh, it is so inspiring. Oh, God. And the women from the conflict zones. I mean, listening to Christine [Christine Schuler Deschryer from the Congo] this morning – it’s so important that we know what’s going on in the rest of the world. I’ve spent some time in England, and when you read the British papers, you are aware that there’s more to the world than Britain. But you can read the American papers, or listen to what’s called news on television, and it’s like there’s no world out there. So to have these incredible women from these parts of the world who’ve done these unbelievably amazing, courageous things – it’s so inspiring, it’s great.

MS: It’s sad, though, that in so many cases, that it takes witnessing suffering or suffering oneself to inspire women to find their strength and courage and become activists.

CG: Every mother of a nine-year-old should be an activist. Every mother of a nine-year-old girl who cares about her child’s health and the future of this democracy or the planet, because that’s the time for activism. Every parent of a four-year-old boy – same thing. I mean, honestly. I’m hoping tomorrow morning [the next day she led a panel called “Listening to Girls & Boys” with Pat Mitchell, Jane Fonda and Kerry Washington] to make that connection. And to say that the seeds of change – that’s sort of a cliché but – are basically within all of us. And if we forget, these are the groups to hang out with – nine, ten, eleven year-old girls, and four-year old boys. And you can just see the effect they have on any adult around – they recall something that’s been lost, in all of us. And then they start up this silencing thing that we’ve learned to do within ourselves, we start to do it to the children and we realize we’re silencing what we love most in these children. The life in them. But then we realize that if we’re going to foster the growth of our children, we have to become activists. We have to take on these forces in our political system that are deforming our children.

MS: You talked about the media – one of the speakers today talked about coming here and it being like coming to an oasis in a desert, because these themes are nowhere - everything that we’re talking about, peace and women’s power and women’s voices…

CG: You’d never know, right.

MS: So – why? Why are these themes never talked about or covered in the mass media?

CG: Well, the media has a rather bad track record [laughs] – they missed Iraq too, they somehow rolled over with the stolen election [laughs] – why would this be in the media? But – the Internet. [she nods]

MS: Absolutely, I agree with you there.

CG: I mean, the thought! If you ever watch the evening news on TV, they’re advertising, you know, diapers for grownups [laughs] – its like, I mean, what is going on?

MS: It also seems to induce a sense of powerlessness over all these scary things – "Global warming! Pesticides in our food! Breast cancer! Terrorism and rape and violence! And there’s nothing you can do about it!"

CG: In fact, we know that there’s a lot you can do. It’s not that it’s easy. That’s why with these women here, they’ve done such hard things, that it makes what we need to do look a little less overwhelming. I love being here.

MS: Jane Fonda was just talking about, what are we going to do about our sons and grandsons? That seems to be such an important point that often gets lost in feminist work, including men and boys.

CG: Totally, totally. I define feminism as one of the great liberation movements in human history – the move to free democracy from patriarchy. Patriarchy, which is used now as sort of a code word to mean men’s oppression of women – it’s not! It’s a system, a hierarchy where hieros means priest and where the priest (the hieros) is a father (pater). It’s an order of living where a father, or some fathers control access to truth, or salvation, or knowledge. And it affects men as well as women. And my research shows it affects men at a much earlier age – the pressures on little boys to internalize a patriarchal voice, occurs around five. And the pressures – the shaming of boys that does not – “you’re gay, you’re a girl, you’re a mama’s boy” – so it’s almost like a strategy of the patriarchy to characterize it as though men are the victors and women are the losers. If you actually look at who gets killed most – now that childbirth is no longer so deadly... You know what I’m saying? It’s a system of oppression that cuts off everyone from parts of themselves. It makes a line between men and women, and between men and boys, between men and children, between some men and other men.

MS: It’s funny because people always say, oh, boys will be boys – this is just how they’re born…

CG: It’s not, it’s not. If you ever hang around with little boys – I’m a mother of three boys, and I have four grandsons. And that is not how boys are. It’s really interesting.

MS: We make so many assumptions about boys and girls, you know, girls play with dolls, boys play with trucks - it’s so ingrained in our culture that we just don’t even realize our part in perpetuating that.

CG: There are some differences in the way that girls and boys tend to play. But that doesn’t mean that boys have no feelings and girls can’t think. You know?

MS: Where do you see the most promise in terms of creating change on these issues. Is it in education, the media…

CG: Yeah, I do, I do.

MS: Education?

CG: Well, let me say – I’d like to see it everywhere. And the media’s crucial, because it’s where people get information. But I think, to me, once you see this developmental thing, then you realize education is absolutely key. Then you see why they’re trying to clamp down on education, so teachers have to teach to the test, because education was starting to work, and things were starting to change. [laughs] Education is like non-violent revolution. Things can change.

MS: Do you see much change or improvement since you wrote ‘In a Different Voice’?

CG: Oh, my God! The world of “In a Different Voice” – you wouldn’t recognize that world. I mean, you really wouldn’t.

MS: Well, that’s a good sign.

CG: I mean that “In a Different Voice” is still in print is interesting, because it should be outdated. Women’s voices should have transformed the conversation. And the fight is still over the entry of women into the conversation, particularly if women change the conversation by entering it, as opposed to learning to talk in the ways things have always been talked about.

MS: If you were President of the United States – I don’t even know if that’s a good analogy – but what would be some of the first changes you would want to make? I am sure you would have a long list. What is the most important priority?

CG: Now? Oh, first of all the most urgent is probably the planet. I mean all of these cut-off relationships between ourselves and our environment, in terms of educating. Jane was talking about that – the head and the heart. And I would allocate funds, first to all the people who aren’t cared for, that's a wonderful point. I mean, in a way it’s obvious. You have to change the paradigm. So we’ve been caught within a paradigm that traps us into a series of alternatives, none of which really quite make sense. You know those old Gestalt psychology experiments where you could see a vase or you could see two faces? And it’s like we’re looking at the vase and we’re not seeing the faces. So I would try to shift how people see it – in that sense, artists would be crucial and the media would be crucial. Education too.

But the idea that the seeds of that transformation are in all of us. That makes it – it’s not an ideology, it’s freeing something that we know.

MS: I recently wrote something called Reflections in which I tried to make sense of the connection between our inner world and our outer world, which is why I think this is so great that this conference is held at Omega, because it has that overtone to it, which seems so important.

CG: And you know it’s interesting – all of my work is about that, but as psychologists, once we started to do that, our work was called political. As if the psyche is or should be isolated from what is going on politically like in a space capsule [laughs] and unaffected by the world around it, or as if the culture perpetuated itself, and there was no resistance on the part of the psyche, to perpetuating ways of living that are so destructive.

MS: Are you optimistic?

CG: I am optimistic and realistic at the same time. I’m optimistic because I see the lever for change. I mean, I know it’s in everybody. I can go into any community and start to amplify the voices of the children and create a huge dilemma for parents and educators. [laughs] Seriously! At the same time, the forces marshaled against this change are daunting. That’s why these women are so great because they’ve gone up against daunting forces. It’s amazing. It says, you can do it!

MS: You’ve been working at this for a long time. What is the source of all of your energy and passion on this?

CG: The first thing that comes to mind when you say that, is I was really privileged to live in the generation that stopped nuclear testing, that did civil rights, that did feminism – I mean the University I went to graduate school in and started teaching in, does not look like the University I’m in today. You know what I’m saying? So I saw that these systems that were supposedly engraved in stone, could be changed by people taking action.

And – again, living at that time, when grades were used to determine who would go to Vietnam, I was teaching that year at the University of Chicago. A group of us - we were all young, untenured - refused to turn in our grades. This is not about who lives and dies! And the sky didn’t fall down. And we went on and had lives. And so that was incredible to me – I saw huge change. And that you could have an effect – people could have an effect, and particularly working together. We used to say in the seventies, those of us who were doing feminist work, we are all doing parts of one work. That’s how it felt at the time.

MS: Running a site called Feminist.com, I am constantly made aware that there are so many misconceptions about feminism. What would your definition of feminism be and what should the feminist movement be concentrating on?

CG: Well, I said I think of feminism as the movement to liberate democracy from patriarchy – it’s in the interest of men, women, the planet, the future. And it is one of the most important liberation movements in human history. And the question to me is, we’re seeing, I think, the end game of patriarchy now. What I don’t know is if they are willing to destroy the planet and everybody on it, in order to avoid giving up that kind of power.

MS: Lately I’ve been having this sense of the awakening of women, the rising of the feminine, coming to heal the world – you really almost feel that energy.

CG: Yeah, yeah! It’s so strong.

MS: But you’re right, you can also feel the strong resistance to it.

CG: The return of fundamentalism, Puritanism – like, what?

MS: That’s why the seeds of what’s happening at this conference are so exciting and so hopeful, and I just hope we can get it out there in the biggest way.

CG: In time, in time! Before someone drops a nuclear bomb, I mean honestly. Or the polar ice caps melt. Like, what is this? Why are we talking about abortion and gay marriage?

MS: Lately, I like to think that things needed to get so bad to slap us in the face and wake us up - because I’ve been noticing that people who really didn’t care about the news, and really weren’t paying attention are suddently speaking out against the war or trying to be environmentally-aware...

CG: I know! Right!

MS: Because we had all sort of assumed, everything’s taken care, trust our leaders – you know what I’m saying?

CG: Now we’ve seen what happens when you leave things to our so-called leaders.

MS: What can people do?

CG: Like I said, in our own lives! Join healthy resistance on the part of children, so it doesn’t go on for another generation. And doing that means becoming active in making the world one in which the capacities that are part of our human nature, that is, the relational capacities that are necessary for democracy and peace, can be educated, developed, flourish. And in the meantime, try to do a holding pattern so that these kids have time. And the children will change us – and that's the part of doing this for the children, that’s the beauty of it, it’s almost built into the life cycle. If you really are serious about raising a healthy child, psychologically, you have to become an activist now.

MS: And ending on a hopeful note, what do you hope this conference accomplishes?

CG: Giving everybody a sense of possibility – I mean look at what these women have taken on! If they’ve done this, I certainly can do something.



Other interviews by Marianne Schnall

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©Marianne Schnall. No portion of this interview may be reprinted without permission of Marianne Schnall .

Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.

Marianne's new book based on her interviews, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com.

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