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Carol Gilligan: On Gender, Democracy, Society

Carol Gilligan, Ph.D., named one of the twenty-five most influential Americans in 1996 by Time magazine, forced revolutionary changes in the fields of psychology, philosophy, moral theory, gender studies, and education by the inclusion of hitherto largely unrecognized women and girls' voices. Together with her students, Gilligan founded the Harvard Project on Women's Psychology and Girls' Development and, in 1997, was appointed to Harvard's first professorship in gender studies. Her books include the international bestseller In a Different Voice, Meeting at the Crossroads, Between Voice and Silence, The Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy's Future, The Birth of Pleasure, and a novel, Kyra. Her latest book, Joining the Resistance, is a combination memoir and reevaluation of her life's work in the context of the twenty-first century. Gilligan is currently University Professor at New York University.

BIOGRAPHILE: It's 2014, and gender stereotypes are still so persistent, despite the increase in the number, influence, and value of women in all professions; gender bias is still rampant. Why is this?

CAROL GILLIGAN: After watching a YouTube video displaying gender stereotypes, the ten-year-old daughter of a friend asked:"Who believes this?" When her mother, who was cooking, answered vaguely,"Everyone," the girl said,"Why do people believe things that they know are not true?" And that's the question: We know it's absurd to say that boys don't feel and girls don't think, that men don't care and women are not concerned about justice, that men are independent and women dependent, that men are powerful and women are powerless -- the list is endless. What investment do we have in perpetuating these vacuities? My research and that of my colleagues Judy Chu and Niobe Way offers an answer.

When human qualities are split into"masculine" or feminine," it becomes unmanly for boys and men to reveal those aspects of themselves that would lead them to be called"girly" or"gay," and it becomes unseemly for girls and women to speak honestly and say what they really feel and think. The persistence of gender stereotypes reflects the extent to which we, meaning both women and men, continue to dissociate ourselves from parts of our humanity.

BIOG: You came of age in the 1970s, during the second wave of feminism, which you've defined as the movement to liberate democracy from patriarchy. Why is patriarchy so inimical to democracy? And why is feminism still so divisive?

CG: Equal voice is a central value of democracy. In our personal lives, democracy means equality of voice in relationships; politically, it means giving equal voice to everyone, especially stigmatized minorities. Patriarchy privileges the voices of fathers. Equal voice is the condition for free and open conversation or debate. The tension between democracy and patriarchy reflects the tension between equality and hierarchy. In a 2009 New Yorker cover story, Ariel Levy posed the question:"Why is feminism still so divisive?" and suggested that feminism has been plagued by “a kind of false-memory syndrome." This"cultural memory disorder," she observed, has kept us from remembering the radical insight that the politics of equality are incompatible with the structure of the traditional family. The goal of full citizenship for women implied a societal transformation that would have"changed this country on a cellular level." Childcare was the bone of contention. In 1971, when President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which both houses of Congress had passed -- the act that would have established both early education programs and after-school care across the country -- childcare became, in Levy's words,"a luxury affordable by the affluent, and a major problem for everyone else." Feminism became identified with the interests of privileged, mostly white women, who then divided among themselves over whether it is possible to defend patriarchal structures and still call oneself a feminist -- as Sarah Palin and others have done -- or whether feminism implied a commitment to transforming society.

BIOG: You've framed the characteristics of the"male voice" as synonymous with achievement, separation, neglect of nurturance, and intimacy, while the"female voice" is empathetic, relational, cooperative. Are girls still praising the emperor's new clothes? Squelching their"honest voices"? Rewriting their life stories to conform to accepted scripts?

CG: It's more accurate to say that I identified the voice that prioritized achievement and separation over love and relationships as a"male voice" – one that labels caring and emotional intimacy as"feminine" concerns. Women gave voice to aspects of human experience that for the most part had been unspoken and unseen. I'm fascinated by the question of how we come to overlook the obvious or learn not to say what is right before our eyes. In coming of age, girls enter a world where people are praising the emperor's new clothes, and girls' voices remain disruptive.

BIOG: In A Different Voice, you expose the gap between girls' experience and a socially constructed reality. Thirty years later, how has this work held up? Have women's voices transformed the conversation?

CG: In many ways, they have. It used to be said that women were too emotional to be intelligent. Now we value"emotional intelligence." Empathy and cooperation used to be spoken of as"feminine" traits, but now they are recognized as human strengths. Once these qualities are valued, they lose their association with women, but it's important to remember that women's voices were key in bringing about this recognition.

BIOG: You argue that, within the patriarchal framework, care is a feminine ethic but in a democratic framework, it's a human ethic. Why is this distinction important?

CG: In Professions for Women, Virginia Woolf wrote of strangling the Angel in the House and claimed to have acted in self-defense:"Had I not killed her, she would have killed me." The feminine ethic of care is a killer. It strangles a woman's voice in the name of goodness. But a goodness attained by rendering oneself"selfless," seemingly without a voice of one's own, is morally suspect. A key insight that led me to write In a Different Voice came from listening to women call whatever they wanted to do"selfish," while considering doing what others wanted them to do or thought they should do as"good." I found myself asking women: If it's good to be empathic with people and responsive to their concerns, why is it selfish to respond to yourself? And in that historical moment -- it was the mid-1970s, the height of second-wave feminism -- woman after woman responded by saying,"Good question." Within a democratic framework, care is a human ethic. Care is a feminist ethic in that it is the ethic that guides the move to free democracy from patriarchy.

BIOG: What do we risk when we stop talking about gender?

CG: We risk not saying what we see and not knowing what we know: that gender continues to affect and destabilize both our democracy and our personal lives.

BIOG: What does it mean to be a good mother to an adolescent daughter coming of age today? What can women teach girls about resistance and courage and love in the face of indifference, cruelty, and violence? What can we teach them about living fully in a world that is still largely governed by men?

CG: An article this past July in The New York Times speaks directly to that question. Written by Catherine Newman, the mother of a ten-year-old, it is titled:"I Do Not Want My Daughter to Be ‘Nice'." Newman writes that her daughter is"deeply kind, profoundly compassionate, and probably the most ethical person I know -- but she will not smile at you unless either she is genuinely glad to see you or you're telling her a joke that has something scatological for a punchline." Newman,"a radical, card-carrying feminist," confesses,"This makes her different from me." In ending her article, she sums up the challenge she faces:"God help me if that girl ends up smiling through her entire life as if she is waitressing or pole-dancing or apologizing for some vague but enormous infraction, like the very fact of her own existence."

BIOG: Tell us something about yourself that we won't find on Google.

CG: I'm a Red Sox fan and one of the joys of this past year was going to a game with two of my grandsons -- nine-year-old Benny who knows all the players and can recite their stats, and his brother, seven-year-old Noah who smiled through every inning as the Red Sox won.

BIOG: The classic do-over question: Is there anything you wish you'd done that you haven't, or anything you wish you'd done differently?

CG: What I wish is that I had found the time to learn more languages, and like Kyra in my novel, I have always wanted to play the oboe.

This interview originally appeared at Biographile.

Other features at Feminist.com:

  • Conversation with Carol Gilligan by Marianne Schnall

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

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