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12 October 2023

Carol Gilligan: why I changed my mind on the gender binary

The psychologist was a feminist icon for her work on how gender shapes our morality. But now, in her eighties, she is revising her thesis.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Carol Gilligan began teaching psychology at Harvard University in the late 1960s, “there was a major problem in the field”. The male-dominated staff focused their research on men and boys. Women’s lives were almost never studied, which Gilligan found strange. In her 1977 Harvard Educational Review article “In a Different Voice”, she brought women into the conversation, and caused a stir.

Male psychologists whom Gilligan worked with and admired – such as Lawrence Kohlberg, best known for his theory of the stages of moral development, and the Freud disciple Erik Erikson, who coined the phrase “identity crisis” – supported her work. “Until” – she paused, and let out a furious burst of laughter – “‘Are you asking me to change my theory?’” She mimicked the men who would come up to her after she presented her research, men who admitted to having left out data on women because they “couldn’t make sense of it”. She remembered Erikson telling her that his wife, Joan, had woven a tapestry depicting his “eight stages of psychosocial development”. Gilligan’s research complicated his. “Are you asking me to unravel this weaving?” he asked Gilligan. Recalling their conversation 46 years later, she became deadpan, her voice lowering to little more than a whisper. “And my response was ‘yes’.”

Gilligan, who was born in New York City in 1936, was newly married with three young sons when she started teaching. She was politically active, protesting in the US civil rights movement and against the Vietnam War. Her undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, had been in literature. She hadn’t anticipated a career in academia, despite receiving her PhD in psychology in 1964. But she was attracted by the research money available in the social sciences. She began at the University of Chicago and became an assistant professor at Harvard in 1971.

In 1982 her article became a book, In a Different Voice, which included interviews with women who were considering abortion. Because her case studies were all women, she gendered their moral problems, arguing that when making decisions women tend to take into account their responsibilities to others, while men tend towards reason and more abstract ideas of justice. The “different voice” she identified was “a voice of care ethics”, Gilligan said. “At the time, I heard it as a feminine voice.” The book was a bestseller, described by her publisher as the “little book that started a revolution”. Gilligan became a pioneer of second-wave feminism, and the book remains a canonical text in psychology.

But Gilligan, now 86 years old, no longer sees things the same way. On a recent trip to London from her home in New York City, where she is a professor at New York University, she sat in her agent’s office drinking coffee, adjusting her chair to avoid the bright sunlight that shone through the window. Despite spending decades in university positions, she still looked every bit the counter-cultural free-thinker in a long black dress, velvet over-shirt and Birkenstock sandals, her long hair loose. “It’s been an amazing trip,” she said, looking back on her career. “I sort of walked into it. I didn’t even start out to study women. I was going to study draft resistors, so I’m indebted to Richard Nixon.” The American president ended military conscription in 1973, the same year that the US Supreme Court passed Roe vs Wade, the ruling guaranteeing the right to an abortion

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In 2023, the gendered approach of In a Different Voice feels outdated. Gilligan knows this, and has revised her ideas, updating them under the new title, In a Human Voice. Her characterisation of care ethics as “feminine” is “a problem”, she writes. Instead, “the voice of care ethics is a human voice… The gender binary – the construction of human capabilities as either ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ – is not only a distortion of reality, but a cornerstone of patriarchy.”

[See also: Jacqueline Rose: the gender binary is false]

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The “big shift” in Gilligan’s mindset came with what she calls “the girls’ work”, the decades she spent listening to school-age girls, which became the basis for her subsequent books. She was interested in the ways in which girls’ voices develop during adolescence. As a lover of literature, she was familiar with the “frank, fearless” girls’ voices in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. But Gilligan could not find this girl in the literature of psychology, so she sought her out herself.

Gilligan came across this “outspoken” girl frequently among younger age groups. In one study, an eight-year-old said that when she tried to speak at the dinner table, her brother and sister would interrupt her, “stealing” their mother’s attention. The girl explained that to solve the issue she now brought a whistle to dinner, and every time she was interrupted, she blew the whistle, and they stopped talking. Gilligan saw how a girl as young as eight was “reading the relational world” around her and making changes to improve her lot.

But as the girls grew into adolescence they weren’t so open. They would say things that sounded “banal”. Going against what she had been taught about objectivity as a researcher, Gilligan would probe. “I’d say: ‘Is that true? Do you really feel that way?’ And I would get the word ‘actually’, or ‘really’. ‘This is what I really think,’ or, ‘This is how I actually feel.’” By the time girls reach adolescence, “they know what people want them to say. And they start saying that.” Gilligan identified an “under voice”, which is what we really feel, and a “cover voice”, which is what our patriarchal society expects us to say.

Next she asked the “obvious question, which is: don’t boys do this too?” They do, Gilligan explained, referring to research her former students Judy Chu and Niobe Way have done on boys and men. “A voice that men thought would be heard as ‘feminine’, or ‘babyish’, or ‘gay’, they started to shield it. And that was what led me to say: this ‘different voice’ that’s gendered feminine, it’s a human voice.”

Pragya Agarwal, the data scientist and author of books including Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions, told me that Gilligan’s early work risked “feeding into harmful ideologies of essentialism in encoding certain behaviours as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. I felt that her work ignored the importance of gendered socialisation in creating these differences in men and women, especially the way girls from a young age are socialised to take over the burden of care, to be empathetic and self-sacrificing.”

But the way Gilligan has revisited and revised her thesis is admirable, Agarwal said. Gilligan is no longer “saying that girls and boys are different but that girls and boys have to perform in certain ways to be considered ‘real’ men and women”.

Gilligan conceived of the idea for In a Different Voice in the years following Roe vs Wade, while In a Human Voice arrives 15 months after the ruling was overturned in June 2022. More than 40 years on from her landmark book, women’s voices are still routinely ignored. “The reversal of Roe vs Wade tells you about the huge investment of American culture in silencing women. Roe vs Wade said to women: you have a voice; and Dobbs [vs Jackson, the Supreme Court decision that effectively overruled Roe vs Wade] says: you have no voice, if you become pregnant.” As US president, Donald Trump “made what was going on sub rosa out in the open”, she said. “What’s extraordinary is how many people joined him.”

Women, Gilligan suggested, are offered “a bargain” under patriarchy. “If you don’t say what you really think and feel, but you say what we would like you to say, then… what’s the line from The Tempest? ‘Honour, riches, marriage-blessing.’ If you want to say what you really think and feel, good luck to you! Because there will be real consequences. If you talk to any successful woman, she will tell you how she’s navigated this.”

For all its insistence on the “problem” of the gender binary, In a Human Voice doesn’t explicitly refer to non-binary and transgender people. But “the questioning of that gendering makes tremendous sense to me”, Gilligan said. To the young people who are saying “we’re non-binary”, she would reply: “You think there’s a problem with the gender binary? You’re right.”

It is rare for anyone with a public platform to revisit old work and openly admit they were wrong. It is rarer still in academia where the tendency, as shown in Erik Erikson’s reaction, is for a “selection bias”: to publish evidence that backs up a pre-proposed thesis. But given what Gilligan came up against in the early days of her career, she cannot see herself working any other way. “I tell my students: notice what happens when you replace judgement with curiosity. And that’s the edge I work on. I have a low tolerance for boredom! And I would get bored by my own work if I was just repeating it.”

“In a Human Voice” by Carol Gilligan is published by Polity Press.

[See also: Richard Dawkins: why biological sex matters]

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