In the current issue of the online journal Classics@, a publication of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies, Carol Gilligan looks back on her revolutionary book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Originally published in 1982, the book is widely credited for shocking the social sciences out of their assumptions about women, and their near-exclusive focus on men.
Gilligan begins her article by recalling some of the first indications that her now-classic book had struck a chord:
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.
In the article, titled “Looking Back to Look Forward: Revisiting In a Different Voice,” Gilligan presents a sense of the cultural and academic context from which the book sprang three decades ago. She reminds us that it was taken for granted at the time, and for a long time prior, that “the good woman cared for others: she listened to their voices and responded to their needs and concerns.” While noting that such caring is a good thing in itself, Gilligan’s work was about identifying the manner in which this “ethic of feminine goodness” underwrote the perceived normalcy of a focus on men in both academic research and everyday life, with women either overlooking or excusing their omission.
Throughout the article, she recalls the conversations at the heart of In a Different Voice, as in the following passage, where she remembers her research into the thought processes of women considering whether to continue or abort a pregnancy after Roe v. Wade:
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.
Gilligan uses her reflection on that era and on the intervention staged by her book to ask a series of questions about where these issues stand today: 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?
In the process of addressing those questions, Gilligan comes to what she calls a major point:
(C)are 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.
One of the most interesting aspects of Gilligan’s reflection in this article (which is available free online in full text), is how it helps us to see that her study of women actually eventually helped pave the way for more enlightened study of men, too. She cites Niobe Way’s work with young and adolescent boys, which we published last year as Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, for helping us to understand that it wasn’t just girls and women who had a different voice than the one that society and science chose to hear. Way found that young boys build very caring bonds with their friends, but that those caring instincts and the relationships that they support are discouraged and often abandoned as the boys age.
Gilligan concludes by noting that, though the tensions between democracy and patriarchy continue, an ethics of care released from its subsidiary position can guide us to a resistance grounded 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.”