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.