Carefully Smash the Patriarchy

CreditCreditSasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

Carefully Smash the Patriarchy

Carol Gilligan, author of the feminist classic “In a Different Voice,” reminds us that we’re all humans.

CreditCreditSasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

On the last day of January, more than 100 people poured into the Rare Book Room at the Strand bookstore to hear Carol Gilligan, a veteran of second wave feminism, and Naomi Snider, a former student of Dr. Gilligan’s at New York University, talk about patriarchy, and what to do about it. Though the crowd on that chilly night was not quite as large as that which had turned out a few weeks earlier to see the tidying guru, Marie Kondo, at the 92nd Street Y, the crush showed that the dominance of men continues to be a societal bugbear. (Incidentally, the “cleaning house” that Ms. Kondo teaches is exactly what many want to do with the patriarchy.)

To remind, patriarchy divides just about everything into that which is male and that which is female, and privileges the former over the latter. In the last millennium, patriarchy was the common foe of feminist voices both literary (Virginia Woolf) and political (Kate Millett), but by the end of the 20th century, it seemed to have lost its potency, with third and fourth wavers eschewing the term as a lexical artifact that was too reductive to deal with the myriad injustices of contemporary life.

But then Trump was elected, and a year later, the #MeToo movement took wing. It wasn’t long before the line “Smash the patriarchy” was getting vigorously hashtagged on social media and printed (in one version or another) on T-shirts, posters and book jackets. It was 1971 all over again.

Though they didn’t anticipate being this much a part of the zeitgeist, Dr. Gilligan and Ms. Snider published a book on the topic just before the midterm elections last fall. “Why Does Patriarchy Persist?” is a gentle dialogue between Dr. Gilligan and Ms. Snider that proposes a psychological reason for patriarchy — that it’s a defense against loss — that complements the agreed-upon explanation, which is that people in power don’t tend to give it up. It’s more forgiving than many conversations about men right now.

CreditSonny Figueroa/The New York Times

Reprising midcentury studies of children separated from their caregivers and more recent studies of infants (most notably the Still Face experiment, a gruesome display of what happens when babies’ efforts to connect with their mothers are thwarted), Dr. Gilligan and Ms. Snider explore the aftermath of trauma and the loss of connection. They suggest that the stages of that rupture, as they put it, which psychologists have described as protest, despair and detachment, mirror what happens when young women and young men mature and begin to display stereotypical male and female behaviors: e.g. the detached, heroic male; the selfless, overly nurturing female. (Detachment derives from two attachment styles that are considered pathologies — avoidant-attachment and anxious-attachment — and it’s from those respective affects, Dr. Gilligan and Ms. Snider suggest, that we get our cartoon male and female behaviors, in which intimacy suffers and emotion turns into playacting.)

“If you want to elevate one group of people over another,” Dr. Gilligan said, “you have to undercut our relational capacities as human beings. You have to stop the person at the top from feeling empathy for the people at the bottom. We saw this during the government shutdown.”

This is familiar territory for Dr. Gilligan, who has been examining the developmental differences between boys and girls, and how those differences can both support and subvert their relationships, ever since her first book, “In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development,” published in 1982, made her an academic celebrity.

Its insights and observations were drawn from literature, psychology and conversations with students at Harvard, where Dr. Gilligan was then an assistant professor and researcher, and interviews of women who were considering whether to have an abortion. The book presented a gendered view of moral challenges. Women, Dr. Gilligan wrote, seemed to make ethical choices that took into consideration their relationships and responsibilities to others; the young men tended toward a more abstract and individual ideal of justice.

“In A Different Voice” brought women, largely ignored by contemporary psychology, into the conversation. Back in 1982, the book was a sensation. As much a touchstone of second wave feminism as the poems of Adrienne Rich and Millett’s “Sexual Politics,” it spoke to and for women with a kind of lyrical compassion, who felt so-called weaknesses were being recast as strengths. But it also enraged many feminists who felt that Dr. Gilligan was taking the movement backward by cloaking women in old stereotypes as caregivers and nurturers.

Academics, too, took issue with the research: where were the peer reviews? Why weren’t the sample groups larger?

Dr. Gilligan, however, was writing from a more personal and literary place, more New Journalism than strict social science. Along with contemporary research she cited, among others, Chekhov, James Joyce and Mary McCarthy.

The book made Dr. Gilligan a feminist rock star, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, said recently. “It answered the charge that feminists want to be like men,” Ms. Pogrebin said. “It gave credit to women’s ways of thinking and feeling and contradicted the idea that all feminists are strident loudmouths because here was Carol’s wise, calm, authoritative voice presenting a more realistic spectrum of human behavior and emotional understanding.”

Velvet revolution? The American feminist, ethicist, and psychologist Carol Gilligan photographed in her home.CreditSasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

Academia had not been a particular ambition. After studying literature at Swarthmore, she applied for a scholarship to study Shakespeare in England and also applied for a fellowship in clinical psychology at Radcliffe. She got into Radcliffe first, so she went there. “I remember my beloved English teacher at Swarthmore asking, ‘But what do you want to do?’ I thought that was a crazy question. And once I was there, all I could think of was how to get out.”

It was a snowy afternoon, and Dr. Gilligan was at home in her light-filled prewar apartment on Washington Square. It is plum housing for N.Y.U. professors like Dr. Gilligan and her husband, James Gilligan, a clinical psychiatrist who has studied violence and the prison systems.

At 82, Dr. Gillian still looks every bit the ’60s-era radical bohemian feminist that registered voters in Cleveland’s inner city, performed with a modern dance troupe and feasted on the films of Ingmar Bergman. She wore black velvet pants, a black top and bottle green suede wedge boots. Her hair is long and a bit wild. Her smile dazzles.

She recalled growing up on the Upper West Side, the only child of a lawyer and a former decorator who studied psychology and education and took in refugees, and the grandchild of Jewish immigrants whose New World beginnings — the pushcarts, sweat shops and dry goods stores of the Lower East Side — gave her upbringing a European flavor.

In the late 1960s, Dr. Gilligan was newly married with three young sons, living in a Boston suburb, and trying to make some money by teaching at Harvard with Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst and disciple of Freud who studied the life cycle, and then Lawrence Kohlberg, the psychologist who explored moral development: “Mr. Identity and Mr. Morality,” as she put it. (Dr. Erikson coined the phrase “identity crisis.”) She kept thinking, Where are the women’s voices in these famous men’s studies?

“I was the only woman in my house,” she said. “The dog was male. The cat was male. Everybody at Harvard was male. It was sink or swim. You could say I was in a situation where the issue was heightened. What would it mean to bring a different voice into this household, this university, this conversation? Would it alter the conversation or stay outside and in the margins?”

When the book came out, she recalled, a sales rep from the publisher took her out to lunch. “It was very boring and I couldn’t figure out why he was there until he asked me, ‘Why is this book selling like this?’”

To date, over 700,000 copies of “In A Different Voice” have been sold, and it’s been translated into 17 languages. “I think it’s just been translated into Ukrainian,” Dr. Gilligan said.

While other academics and conservative thinkers were tying themselves in knots over Dr. Gilligan’s work, Harvard anointed her as its first gender studies professor. “When I got there,” she said, “I thought gender was something you did in Latin.” She went on to study young girls and young boys, noting the heartbreaking ways in which both began to lose voice, as she put it, and pioneer resilience programs for both genders. By 1994, the new Gender Equity and Education Act banned gender discrimination in classrooms; two years later, Time magazine celebrated her as one of the country’s 25 most influential people. Yet at the turn of the millennium, she was again pilloried. In May of 2000, Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, accused her in The Atlantic magazine of conducting a war against boys, arguing, falsely, that there were no studies to back up Dr. Gilligan and others who claimed that girls were suffering a crisis of confidence at adolescence.

“It was really amazing,” said Dr. Gilligan. “I’m trying to encourage healthy development in children, but you’d think I was trying to read them Karl Marx or something. I’m trying to encourage young girls’ strength and help them develop healthy resilience and working with young boys to help them retain this extraordinary sensitivity and somehow I’m in a war against boys? My research is this staging ground to turn boys into girls?”


Dr. Gilligan has published a gentle dialogue with Naomi Snider, a former student.CreditSasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

Dr. Gilligan found the whole thing particularly irritating and risible because she not only has three sons, she has four grandsons.

“I think part of what makes Carol’s work interesting right now has to do with the emerging understanding of gender as a spectrum, and the discussion of what is socially constructed and what is intrinsic,” said Peggy Orenstein, the feminist writer and journalist whose 1994 book “Schoolgirls” explored, with meticulous research, the confidence gap that girls of different American cultures faced at adolescence, and who was also pummeled by Ms. Sommers. “And there’s still debate over how to do that in a way that’s expansive rather than essentialist.”

There is a continued misconception that Dr. Gilligan’s work has been too essentialist, too “binary,” as Daphne Merkin, the cultural critic, said. “But she’s much more suggestive and nuanced than this view allows for,” she said. “When she talks about girls’ voices not being heard, she doesn’t just mean that feminine voice in the rhetorical sense, but the non-patriarchal voice, the emotive voice, the voice that speaks out of the affective life. So as we become more and more fragmented, like little atoms, she’s much more about looking at the whole. Hers is a more humane, inclusive and less reactive point of view. In this age of ideologues, she’s something of a throwback, more in the tradition of Virginia Woolf than a social scientist, in that her cultural view is dictated in part by her interior life and her ideas as well as by the goings-on in the world around her.”

Dr. Gilligan’s writing may frustrate because of its swirl of literary, personal and clinical anecdotes. There can be tangles and snarls of language. You might get lost in its allusions and references, particularly if you’re not up-to-date on your Sophocles, Old Testament tales or Woolf. But her voice on the page is as it is in real life: warm and inviting. Democracy, she said, is like love. It only works if everyone has a voice.

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, the immersive journalist who has written about prisoners and gang members and other people teetering on society’s margins, said in an email that Dr. Gilligan’s books are like road maps for the human condition. “Carol has an exquisite brain and a child’s truly open heart,” she wrote.

A couple of years ago, Dr. Gilligan and others founded the Radical Listening Project at N.Y.U., a method of cultural inquiry that could double as global therapy: conflict resolution but rendered on a personal scale, like StoryCorps or the work of Studs Terkel. Its practitioners include Ms. LeBlanc, who found it both intuitive and revelatory. “It formalized and made more rigorous much of what I do naturally, when I trust myself,” she said. “If patriarchy is an idealization of a past that requires silencing and lies, radical listening is the reckoning.”

Dr. Gilligan’s new book continues to try and universalize the intimate. The idea for it came out of a paper Ms. Snider wrote after reading “The Birth of Pleasure,” an earlier work of Dr. Gilligan’s, out in 2002, which included her research on young girls, boys and couples. Ms. Snider, now a research associate at N.Y.U., wrote a deeply personal essay that noted her father’s death when she was 5 and described how she steeled herself against emotion in response. Were the young boys and girls in Dr. Gilligan’s study doing something similar, she wondered? “I thought, ‘Wow, who are you?’” Dr. Gilligan recalled, and invited her to speak alongside her at a conference. Afterward, Dr. Gilligan’s editor at Polity Press said, “This is a book. Get it in before the midterms!”

Like much of the country, Dr. Gilligan watched Michael Cohen’s congressional hearing with fascination. And like many, she was struck by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s interrogatory style, and Elijah Cummings’s wrap-up. Did she see their voices — hers, a little bit male, in the stereotypical sense, and his, a little bit female — as a progression toward the sort of democratic exchange her work has attempted to incite?

“I thought she was fabulous,” Dr. Gilligan said of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, comparing her favorably to preteen subjects. “Like my 10- and 11-year-old girl resisters: speaking directly, asking her queries, no equivocation, no apology. And same with Elijah, like the 4- and 5-year-old boys who don’t shrink back from or cover their emotional sensitivity and intelligence. Yes, my insights are about a different voice, human, not male or female, and I do see the release of a human voice that is direct and compassionate as a progression toward democracy, and also a requisite for love.”

At the Strand event, the last question of the evening came from a teenage girl. What advice would Dr. Gilligan give to young girls who want to resist or protest, she said, “but don’t want to be labeled ‘nasty or angry women?’”

“Well, you are going to be labeled,” was Dr. Gilligan’s answer. “The question is, ‘What is your response?’”


An earlier version of a subheading to this article misstated the title of Carol Glligan's most famous book. As the article correctly notes, it is "In a Different Voice," not "A Different Voice."

Penelope Green is a Style reporter, covering home, garden and the built environment. She has been a reporter for the Home section, editor of Styles of The Times, an early iteration of Style, and a story editor at The New York Times Magazine. She lives in Manhattan. @greenpnyt Facebook


Published at Mon, 18 Mar 2019 15:19:25 +0000