THE BOOK THAT LISTENED TO GIRLS

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        It was a massive project.  Asking, probing, analyzing, the Harvard psychologist studied 84 children, following them for 20 years.  The conclusions were “important.”  From the toddler’s “mine, mine, all mine!” to the higher justice of Gandhi, there are six stages of moral development, Lawrence Kohlberg said.  Few adults move beyond stage four — what the law says is right — period!  And fewer women than men reach that stage.

        When Kohlberg’s stages were published, they were all but chiseled on the walls of every school in the land.  Too bad about women, though.  But hadn’t Freud said, “for women the level of what is ethically normal is different from what it is in men”?  And didn’t the scarcity of women in law and politics suggest the same?  

        Then, as Kohlberg was praised and cited, his assistant spoke up.  Um, didn’t anyone notice?  Those 84 children?  They were all boys.  Might girls speak “in a different voice?”

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        When Carol Gilligan sat at her kitchen table to begin writing, gender studies was in utero.  Gilligan did not expect to publish more than a paper in a psych journal. She had three sons to raise plus her teaching at Harvard.  But it was 1975.  The U.N. had declared it the International Year of the Woman.  Books about women were topping best-seller lists. Something was in the air, something more vital than following every utterance of “he” with a quick “or she!” Gilligan kept writing.

        In a Different Voice remains one of those rare books that opened new roads.  For the first time, a psychologist studied how girls — just girls — think.  And they do not always think like boys.  Consider Amy and Jake, each eleven years old.

         Kohlberg asked boys to solve a moral dilemma.  Heinz’s wife is dying and he can’t afford the drugs that would save her. Would it be moral for Heinz to steal the drugs?

        Jake, reasoning that “a human life is worth more than money,” says yes.  But Amy says no.  Poor Amy!  She must be morally stunted!  Will she become a secretary or a nurse? Perhaps neither, Gilligan suggests. Listen.

        If Heinz steals the drug, Amy told Gilligan, he’d save his wife, all right.  But then he’d be in jail and wouldn’t be able to care for her.  She might die anyway.  So maybe he could borrow the money?  Or talk it over with the druggist?  And they could “reach something besides stealing”?

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        For Gilligan, Amy and Jake were not just kids climbing a moral ladder.  They were archetypes.  Jake embodied the “ethics of judgment” — isolated, rigid, either/or.  Amy embodied the “ethics of care” — relational, fluid, empathic.  Might these contrasting ethics explain a few things about the world?

        Gilligan carefully avoided a preference for either ethic.  And she cautioned, on page 2, against using her findings in any battle of the sexes.  “The different voice I describe is characterized not by gender but theme.  Its association with women is an empirical observation and it is primarily through women’s voices that I trace its development.  But this association is not absolute. . .  In tracing development, I point to the interplay of these voices within each sex.”

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        Still, In a Different Voice touched several nerves. Released in 1982, the year the Equal Rights Amendment died, the book was an instant success.  Translated into 16 languages, it sold 700,000 copies. Teachers who had been taught six rigid stages began to listen more carefully to girls’.  Women’s studies departments, happy to have a brief, readable tome that went beyond theory to quote Shakespeare, Joyce, and Chekhov, made the book required reading.  Gilligan went on to teach at several universities, to chair Harvard’s first Gender Studies program, and most recently to publish a novel and write an opera.

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        With time, however, critics pounced.  Psychologists, some of them women, questioned Gilligan’s methodology, finding her results hard to replicate or verify.  Gilligan, now 81 and still teaching, wasn’t surprised. She based her conclusions on interviews, not statistical surveys, and never meant for her ideas to be set in stone.  “I thought of the book as the opening of a conversation,” she said, “certainly not the close of one.”

        Decades later, the conversation continues.  In a Different Voice, still controversial, is still widely read.  Gilligan’s work inspired the federal Gender Equity in Education Act, but it also inspired girls — and women — to value their voices.  One psychologist who challenged Gilligan’s methodology acknowledged her as “a major intellectual contributor at the time.  She’s like Freud.  Today his ideas have less credibility, and we don’t use them so much in scientific psychology.”  But in 1982, Carol Gilligan made “a revolutionary step forward.”