Monday, December 03, 2007

Gilligan's Island

Continuing through Susan Faludi's Backlash, I've just finished a section on prominent anti-feminist personalities of the 1980s and some of the "turncoat" feminists of the same era. As I met Robert Bly (the Iron John, Wild Man guru), Betty Friedan (whose Second Stage proposed that women were being too aggressive and they needed to switch to a "Beta style"--read passive--approach to change), and Michael "Men Are Better At Math" Levin, I was surprised to see Carol Gilligan lumped in with the Backlashers.

I first encountered Carol Gilligan's work in graduate school; in a course on student development, I was assigned a project to read Gilligan's landmark book In a Different Voice and the literature on how this impacted student development theory, and create a presentation and paper on my analysis. When I read In a Different Voice, I had two thoughts in the forefront of my mind:

1) I appreciated that Gilligan was disputing the idea of an ethics model based solely on a study of men.
2) I didn't feel that I spoke in the "different voice" that Gilligan was describing.

My paper specifically tackled how Gilligan's theories could apply to student development, and how college advisors, instructors, residence life staff and so forth could be sensitive to the needs of female students. And yet, the second half of my paper dealt with Gilligan's detractors:

Carol Gilligan made a significant contribution to many different fields when she began her work, citing differences between men and women in how they perceive morality. However, while her work is very important, it is also important to consider her critics. In recent years, many have attacked Gilligan’s studies, claiming she has created a “voice of victimhood” for women, by reviving the Victorian ideal of the “good woman” (Heyes, 1997). Another common accusation is that she has over-generalized in her work, casting men as isolated, patriarchal figures who have no knowledge of caring, while women are only caring and relational, and have little autonomy (Barnett & Rivers, 2004). It has also been noted that while Gilligan criticized her predecessors for studying a narrow sample of white upper-class males, in her landmark book, she herself examined a very small sample of white, middle-class females. When applying her theories to student development, it is important to keep these limitations in mind. Particularly, one should not that while differences exist between men’s and women’s views of morality, the difference is not gender-specific, but rather gender-related. Not all women rely solely on the ethics of caring and relationships, and not all men are isolated upholders of the patriarchy.

From my vantage point in the present, I think it was important that Gilligan chose to explore the idea of a "female voice." This goes hand in hand with my own theory that we should stop viewing men as the overarching norm for societal behaviors and give credence to women as half of the existing norm, instead of a deviation from the male existence. However, by characterizing women as "different," she sets women up as almost a separate species, and a quiet one at that.

Which is where my observation of my own voice comes in. I don't fit the mold of the "ethics of care" model. My personality is often defined through my aggressiveness, my competitive nature, and my willingness to be the first to speak up, or stand in front of the room. I sometimes have difficulty navigating complex webs of relationships, and I don't harbor much in the way of maternal instincts. If I were being measured on an ethics scale, I'd rather be held up to Kohlberg's and not Gilligan's.

After thinking it over, I would say that I can agree with Susan Faludi's decision to put Carol Gilligan into the anti-feminist canon; not necessarily because of what Gilligan wrote, but because of the way its presentation allowed a host of people from the author's of the bestseller Smart Women/Foolish Choices to James Dobson of conservative bastion Focus on the Family to co-opt her work as a justification for women to abandon careers and return to the home, that stronghold of feminine "power."

1 responses:

Tom Cassidy said...

Just a thought. I read Backlash when it came out, way back when. I too was surprised to see Carol Gilligan in there. As I remember, Faludi was at pains to explain that Gilligan is not anti-feminist by intent, but that she unwittingly provided grist for the Backlash mill. Gilligan became associated with a movement which tried to segregate girls so they wouldn't have to compete with boys.

Even at the time her research came out, girls and young women were increasingly outperforming their male contemporaries. The idea of female math anziety, once a bedrock principle of the movement that claimed Gilligan, now seems to be evaporating into mist.

Still, I think there is value in pointing out that another ethics is possible; and if it is more commonly represented in female voices than male ones, that two is worth noting. (It's been 20 something years since I looked at Gilligan's work; I wonder how/if she responded to Faludi?)

Do you read Katha Politt?

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