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Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Their Own Voices

Their Own Voices

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Christina Hoff Sommers has criticized Gilligan's emphasis on using stories and interviews to draw broad conclusions.

"In schools, some of the girls' most brilliant work was coming into conflict with the accepted ways of reading poems and reading history," she says. Rather than receive a bad grade for their unique spins on a subject, some of the girls the researchers met felt they almost had to write two papers---one for themselves and one for the grade books. One girl, in fact, did just that.

"But that's doing double the work," Gilligan says.

Women teachers, in particular, can also help by forging stronger bonds with the girls in their schools. In one three-year study of 26 girls in 8th, 9th, and 10th grades, only a few cited teachers when asked to name women other than their mothers who were important in their lives.

Amy M. Sullivan, a former doctoral student who worked with Gilligan on that project, asked the same question of 340 girls in eight schools around the country. Only 4 percent named a teacher.

"Girls said they wanted a connection with adult women teachers," says Sullivan, who is now an instructor and research associate with Harvard Medical School. "But it seems schools are not really set up to support those relationships."

Now, however, Gilligan believes that schools--and society--have become more sensitized to the voices of girls.

Such programs as "Take Our Daughters to Work Day," a national event launched by the Washington-based AAUW, have drawn attention to the role of girls. All-female rock groups are music-industry hits. Movies are being made on the lives of adolescent girls. And, through much of the 1990s, women voters have played influential roles in deciding federal elections.

"It feels palpably different to me," Gilligan says. "In 1998, girls are visible and audible in this culture."

But as the mother of three sons, Gilligan also wonders if all the attention to girls that her work has helped garner might have inadvertently constricted the way society views boys.

"Once the work on girls came out ... some people started to say, well, women are relational and men are not," she says. Yet studies on infants conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s suggested that both boys and girls at that age were emotionally attuned to their mothers.

In one such study, a group of British researchers used life-size video monitors arranged so that 2-month-old infants and their mothers could see each other on a screen instead of in person.

Without telling the subjects, the researchers occasionally disrupted the interaction between mother and child by replacing the live images with footage recorded just a few seconds earlier of either the mother or the baby. Both mother and infant picked up on and responded to the break in their relationships.

Could something, Gilligan wonders, be missing from the psychological literature on boys' development? Did boys, at some point in their development, lose their ability to be empathic or to forge emotional bonds?

As the mother of three sons, Gilligan wonders if her research's attention to girls has inadvertently constricted the way society views boys.

Gilligan wonders, for example, why boys in their preschool years start to fashion toy guns out of whatever they can find--even when their teachers and parents forbid playing with guns.

"You see this picture of a little boy with a stuffed bunny in one hand and a Lego gun in the other," she says. "You could almost freeze-frame that moment in development." If becoming a boy means becoming tough, Gilligan says, then boys may feel at an early age that they have to hide the part of themselves that is more caring or stereotypically feminine.

To find out more about what happens to boys in early childhood, Gilligan is beginning a study with Chu, her doctoral student. The two are observing boys once a week at a private school in nearby Watertown.

Another doctoral student, Ilina Singh, is also studying the use of Ritalin for boys who have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and its effects on their mothers and the rest of their families. The disorder, which is often marked by an inability to sit still or pay attention, is diagnosed much more often in young boys than young girls.

Even though a raft of books is scheduled to be published on boys' development in the coming months, Gilligan and Chu believe their study may yet plow new ground.

But this time around, the interviews will prove more difficult. Boys in preschool and primary school typically don't have the language skills that adolescent girls have. Even so, the researchers plan to interview a small group of them in depth this spring.

Because the project is just getting under way, Gilligan is reluctant to share many of her observations. But her turn toward boys' development worries some of her critics.

"She's going to pathologize little boyhood," predicts Sommers, who is herself writing a book on boys. "The vast majority of boys are healthy and thriving and don't need workshops to get in touch with their feminine nature."

It doesn't help, Sommers adds, that the AAUW, in its most recent report on girls' development, has backtracked some on its original advocacy of separate schools and classes for girls. In a report issued in March, the group said there was insufficient evidence that all-girls schools give girls any kind of academic edge.

Gilligan never advocated all-girls schools and never took part in the AAUW's research. But critics who have long claimed that the university women's group overstated its case are beginning to suggest that questions should be raised about the entire body of work in girls' studies.

And, critics have wondered, if girls are so oppressed in school, why do many studies show that they get better report-card grades on average than boys? Among high-achieving students, however, girls continue to lag behind boys on standardized tests measuring math and science abilities.

"In many schools, a lot of people are scratching their heads because they're saying that girls are taking the leadership positions in school, and girls are taking the lead scholastically, and does that mean the attention on girls is misdirected?" says Jill McLean Taylor, an associate professor of education and human services at Simmons College in Boston who collaborated with Gilligan on some of her earlier studies. "But I think it's much too early to say that."

If her hunches about boys are right, Gilligan says, they raise questions about the way society socializes both boys and girls. Do boys have to suppress their tender side when they're initiated into masculinity? Do girls have to lose their "voices" in adolescence? Gilligan thinks not.

"I think it's only necessary if you want to perpetuate a patriarchal structure," Gilligan says. "Throughout history, psychologists have read patriarchy as nature."

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Pages 34-38

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