Their Own Voices

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Gilligan's early interviews led her to two realizations: that women think differently than men, and that women's thinking was absent from the public debate.

In psychology, "I was put off by the way people talked about people ... because there didn't seem to be a sufficient portrayal of the human world," she recalls. "I really didn't see how I could go on in psychology at the time, and so I had no ambition in terms of the university. I was able to do the kinds of studies that I would not have been able to do had I been trying to get tenure." She became interested in exploring how adults tangled with moral dilemmas. She talked to men struggling over whether to fight in Vietnam and women considering abortion.

And she noticed that the women cast the rationale for their decisions in ways distinctly different from men's and from the public debate raging at the time.

Publicly, the choice seemed to be between a woman's right to choose what she does with her own body and an unborn child's right to live. But women were suggesting instead that having a child at a time in their lives when they could not do a good job of parenting would be irresponsible.

"I talked to one woman whose husband was a roofer and didn't make much money, and she had scoliosis of the spine," Gilligan recalls. "Her choice had to do with what was the responsible thing to do in that situation."

The interviews led her to two realizations. The first was that women think differently from the way men do. The second was that women's thinking, their "voices," were not absent from only the public debate. They were also missing from the psychological literature. All the developmental theories in the field--even those of her late Harvard teaching colleagues Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg--were based on studies of men and boys.

"The 1980 Handbook on Adolescent Psychology came out and said there wasn't enough material on adolescent girls to fill one chapter," Gilligan says, still incredulous.

She took the first steps toward filling that void in 1982 with the publication of her book In a Different Voice. Published by Harvard University Press, it became a best seller and has been translated into 12 languages.

In it, Gilligan claims that women think differently because they are more attuned to relationships and they practice an "ethic of caring." They weigh decisions, in other words, based on how they affect the relationships in their lives rather than on absolutes of right and wrong as men tend to do. And women's voices were not being heard, Gilligan contends, because to pay attention to them would mean changing the conversation--both in psychology and in the public arena.

From studying women, Gilligan and a team of researchers, primarily graduate students, began to work backwards, tracing the thinking and development of girls. Over more than a decade, the researchers interviewed hundreds of girls in private and public schools, in girls' schools, and in coeducational settings.

But, rather than use traditional research methods, experiments, and psychological surveys to learn about girls, Gilligan simply opted to talk to them.

"One approach to psychology is that the human psyche is like a black box. You could perform experiments on it but you could never look into it," says Judy Chu, a Harvard doctoral student who is collaborating with Gilligan on her research on boys. "One of the things that Carol says is that you can ask people and you can learn about their psyches. The method really trusts that the person knows what they know."

Asked, "Do you really believe that?" some girls would respond, "Do you want to know what I really think?" and give a completely different answer.

The researchers developed relationships with the girls they were studying. They paid attention to the girls' silences, the ways they referred to themselves, and the number of times they used certain phrases, such as "I don't know," as they did to their actual words.

For example, 12-year-old Anna said "I don't know" 21 times in her initial interview. Two years later, however, the phrase popped up 135 times--even though the length of the interview was the same. The change, Gilligan believes, reflected Anna's growing struggle to cope with what she thought and what she was supposed to think. Sometimes, the interviewers would follow a girl's response to a question by asking, "Do you really believe that?" The prompt often spurred a turnaround: The girl would ask, "Do you want to know what I really think?" and then give a completely different answer.

Despite the accolades, however, some researchers criticize such methods.

"You can prove almost anything with stories. Just find the right people and you find the right stories," says Christina Hoff Sommers, a philosophy professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., whose book Who Stole Feminism challenges much of the current research in women's studies. "I think she's an engaging writer and imaginative, but I'm not sure what she does has much status as social science."

Gilligan responds that if quantitative studies are the only kind that qualify as "research," then Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, would not be considered a researcher.

"A lot of what we call methods in psychology research seems to me to be very surface-level," she says.

What Gilligan and her Harvard colleagues found in their talks was that girls were very savvy and outspoken about human relations in their worlds. A 10-year-old in Boston, for example, said her home was "wallpapered with lies."

Girls noticed, for example, when a female teacher disagreed with a colleague but failed to voice her disagreement. An 11-year-old knew her father's tendencies toward violence stemmed from unhappiness over his prolonged unemployment.

But as they entered adolescence, girls begin to run into what Gilligan calls "the wall of Western culture." They buried what they once saw so clearly about the relationships in their lives and began to affect a veneer of "niceness and goodness." They feared to do otherwise--to voice anger or confront a friend--because, Gilligan concludes, that would mean losing the ties they had with their friends and families.

Though her work in private girls' schools has been most prominent, she found that girls in public schools, and girls from working-class families and from differing racial and ethnic groups, expressed similar feelings. Some of those findings have been captured in some of Gilligan's recent books, such as Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationship and Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development (both from Harvard University Press).

Her work stops short, though, of offering concrete solutions aimed at helping girls cope with their inner struggles.

Still, she says there are steps educators can take to help girls negotiate the complicated terrain of adolescence. For starters, educators can be more aware--and more tolerant of--the differing paths that girls' thinking can take.

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Pages 34-38

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