Their Own Voices

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Psychologist Carol Gilligan has spent years listening to girls and young women. Now she wants to hear what little boys have to say.

Cambridge, Mass.

It has been nearly two decades since Carol Gilligan began to notice that, around the time girls crossed the threshold into adolescence, they began to talk about themselves differently.Girls who had been bold and insightful as preteenagers began to say "I don't know" when asked to express their thoughts--even though a little probing revealed that they clearly did have answers.

On a deeper level, these same girls talked about being torn between doing what they were "supposed" to do and doing what they wanted to do. And they seemed to fear, most of all, being alone--without friends, family, or relationships.

What was happening, the Harvard University researcher theorized, was that she was observing a psychological crossroads in the development of girls into young women.

"If girls say what is on their minds or in their hearts, if they speak freely and reveal what they see and hear and know through experience, they are in danger of losing their relationships," Gilligan wrote in a summary of her findings in 1996. But, she concluded, if they do not express what they are feeling and thinking, girls risk losing themselves.

Most girls, Gilligan argued, choose the second route. They drop their own "voices" to fit into a mold shaped by society and to avoid cutting themselves off from the people they love.

And, since "lies make you sick," as Gilligan put it, the inner struggle these girls were experiencing might explain the array of psychological disorders that peak for girls in adolescence--from anorexia to depression--as well as an apparent drop-off in the level of originality in the schoolwork they turn in.

Her theories were controversial, and they touched off a wave of national attention to the problems of girls. The American Association of University Women used her studies as a touchstone for its own research on girls. And those studies tied what researchers saw as the persistent gender bias that girls faced in school to their low self-esteem in adolescence.

With support from the federal government and private foundations, schools began to beef up girl-centered curricula and to hold self-esteem workshops for girls. Some schools even began to educate girls in separate classes or schools.

"Carol's work was instrumental in focusing attention on girls from all sorts of people--educators, researchers, parents," says Susan McGee Bailey, the executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Research on Women in Wellesley, Mass.

Gilligan, in turn, became a celebrity academic. She was Time magazine's choice as one of the 25 "most influential" people in 1996. A year later, she became the first holder of a chair on gender studies at Harvard's graduate school of education. And already this year, she has won a Heinz Award, a $250,000 prize from the Heinz Family Foundation given to people in several fields who have made outstanding contributions.

Carol Gilligan Photo By Benjamin Tice Smith

Now, Gilligan's career is taking a new direction. She has turned her keen ear and considerable influence to the development of little girls' worst enemies: little boys.

"For over 100 years, researchers have been observing that girls are more resilient than boys in childhood and that something happens to girls in adolescence," Gilligan says. "I wondered, was there an analogy for what happens to girls in adolescence for boys in early childhood?"

It has long been known, for example, that between ages 5 and 7, problems with bed-wetting, stuttering, and classroom behavior crop up in boys. Young boys are disproportionately diagnosed for learning disabilities and attention-deficit disorders. And all this seems to come as boys begin to separate from their mothers and start to become "one of the boys."

Could they be losing their "voices," too?

Gilligan's new work comes amid a resurgence of interest nationwide in the lives of men and little boys. At least four books are slated for publication this year on boys' development, and more are in the works. But Gilligan says her latest research focus is not trying to ride the crest of a "men's movement" that parallels the feminist crusades of recent decades. Studying boys' development is the logical next step, she says, in a lifetime of work that has always had one central feature at its core: human relations.

Gilligan's office on the fifth floor of Harvard's Larsen Hall overlooks the yard of the university's formerly all-female sister school, Radcliffe College. A large painting, leaning against the wall, depicts a young girl standing in a wintry forest. Her gloved hand covers her mouth.

The bookshelves in this office read like a travelogue of Gilligan's mind, a mixture of fiction, psychology, and writing about women. The weighty Theories of Adolescence sits alongside Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. The novels reflect both a lifetime passion for literature and a scholarly search for authentic women's and girls' voices. Gilligan majored in literature as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College before earning her doctorate in clinical psychology at Harvard, where she is now a professor of human development and psychology.

Books like Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Gilligan has found, offered a voice that was often missing from psychological literature and public-policy debates.

"What ties together the writer and the psychologist is an ear--an interest in listening to people's voices," Gilligan says. "There were no girls in studies of adolescence, but there were plenty of girls in novels."

Gilligan's appearance belies her 61 years. Her brown hair is long and loose, parted in the middle, with no signs of gray. And she has a dancer's trim figure.

To understand the circle that her work has taken, she says, you have to understand how it began. The time was the early 1970s. The war in Vietnam dragged on. Women were fighting for the right to have an abortion and feminism was taking hold.

Married and the mother of three young boys, Gilligan had taken a part-time job teaching psychology at Harvard while her husband, Jim, taught psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School.

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Pages 34-38

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