Joining the Resistance

June 9, 2011

In principle, I enjoy books that mix autobiographical reflections with theory, and here Carol Gilligan offers an articulate musing on human development, morality and sex. But I found the pace rather slow compared with the passionate, polemical, racy prose of recent British books on gender inequality, such as those by Kat Banyard and Natasha Walter.

In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Charles Darwin argued that men had become superior to women in courage, energy and "inventive genius". It is the female maternal impulse, in particular, that is seen as the characteristic preventing women from engaging in those activities thought to stimulate "higher mental facilities", such as fighting, fashioning weapons and hunting. Darwin does not analyse traditional women's activities to make a case for why they might be less mentally stimulating.

In the early 1960s, when Gilligan began her career in psychology, she found that in a wide range of psychological theories, "women's moral goodness, their relational sensitivity, and empathic concern" were still thought to mark women as different and deficient. One of her earlier works, In a Different Voice, asked, "If women's voices differ from the voice of psychological and moral theory, is there a problem in women or in the theory?"

But even this syllogism notes "the voice", as though there isn't a riot of conflicting theory on gender. And this book, although erudite, is oddly essentialist; Gilligan worries about girls losing their "honest voice" during the process of being inculcated with gendered expectations, stating that patriarchy "forces girls to choose between having a voice and having relationships".

Really? Do we have an interior voice that is somehow true, separate from our relationships? Surely our identities are fashioned in, and through, our relationships with others?

Drawing on the work of evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Gilligan explodes the so-called naturalness of the mother-infant bond within the nuclear family, and puts forward a theory of collective care-giving: "At a very early point in development, practically from birth, human babies scan faces, make eye contact, and engage the attention of others ...? Babies display the rudiments of a finely tuned empathy, an ability to read others' intentions, a desire for connection with others, attentiveness to their responses, and curiosity about their emotions."

Blaffer Hrdy has argued that these abilities are evidence of our collective rearing; the mother-infant bond so evident to John Bowlby is said to be a reflection of Western ideals about how women should care at a particular historical juncture, rather than a theory that should dictate public policy or, worse, therapeutic practice.

The backdrop of this new book is Gilligan's work with adolescent girls, exploring their psychological struggles into womanhood. The main message is rather late in appearing: "Our ability to love and live with a sense of psychic wholeness hinges on our ability to resist wedding ourselves to the gender binaries of patriarchy..."

But we are all socialised, so how do we avoid this trap? Girls must resist turning inwards and dissociating, she suggests. Boys must not be afraid to love. We are invited to become political, but the "feminist ethic of care" that Gilligan sees as key to the release of democracy from the grip of patriarchy doesn't move the debate much further from Darwin: "because it roots that struggle in the exigencies of survival, the evolutionary need to put children first".

Perhaps what will really make a difference to feminism is an ethic of care that places equal responsibility on women and men for the care of children.

Joining the Resistance

By Carol Gilligan. Polity, 140pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780745651699. Published 10 May 2011.

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