"It all goes back, of course, to Adam and Eve," says psychologist Carol Gilligan, "a story which shows, among other things, that if you make a woman out of a man, you are bound to get into trouble."
While Dustin Hoffman and the hit movie "Tootsie" are popularizing the idea that a "man's world" is enriched when he integrates female-associated qualities like sensitivity, caring and responsibility, this thesis has been the basis of Gilligan's research for the past 10 years at Harvard University.
Her overriding conclusions: Women and men have different perspectives on life, and the women's perspective has been ignored; society has been shaped largely on the masculine view to the detriment of both sexes.
"There are two distinct ways people speak about moral problems and the relationship between themselves and others," says the 46-year-old author of In a Different Voice (Harvard University Press, 184 pages, $15), a ground-breaking and provocative examination of moral development.
Women, says Gilligan, tend to operate on an "ethic of care," centering on the necessary interdependence among humans. Their moral priority is "each person's responsibility to care for others."
Men, she claims, rely on a "justice approach" that focuses on the human desire for self-fulfillment. Their moral imperative is "each person's right to be protected from the interference of others."
These "different voices" are "gender-related," stresses Gilligan, "not gender-specific. Most people speak in both voices, but there's a tendency to have a major and a minor mode . . . men tend to think in terms of rights, while women tend to think in terms of responsibility."
It's important, she says, "to recognize the basic tension that exists between these complementary voices, and understand that it's essential to sustain that tension. If you lose one voice you have reduced, simplified and in some sense, distorted the problem. You must listen to both."
Psychologists have ignored--or been unaware of--this difference between the sexes, says Gilligan, because major developmental theorists have left women out of their studies.
"So-called human psychology is in fact male psychology," she declares. "Kohlberg Lawrence, Harvard professor of education and social psychology took a sample of all males. Jean Piaget said in his book on moral judgment and child development that 'Girls seem to have a different mentality, so I'm going to leave girls out and work with boys.'
" Erik Erikson has never written about a woman's life . . . and then you notice which of his life-cycle stages he has never really talked about at any length: intimacy. Sigmund Freud built his theories around the experiences of the male child . . . and resolved the contradictions this posed for differences in female anatomy as women's developmental failure."
But instead of concluding that "there is something wrong with women" who don't fit psychological theories cut from masculine cloth, Gilligan maintains "there is something wrong with these theories. By equating 'human' with 'male,' they limit the conception of the human condition and omit certain truths about life."
Gilligan first started studying--"quite indirectly"--this "different voice" during the late '60s. "I had gotten my doctorate, but was involved in raising three children so I was doing part-time things--teaching a discussion section of Erik Erikson's course on the life cycle and running a study for Larry Kohlberg on how high school students thought about actual moral dilemmas."
Throughout that time, "I was feeling shaky," she says, "because I wasn't talking about something that resonated with my own experience. I'd been out of college for several years, raising three children, and none of that experience was relevant to what I was doing at the university."
Several years later when she did a study of people faced with a moral dilemma, she recognized the true source of her unease. "In my teaching I'd observed a real difference between the language people used when they were talking about a hypothetical dilemma, and a real, concrete problem. I wanted to study people making a real decision where they'd have to live with the consequences.
"I was going to study how students faced the draft decision, then Nixon ended the draft. So I started looking for another real decision. The Supreme Court had just legalized abortion, so I thought that would be an interesting problem." The fact that the subjects of this study would necessarily be female and might therefore present different psychological processes "never even occurred to me. I just looked at them as people."
But when she started asking these women the questions about morality and values that male psychologists had formerly asked solely of men, Gilligan discovered "women were defining the moral problem totally differently from the classic definition. Instead of talking about rights and fairness and justice, they were using words like 'responsibility,' 'obligations' and 'not hurting.'
"Women were saying things like, 'I'd jump out of a window not to hurt my boyfriend,' which is the kind of thinking existing theories labled 'immature.' "
Gilligan, who is an associate professor of education at Harvard, says "there was a lot of guardedness among women in the university world at that time, lest you reveal how stupid you really were." She was "partly ready to align myself with my field," she admits, "and say 'What's the problem with these women?' " But she also felt "very much aligned with them. I sat there with the transcripts of interviews and realized there was a construction repeated throughout.
"The key words were 'selfish' and 'responsible.' What they were calling immoral was being selfish--which illuminated the paralysis many women experience over choice, since by that definition, whatever you want becomes bad.
"Women tended to think the moral solution was to obliterate themselves so they would be 'selfless' and 'good.' I remember one woman I interviewed said she wanted what her boyfriend wanted. I said, 'But what do you want?' and she answered with tears in her eyes, 'What's wrong with doing something for someone you love?'
Gilligan persisted. "But who was then responsible for the decision? 'Him,' " said the girl, "and she blamed him for it. She was unable to say, 'He wants this, and I want that, but it's my choice to do what he wants.'
"Years later, when these women realize that no one forced them to make the decision, that they had control, it often leads to a gross feeling of self-betrayal."
These sex-related "different voices" are rooted, contends Gilligan, "in gender identity, which is usually well-defined by age 3. Gender is the first question people ask when a baby is born, so the minute you know 'boy' or 'girl' you think either 'like me' or 'opposite from me.'
"To define oneself as a male in the context that most children worldwide have--in close relationship with a female caretaker--is to achieve masculinity through separation from this female. Men tend to see danger in intimacy.
"Whereas for the girl to feel female is to be like her mother. Women tend to define femininity through attachment and see danger in separation."
A common result: "When a man gets close, particularly with females, his sense of masculinity may be threatened. In a male-female relationship, as the man starts to get scared by the intimacy and move away, the woman starts to get scared by the isolation and move closer."
Since morality is the "system people construct to make the social world safe," someone who perceives danger in intimacy will construct a system of non-interference to protect that notion: justice, fairness, rights. "Whereas if you're afraid of separation, you will say that what people should do is be responsive to each other, not hurt each other, take care of each other."
While Gilligan credits the women's movement with raising her consciousness enough "to break the silence," she avoids labeling herself a feminist. "If it's feminist to study women," she says, "then it's masculinist to study men."
Both sexes, says Gilligan--who is married to a psychiatrist and has three sons--need to discover "the complementarity of these disparate views" and develop their "minor mode." For men this means "recognizing their need for closeness. In terms of mental health, the isolated person is in danger. The mid-life crisis in popular psychology is men's discovery of the importance of intimacy, which women have known from the beginning."
Women, she asserts, "need to stop trying to be selfless. The old notion that the way to sustain relationships is to respond only to other people who will then take care of them, doesn't work. Women need to be able to articulate directly what they want, and realize that one of the people it is important not to hurt is themselves."
Society, she says, needs "to bring this women's voice into the public domain. I'm not romanticizing that we should replace a language of rights with one of responsibility.
"But particularly in an age of nuclear weapons, technology and pollution, the interdependence of humanity is a fact that is centrally addressed by this different voice and needs to be heeded."