In subsequent reflections on her work, Gilligan noted that she had deliberately called her work “in a different voice” and not a “women’s voice.”28 She was not concerned to identify “sex difference” in “moral reasoning,” as some of her critics maintained. Rather, she compared women’s experience with psychological theory—the subtitle of her book—in order to show that the exclusion of women and their experiences from mainstream developmental theories in psychology generated a number of models and hypotheses which were neither “universal” nor “neutral.”
“Gender” was not an analytical and methodological category guiding Gilligan’s early work. For her the empirical identification of gender difference appears to have preceded the use of gender as an explicit research category. By “gender” I mean the differential construction of human beings into male and female types. Gender is a relational category. It is one that seeks to explain the construction of a certain kind of difference among human beings. Feminist theorists, whether psychoanalytical, postmodern, liberal, or critical, are united around the assumption that the constitution of gender differences
is a social and historical process, and that gender is not a natural fact. Furthermore, although there is some disagreement on this issue, I would agree with the recent work of Londa Schiebinger, Judith Butler, and Jane Flax that the opposition of sex and gender itself must be questioned.29 It is not as if sexual difference were merely an anatomical fact. The construction and interpretation of anatomical difference is itself a social and historical process. That the male and the female of the species are different is a fact, but this fact itself is also socially constructed. Sexual identity is an aspect of gender identity. Sex and gender are not related to each other as nature to culture. Sexuality itself is a culturally constructed difference.
It is the absence of gender as a research category in Gilligan’s work that has created some of the most serious misgivings about her conclusions. Linda Kerber comments on this issue in her remarks entitled “Some Cautionary Words for Historians”:30
A Different Voice is part of a major feminist redefinition of social vocabulary. What was once dismissed as gossip can now be appreciated as the maintenance of oral tradition; what was once devalued as mere housewifery can be understood as social reproduction and a major contribution to the gross national product. Gilligan is invigorating in her insistence that behavior once denigrated as waffling, indecisive, and demeaningly “effeminate” ought rather to be valued as complex, constructive, and humane. Yet, this historian, at least, is haunted by the argument that we have heard this argument before, vested in different language. Some variants of it are as old as western civilization itself; central to the traditions of our culture has been the ascription of reason to men and of feeling to women Ancient tradition has long been rein
forced by explicit socialization that arrogated public power to men and relegated women to domestic concerns, a socialization sometimes defended by arguments from expediency, sometimes by argument from biology. Although now Gilligan appears to be adding arguments from psychology, her study infers at times that gendered behavior is biologically determined and at others that it, too, is learned, albeit at an earlier stage of socialization than previous analysts had assumed.
Kerber’s point is well taken. However, it is hardly convincing that Gilligan thought that the styles of moral reasoning she identified in her research and the preferences of women to reason more frequently in one style rather than in another reflected some ontological and universal essence called “femaleness.” The problem of gender difference is much more complicated in her work, and ultimately rests with the ahistoricity of the cognitive-developmental framework within which Gilligan—at least initially—set out her research. This theory, as developed by Piaget and Kohlberg, is concerned with ontogeny, i. e., individual development, and not with phylogeny, i. e., species development. This theory generates a model for explaining how the development of the moral judgment of the child and of the adolescent is a maturation process, involving an interaction between the potentials of the human mind to structure experience and the environment. This interaction between self and world create certain incongruities and crises as the child grows. These cannot be resolved within an earlier pattern of moral reasoning but require the movement unto “higher” stages of moral reasoning. The “higher” stages of moral reasoning, Kohlberg maintains, are not simply developmentally later; they are also more “adequate” to the resolution of moral dilemmas from a cognitive and philosophical point of view.
The subject of this theory is by definition gender-neutral; for these abilities are said to be species-specific. Of course, this theory has a gender-subtext. Since moral learning results from certain kinds of activities, we might well ask what these are for young boys and girls. Are children’s games gender neutral? Remember Piaget’s remark that in their game of marbles, boys show a degree of precision and complex attention to rules and a propensity for rule – governed negotiations, which he finds lacking in girls’ games.31 Furthermore, since this theory claims that the development of “higher” levels of moral reasoning is tied to the opportunities of the self to assume different roles in social life, we might well expect that in a gendered universe, the kinds of roles men and women will assume will be different.
Gilligan rejected the gender neutrality of the Kohlbergian model at a different level. Instead of focusing on the gender subtext of activities and social roles, she focused on personality patterns. Gilligan relied on Nancy Chodorow’s work in The Reproduction of Mothering. Briefly, Chodorow maintains that processes of separation and individuation which each human child must go through, proceed differently for males and females. In the case of the male child, separation and individuation involve the establishment of a gender identity which is the opposite of the primary nurturant figure, the woman, although not necessarily of the biological mother. To become a boy means to become not only other than mama, but different than her; it involves repressing those aspects his person most closely identified with the mother. For girls, to become a girl means to become different than mama but also like her. Gender identity is established by two-and-a-half to three years old. In a patriarchal society, based on the denigration and oppression of women, gender identity goes hand in hand with the internalization of those attitudes that also devalue and denigrate women.
Gilligan and Chodorow agree that the consequence of this psychosexual development of the young child are certain personality patterns among the adults of the species. The male has a more firmly established sense of ego boundaries; the distinction between self and other is more rigid. For females the boundaries between self and other are more fluid. Women are more predisposed to show feelings of empathy and sympathy for the other. Each of these personality patterns brings with it certain deformations as well. Males experience closeness and bonding as a threat to their person, whereas females have a hard time establishing a firm sense of identity and individuality over and against the claims of others.
This psychosexual model, as we know by now, is not a theory which explains the emergence of gender difference; it simply gives us a scheme for its “reproduction.” In this model the mothering figure is already a female; the father is absent during the first three years of the child’s life. It is also assumed that mothering is socially denigrated by the larger societal context so that the young male child learns to associate this activity with negative characteristics and values or at least with highly ambivalent ones. Chodorow’s model presupposes gender difference in its characteristically modern form; it does not explain its historical and social constitution. This model presupposes the patriarchal denigration of female gender attributes; it explains their reproduction but not their historical origin. To the extent to which Gilligan relied on this model, she also did not explain the social construction of gender: on the one hand she identified its neglect by mainstream psychological theory, and on the other hand called attention to its persistence within these theories as a continuing but inexplicit subtext.
Linda Kerber is right that gender difference is left unexplained in Gilligan’s work. For this task we have to move from moral theory to a social theory of gender relations; we have to leave behind psychological theory for a historical sociology of the development and constitution of gender. Gender as an analytical category thus subverts established disciplinary boundaries.