Coming to Voice, Saving the Planet

Yesterday acclaimed psychologist Carol Gilligan paid a visit to the class I am currently co-teaching at Bard College at Simon’s Rock with theater professor Karen Beaumont, “Human Rights, Activism and the Arts.”

Gilligan’s ground-breaking book, In A Different Voice, was the first to examine the psychological development of girls.

Yes, you read that right.  Before Carol Gilligan, American psychologists who studied child development based their model of the stages of human psychological development on their studies of boys.  Not until Carol came along in the early 1980s did anyone think to point out that girls and boys develop differently.

In her new book, Joining the Resistance, Gilligan explains that while girls start to silence their own voices in their early teen years, in conformity with social dictates about proper behavior for “good girls,” boys go through this self-regulation much earlier, around 5 or 6, when they learn that “crying is for sissies.”

Boys learn to suppress their caring, nurturing side because it’s too “feminine,” while girls learn to suppress their active, aggressive side because it’s too “masculine.”  In the process, both genders lose something crucial to their humanity, and our society as a whole is impoverished as a result.

Lately, Gilligan has been relating boys’ and girls’ resistance to the suppression of their natural androgynous voices to adults’ resistance to what she sees as a very destructive patriarchal culture.

She defines patriarchy as “those attitudes and values, moral codes and institutions, that separate men from men as well as from women and divide women into the good and the bad,” and argues that “as long as human qualities are divided into masculine and feminine, we will be alienated from one another and from ourselves.  The aspirations we hold in common, for love and for freedom, will continue to elude us.”

So much depends on whether we can come to voice.  And how we do so.  In the context of my human rights seminar, coming to voice may mean being able to speak out in an informed, passionate way about justice and injustice in specific circumstances, both here in the U.S. and abroad.

In the personal sphere too, we need to learn to express our needs clearly, without apology.  We women need to learn to value ourselves and insist on being treated fairly and with respect whether in the home or in the workplace.  Men need to demand that their emotional, nurturing sides be honored.

If it is hard for men to express emotions, it is hard for women to speak with authority.  As sociologist Michael Kimmel has shown, boys and men tend to over-estimate their own abilities while girls and women tend to have less self-confidence than their skills and talents warrant.

Boys and men need to learn to listen, to others and to their own innermost voices, the voices of compassion that were shut down when they were just little guys and learned that boys don’t cry.

Girls need to learn to speak up, to let their innermost voices out, to share freely what they know and what they imagine with the world.

My mother reminded me recently that when I was a young girl of 9 or 10, she considered me a “know-it-all.”  I used to read Ranger Rick and the National Wildlife magazines with voracious attention, and apparently I had a lot to say about the natural world and human beings’ role in it.

As I shared with my class yesterday, sometime around age 14, just as Carol Gilligan saw with her research subjects, I lost my voice.  I became the quiet girl in class.  I earned A’s on every literature paper I wrote, straight through grad school; but it was so hard for me to say out loud what I knew.  It’s taken me years to overcome that self-silencing and begin to recover the spunky, feisty voice that came pouring out of me naturally when I was a child.

As adults, knowing what we now know about the importance of voice to healthy psychological development, we should be working hard to encourage the boys in our lives to stay in touch with their emotional, caring, listening side; and the girls in our lives to continue to speak their truths even when they enter the maelstrom of puberty.

As Audre Lorde wrote long ago, “My silences had not protected me.  Your silence will not protect you…. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid….

“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

You got that right, Audre.  If anything, the dangers that you perceived back then–before you, like so many others, succumbed to cancer–have gotten worse.

If we care about our children, if we care about our Earth, we cannot afford to stay silent.  Indeed, there is more risk to staying quiet than to speaking out, with all the passion, emotion and authority we can muster as men and as women.

Cat got your tongue? Not mine.  Not any longer.

Leave a comment


  1. Yup.

    And WTF happened to sisterhood? About time we pulled it out of the closet… this time including all women, not just those who are PC. You go, grrlz!

    • Just my tuppence, but as a non-sister the problem I see with ‘sisterhood’ is that it’s divisive: it alienates the other half of humanity — you know, us men types; including the ones who would otherwise try to move with the ‘sisters’ towards equality.


      • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

         /  February 18, 2012

        This is why I’ve always been inclined to androgyny myself. Human beings all have elements of “masculinity” and “femininity” in us. Gender identity is a spectrum, not two sides with a gulf inbetween. The problem is our language doesn’t cooperate. Sisterhood, fellowship…what would be the gender-neutral term? Solidarity?

  2. Ah, wibbler. Why does sticking up for one’s own sex (community, family, bioregion, local ecosystems) imply division? The early feminists vilified men. That got old quickly. Sisterhood is not about dumping men, it’s about supporting other women regardless of how politically and otherwise we disagree.

    If immigrants support preferentially other immigrants, if the people of a small town help preferentially their neighbors, if farmers support preferentially other farmers…. how is that a problem? How does that hurt the others, per definition, as you seem to imply? Does farmers helping other farmers stand in your way of solidarity with the farmers, even if you are not (I assume) one of them?

    I don’t want any more of that gender neutral BS, Jennifer. Oh sure, I fell for it once, and I ain’t about to fall for it again. The stories about those gender neutral twins were pure bull. Yes, it’s a spectrum, just like there is no utter gulf between farmers and non-farmers but it shades off into gardening and such. Would farmer-neutral language be better? Sheesh. Why can’t we just be who we are, using language that actually refers to those realities? There is *nobody* gender-neutral out there, so why use gender-neutral language?! I am sick of abstractions.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  February 18, 2012

      Right you are! I don’t really mean gender-neutral, just that whoever we are, as gendered beings, should be able to come together in solidarity. I think we’re in agreement here….


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