Renowned Feminist Carol Gilligan: What Anne Frank Got Wrong in Her Diary

In Israel to receive an honorary doctorate, the ethicist explains what it means to be selfless without 'sounding like a girl.'

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“I am,” Prof. Carol Gilligan says simply, “a woman who listens.” In Israel to receive an honorary PhD from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Gilligan speaks passionately and engagingly, yet always seems to be listening just as intently – to the audience, the ambiance in the room, the interviewer, to herself.

Now 78, Gilligan was an untenured lecturer at Harvard University when she observed that psychologists were not including women in their studies. As a result, she contended, psychology had posited male development as normative, and women’s development – especially their moral development – as inferior.

This assertion, based on her research with women and girls – that women are no less smart, moral or socially capable than men – resonated deeply with many women, and some men, as they developed a new political and gender consciousness in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Her 1982 book, “In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development,” remains one of the most influential books ever published in the field of gender studies and moral development. Gilligan was named one of the 25 most influential Americans by Time Magazine in 1996.

After teaching for nearly 30 years at Harvard, she moved to New York University. The mother of three sons and with five grandchildren, she divides her time between New York and Cape Cod, and travels throughout the world.

She is no stranger to Israel, where she has family, deep academic ties and numerous colleagues whom she has mentored. One of her sons, now a physician, even served in the Israel Defense Forces as a paramedic.

“It feels great to be here in Israel,” she says, delivering the Irene and Hyman Kreitman Annual Memorial Lecture at the Be’er Sheva university. “I’ve been teaching in Abu Dhabi, where Israel doesn’t appear on the map. That’s pretty freaky.”

The excited applause and rapt attention that greets her lecture – attended mostly, but not exclusively, by women – reveals that many Israeli feminist academics and activists admiringly regard her as one of their own.

Leading the ‘resistance’

Since writing “In a Different Voice,” Gilligan has published an additional five books, including a novel, and also written an opera and a play. Today, she says, she is focusing less on development and more on what she refers to as “resistance.”

“I want to talk about the gap between our psychology and our history. I want to talk about what happens to our nature as human beings when we come up against the way society tells us that we, as men or women, are supposed to be. What happens to us and to the world when we rewrite our personal histories and tell a false story? And I want to talk about how we can resist this,” she says during the lecture.

Her most recent book, “Joining the Resistance” (2011), weaves together Gilligan’s own experiences with global developments, in a classic feminist connection between the personal and the political. “Resisting this falseness, resisting the demand to betray ourselves, is crucial if we want to save the universe,” she tells her audience.

This, she believes, is the ultimate goal of feminism, which she defines as the movement to liberate democracy from patriarchy. “I never understood all this stuff about feminism being against men. That’s ridiculous. Patriarchy is destructive to men and women, to our future, to our planet.”

Patriarchy, she adds, precludes love between equals. “Patriarchy is about hierarchies, putting the father – the pater – on top of everyone else. It puts ‘real men’ at the top, and separates them from so-called lesser men. It’s not by chance that African-American men, especially when they were slaves, were referred to as boys. Patriarchy separates people from each other and from themselves.

“To maintain this patriarchy, girls [are told] that they should be ‘real girls’ – that they should stifle their ambitions, what they know about themselves and the world. And boys are taught to be ‘real boys,’ so they can be at the head of the patriarchy.”

She offers a list of adjectives and calls on the audience to respond if the words mostly describe men or women.

“Rational?” The audience is quiet.

“Oh, come on,” she chides. “You know this stuff.”

“Male,” the audience responds loudly.

“Emotional?”

“Female,” the audience responds, as some shift uncomfortably in their seats.

“Powerful?”

Male.

“Nurturing?”

Female.

Gilligan laughs. “Yeah, OK, so you get this, right? It’s not that we don’t all have all these capacities. But the patriarchy needs women to be taught to be selfless, and men are taught to deny emotions and feelings. What a strange term ‘selfless’ is – how can you have a relationship if you have no self? Democracy is based on people who have selves, who have voices, who can speak honestly about their own experiences and needs, who can meet as equals to solve the real problems the world faces.”

Impassioned, she continues her theme during an interview with Haaretz. “If you can’t know what you know in your gut – then you separate your feelings from your gut. Then we lose our empathy to feel with ourselves and with others.”

Rewriting the diary

She cites the diary of Anne Frank as an example of what happens to girls. “Anne Frank listened to Free London Radio, and they urged the Dutch people to save wartime diaries and letters, so that after the war they could show how the Dutch people persevered. So Anne rewrote her diary. She denied her authentic voice and rewrote 324 pages of her diary to curry favor and be the young woman she was ‘supposed’ to be,” says Gilligan. “The original diary, which was published later, contains an exceptional description of her observing her maturing body. But then she thought that maybe people after the war would not want to read that and cut it out. She removed her critical observations of the world in which the actions of women are not appreciated like those of men. The third thing she removed was the pleasure she took in her mother: she changed it from a soft, loving tone to a tough tone of voice, like an adolescent girl is supposedly meant to be.”

This example, backed up by Gilligan’s own research in developmental psychology, also proves why it is so crucial that women be brought into public discussions. It is not because they are, by nature, more “peaceful” than men or have a “greater capacity for connectedness,” Gilligan says. “Both men and women have these abilities – but it is squelched in boys earlier than it is in girls. Boys take on a patriarchal voice much earlier to cover a much more emotionally open and intelligent voice of theirs that they learned to dismiss as ‘babyish’ or as ‘sounding like a girl.’ In childhood, girls have an autonomous voice and are far more aware of that voice than boys are, whereas in adolescence they are more aware of their body and their voice starts to stammer. The older they get, the more I hear ‘I don’t know.’ They forgo their voice and choose relationships in order to be accepted and loved.

“But the leeway they have in those early years gives girls language and a more-developed foundation. It is easier to help girls to resist.”

Gilligan believes the world is beginning to change. “So many books are being written about cooperation, about caring and compassion, about solving real problems through empathy and connectedness on a real political level,” she states. But what about the increase in fundamentalism, including among women? “Because patriarchy is based on a denial of the self, it is inherently unstable and so it always has to defend itself,” she says. “This growth of fundamentalism is a backlash. Patriarchy has a lot to lose – there are real vested interests here.”

This, she says, is at the root of many of the conflicts in the world, including in the Middle East. Referring to the refusal by parts of the Arab world to acknowledge Israel and Israelis, and to the academic and cultural boycotts of Israel, she says, “I refuse to see this as an end point. Refusal to speak, refusal to interact – which leaves no option except violence as a way to solve the real problems – is not natural. It is a capacity we have to be initiated into. When I hear a patriarchal voice – and, of course, women can be part of the patriarchy – I see it as the beginning of an opportunity to listen. I listen in order to understand what caused this woman, or this man, to ally with the patriarchy, to deny her or his basic capacity to relate.”

She says that for parents of young men, especially in Israel, “resistance poses a real dilemma. Men pay a higher price for being ‘girlish’ than girls do for being ‘boyish.’ A tomboy can get away with it, at least until a certain age. A 5-year-old boy who wears a dress to school will never live it down. I know Israeli boys go into the army, and they will pay a price for being ‘feminine,’ for caring too much.”

But that is also why, she insists, resistance is so crucial here. “We need to help our men join the healthy resistance. That doesn’t mean they give up on their real needs and rights. Men shouldn’t become selfless any more than women should. But we need to listen to their emotional voices and help them resist the demand that they become ‘tough’ or ‘more manly.’

“To all you mothers in the world who are told to help your sons become ‘more independent’ and ‘autonomous’ and to ‘separate’ from you, I say – resist that. And support your boys as you would support their immune system. Help them develop the relational capacities that are necessary for democracy and peace.”