In A Different Voice: Act Two

In 2018, Carol Gilligan revitalized her In a Different Voice with two co-authored books about the persistence of patriarchy locking out democracy and relational care.

Together with David Richards, Gilligan put this theme already on the agenda extensively in 2008: The Deepening Darkness, Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy’s Future. In 2002, in The Birth of Pleasure, Carol Gilligan used the word patriarchy for the first time, not contrasting it with matriarchy but with democracy.

With Richards in 2018, Gilligan elaborates on their 2008 publication, resuming and summarizing their argument particularly in the context of Trump’s election, that overwhelming exhibition of patriarchy’s persistence in American politics and society. Their Darkness Now Visible, Patriarchy’s Resurgence and Feminist Resistance summarizes also the other book about patriarchy Gilligan wrote in 2018 with Naomi Snider, Why does Patriarchy Persist, which I would recommend to read first, as it gives a more elaborated and “first hand research-based” account of the main theme.

Patriarchy’s gender binary

For Gilligan, the patriarchy theme is not only of great political importance, but also socially and psychologically, not in the least for a critical ethics of care. With Snider, she defines patriarchy as a culture based on a gender binary and hierarchy, a framework or lens that:

– leads us to see human capacities as either ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ and to privilege the masculine;
– elevates some men over other men and all men over women;
– forces a split between the self and relationships so that in effect men have selves, whereas women ideally are selfless, and women have relationships, which surreptitiously serve men’s needs.

At first glance, this definition seems to represent a rather ingenious classical feminist stance. Gilligan’s remarkable life-time achievement however, is to have elaborated this core principle of feminism into a more or less coherent political theory. A theory dealing with the odds and ends of a fair and caring democracy, set against its authoritarian counter-forces, and grounded not only in a justifiable relational psychology, but also in long-term empirical research.

Binary thinking

Due in part to Tronto and Gilligan, the concept of relationality has become a cornerstone in ethics of care. Gilligan however, takes it much further ever since her 2002 The Birth of Pleasure. Humans are not only dependent upon relations of mutual care, their well-being is also dependent upon their equality in all sorts of personal, social and political relations, i.e. equal rights and chances, without setting apart or undervaluing anybody in any sense.

To label this relational paradigm as a prerogative only of feminism, is already an example of binary thinking, typical of what Gilligan considers the cornerstone of a patriarchal moral paradigm. The moral scope of relational thinking and acting is absolutely not merely feminist, but at least pertaining to all humans, if this does not already make a binary split between the human and the non-human on planet earth.

What is the purpose, the clue then of such binary thinking, as in the binary gender split, or as in the division human/non-human or even inhuman? According to Gilligan the gender binary is the very first principle of patriarchy, and consequently, also of anti-democracy. To understand this, it is clarifying, in my opinion, to comprehend binary thinking and judging in the social domain as instruments and sources of power, control and distancing, “othering”, separating “us” from “them”, barricading “the bad” from “the good”, the “discarded” from the “dignified”.

Relational risk management

Could it be that simple? Surely, as long as the focus is on operations of power, control and distancing in binary “divide and conquer”. Where such strategic armaments are deployed, something is at stake. For Gilligan and Snider, control and power over relationships are at stake in patriarchal morality and its behavioral prescriptions. Ultimately it is risk management: to overcome and avoid suffering from mental pain caused by relational loss, reducing vulnerability to a negligible minimum. Taking the relational grounds for granted, be it at the lowest possible cost.

Children are supposed, at a certain age, to learn and internalize the discipline of taking distance, deploying reason as an instrument of control over feelings and emotions, and to redefine, reframe their relations according to patriarchal role patterns: the masculine individual being independent, untouchable and rational, whereas for the feminine individual some feelings and emotions are allowed, as long as they remain subservient within relational frames outlined by the masculine, i.e. patriarchal rationale.

The patriarchal rationale is to remain beyond doubt and discussion because ultimately, it comes down to a closed moral paradigm, the golden standard by which everything is measured: being strong and independent enough, or too weak, which means: deplorable, inferior, but OK, perhaps useful if submissive.

In her two 2018 books, Gilligan distinguishes only sparingly “feministic” from masculine patterns of behavior; both males and females are (mis)guided by and subjugated to identical patriarchal schemes, to which some individuals, mostly males, adapt successfully and many others don’t—often females, but males as well, or any other gender.

Nevertheless, the patriarchal measure traditionally rests on a gender binary, still associating preferable behavior and mindset with the dominating male, and, submissive to that, second-rate or at most supporting (caring!?) ways of living and thinking, embodied mostly by women, artists, some leftists et cetera.

Losing touch with experience

Now Gilligan, Snider and Richards pinpoint several “collateral” consequences issuing from the patriarchal domination, which, according to them, is nowadays more current than ever, especially in Trump’s United States.

  • Growing up according to patriarchal values and directives, implies cultivating and preferring reason and abstraction above feelings and emotions, mind above body, and cognitive distance above direct involvement. ‘As so many research in neuroscience shows, when we split thought from emotion and mind from body, we lose our capacity to register our own experience and to pick up what others are experiencing’ ((note 1)). Gilligan and Snider observe that both men and women are pressed into falsehood, men into ‘the pseudo-independence of masculine detachment’ and women into ‘the pseudo-relationships of feminine goodness.’
  • Losing touch with the voice of experience, we can become captive to the voice of false authority. Hence: ‘The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist (Hannah Arendt)’
  • Connecting the developmental studies of Gilligan and her colleagues with John Bowlby’s studies of attachment and loss, Gilligan and Snider came to a startling discovery: the gender ideals of patriarchal manhood and womanhood correspond to what Bowlby identifies as pathological responses to loss. Pathological in that they compound loss by standing in the way of relationships.
  • The initiation into the gender codes of patriarchy subverts the very capacities we rely on in order to live in relationships: that is, our ability to repair the ruptures that are an inescapable part of the everyday. Thus the relational capacities that are essential to love and also integral to democracy—our ability to live with integrity, in touch with ourselves and in connection with others—are on the line in the course of initiation into the gender codes of patriarchy.

In the above list of patriarchy’s symptoms two consequences stand out: the splitting of reason from emotion and the separation of the self from relationship, which are both gender-invoked. Rather than being markers of progress or development, they are actually manifestations of injury or trauma.

Research on development intensively done with children both male and female, suggests that the induction into patriarchy with its gendered splits and hierarchies, bears some of the hallmarks of trauma: going through the initiations towards adulthood, relationships of love and connection are exchanged for sham relationships based on social status and detached calculation. At the same time, during these shifts, both men and women experience feelings of loss and even betrayal, which Gilligan considers moral injuries, and even moral slavery.

Power of patriarchy

Important characteristic of the patriarchal moral paradigm is its operating largely outside our awareness—with initiations bypassing conscious thought. This is consistent with Foucault’s view of how power works in society and in relationships—through mimicry on levels of more or less unpremeditated behavior, although Foucault emphasized that power always presupposes free will, otherwise it is not power, but violent coercion.

Boys and girls are lured into per se traumatic patriarchal role-patterns and mindsets, as Gilligan and Snider have demonstrated in their long-run research projects. Students involved in these projects had to acknowledge, to their astonishment, that they too, as devoted Democrats, had wrung their relationships into patriarchal straightjackets several times in their lives, and that they suffered considerable emotional damage ever since.

To sum up, Gilligan and Snider make mention of three main discoveries in their research:

First, the codes and scripts of patriarchal manhood and womanhood—that is, the patriarchal construction of what it takes to be an honorable man or a good woman—correspond to what the psychologist John Bowlby identifies as pathological responses to loss; namely, emotional detachment and compulsive caregiving.

Second, the initiation into patriarchal manhood and womanhood subverts the ability to repair ruptures in relationship by enjoining a man to separate his mind from his emotions (and thus not to think about what he is feeling) and a woman to remain silent (and thus not to say what she knows).

Their third discovery came with the realization that resistance to internalizing the gender codes of patriarchy tracks the same trajectory as responses to loss: protest, and when protest proves ineffective, despair and then detachment. By subverting the capacity for repair, patriarchy impels us on the path to detachment—the defensive move out of relationships designed to protect us from a loss that has come to seem inevitable.

Compulsive caregiving

Bowlby’s observation that detachment can be mistaken for independence and maturity led Gilligan to an epiphany: detachment is mistaken for maturity precisely because it mirrors the pseudo-independence of manhood, which in patriarchy is synonymous with being fully human.

Bowlby found also, that the detachment defense can take an inverse form, which he described as anxious attachment. Rather than avoiding or detaching from relationships, the anxiously attached cling to others, often with excessive submissiveness and engaging in what Bowlby termed “compulsive caregiving” as a substitute for actual relationship.

The key discoveries Gilligan and Snider came to, arise from the realization that patriarchy, although psychologically unstable (because it falsifies the reality of experience), is held in place because both the pseudo-independence and detachment of patriarchal manhood and the compulsive care-giving and self-silencing of patriarchal womanhood are defenses against the loss of authentic relationship that patriarchy inflicts. What’s more, these defenses against loss render the loss of relationship irreparable. Hence the stability and the persistence of patriarchy, despite its psychological costs.

Politics of patriarchy

The sacrifice of love is the thumbprint of patriarchy. It clears the way for establishing and maintaining hierarchy. Patriarchy is an order of living that privileges some men over other men (straight over gay, rich over poor, white over black, fathers over sons, this religion over that religion, this caste over the others) and all men over women. The politics of patriarchy is the politics of domination—a politics that rationalizes inequality and turns a blind eye to what from a democratic vantage-point looks like oppression (being on the bottom, having no voice, being at the mercy of those on top). But in addition to the political forces that can explain the persistence of patriarchal institutions and values, there are also psychological forces holding these structures in place.

The move from relationship into feminine self-silencing and masculine detachment—not knowing and not caring—is necessary for establishing hierarchy, which requires a loss of empathy by those on top and a loss of self-assertion by those below. Knowing and caring are integral to political resistance, and specifically to resisting the gender strictures of patriarchy that separate intelligence (knowing) from emotion (caring) and render both men and women less than fully human.

No resistance to injustice

Gilligan and Snider came to the insight that the inability to repair relationships is connected to the inability to resist injustice. Because men and women are involved in or affected by all forms of injustice—racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like—the shaming of protest on the basis of gender undermines the human capacity to register and resist the loss of connection.

The gender binary and hierarchy that are foundational to patriarchy undercut human relationality and, what is perhaps most essential, subvert our ability to repair ruptures and resist injustice. How precisely this subversion occurs will differ according to race, class, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, and the like. What cuts across these differences is the human desire to live in connection, to have a voice, to register rupture and to respond with protest.

Resisting patriarchy

According to the evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, patriarchy often masquerades as nature, but is not in fact natural to us as humans. We survived as a species because of our capacity for mutual understanding: for empathy, mind-reading, and cooperation, all of which, as Hrdy notes, are present in rudimentary form practically from birth. In contrast, as she writes, ‘patriarchal ideologies that focused on the chastity of women and the perpetuation and augmentation of male lineages undercut the long-standing priority of putting children’s wellbeing first. Rather than being linked with human survival, patriarchy puts our survival in danger’ ((note 2)).

The issue becomes even more complex once we recognize that a system of domination doesn’t necessarily nullify or override what are basic human capacities. In fact our relational abilities (empathy, mind-reading, and cooperation) carry with them the power to override hierarchy. The ethic of care, as Gilligan has written more than once, is a human necessity, integral to survival and a requisite both for love and for democracy. Because the ethic of care is the ethic that prevents moral injury, it is the ethic of resistance to patriarchy.

This ethics of care is informed by a feminism understood as the movement to free democracy from patriarchy, pinpointing and resisting the gender binary and hierarchy that cripple love and impair our capacity to engage in the communication and the relationships that are vital for democratic citizenship.

A different voice

Gilligan’s In a Different Voice already shows the framework in which a quintessentially human voice sounds “different”. Different from a voice that had come to sound “natural” or “objective”. Different because it joins self with relationships, thoughts with emotions, the mind with the body, and “feminine” because in the gender codes of patriarchy, relationships and emotions are women’s preoccupations. It is in patriarchy that a human voice becomes a different voice, a feminine voice and also a resisting voice. This was the signal contribution of Gilligan’s studies with girls. But the research with girls proved far more radical (than In a Different Voice), because it exposed the roots of the problem: there is a tension between human development and the culture of patriarchy.

Different paradigms

In 2016, following Trump’s election, patriarchy had become visible as a crude, mysterious, and powerful force in US politics. Opponents were looking at Trump through a framework of democracy, but for Trump patriarchy was the frame. Gender was no longer one issue among many (race, class, sexuality, etc.) as it is within a democratic framework where the concern is equal voice or equality.

Gilligan refers to George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist, who had argued that the progressive liberal politicians he supports (including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) have made a mistake in not taking more seriously and emphasizing contrasting moral frameworks rather than relying on the ostensibly more rational arguments about choices among policies. Gilligan remarks that Lakoff misses a crucial point where we are not simply dealing with alternative debatable moral frameworks but with different anthropological and political paradigms.

Thus, the political battle between democracy and patriarchy is joined with a psychological struggle. Patriarchy’s persistence is tied not only to a struggle for power and a contest between different frameworks for living or systems of belief, but also to the tension between our desire for love and our desire to avoid the pain of loss. With its gender binary and hierarchy creating impediments to relational presence and integrity, patriarchy becomes a bastion against the pain of loss. The catch is: it requires a sacrifice of love.

Patriarchy vs Democracy

Put simply, patriarchy is contingent on subverting the human capacity to repair relationship: its hierarchy is premised on a loss of relationship and thereby on a sacrifice of love. Conversely, democracy, like love, is contingent on relationship: on everyone having a voice that is grounded in their experience. In this sense, everyone’s voice is recognized as essential to the realization of democratic processes and values and therefore both called forth and welcomed, heard and responded to—not necessarily with agreement, but with respect.

Equal voice is the condition that makes it possible to work through conflicts in relationship without the use of force or by other means of domination. The relational capacities that constitute our humanity stand at the crossroads of where we have come to collectively, at this volatile intersection of democracy and patriarchy. And the question that confronts us, that confounds us perhaps more urgently now than ever before, is: which way will we go?

Radical Listening

So political change depends on psychological transformation and vice versa. For Gilligan, listening as a radical act is a key to this transformation because in radical listening we can understand another’s experience without letting go of our own or losing sight of the pain or anger their actions may have caused us. It can move us away from rigidly held positions when we open ourselves and take into ourselves the experiences and suffering of others. In listening, we open ourselves to discovery—to the unknown, and also potentially to the recognition of a common humanity.

Listening to Carol Gilligan, we hear echoes of what Judith Butler has been telling us in several of her gender studies and also very recently in her webinars, arguing from even more elaborated social and political viewpoints. Gilligan’s angle is primarily psychological, although the literary reflections with which she often strengthens her views (well-known classic plays and authors like Virginia Woolf and Herman Melville) are very illuminating also in a political sense.

As a philosopher, I find her notion of patriarchy somewhat under-theorized, not giving convincingly enough insights about historical origins, in particular how psychological motives, decisive to Gilligan, interact with economical, demographical and geographical conditions and circumstances.

Still, with these two books about patriarchy Gilligan revisits  In a Different Voice to stage “Act II” . With this revitalized call for a “different voice” Gilligan again stresses the need for a human voice, one that counters the patriarchal tone based on logic and justice, and is instead a voice of care, connection, and understanding.

1. Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (New York: Touchstone, 1996).
Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999).

2. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins Mutual Understanding (Cambridge Harvard University Press, 2009)


Carol Gilligan and David A. J. Richards, Darkness Now Visible, Patriarchy’s Resurgence and Feminist Resistance (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2018
Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider, Why Does Patriarchy Persist? (Polity Press, 2018)


About the author: Richard Brons

Richard Brons

Richard Brons (1950) graduated in philosophy and literary studies at University of Amsterdam and VU Amsterdam (NL). At the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL), he completed a NWO PhD research on J.F Lyotard's ethics of Differend, about the injustice of speechlessness. Since 2012, he is responsible for the final editing of Waardenwerk Magazine, a continuation of the Journal of Humanistic Studies. Currently he is interested in confronting postmodern critical voices of male protagoniists like Lyotard and Foucault with the different voices of feminists like Gilligan, Benjamin and Butler.

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