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the Battle of the Sexes, Continued: Commniques From the Trenches : Poet Examines 'Mern and Women Now' Through Looking Glass of Stories, Songs and Verse; Psychologist Uses the fabele of porcupine and Moles to Illustrate Gender Differences

September 25, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

By way of illustrating her point--that care-focused morality is primarily a female phenomenon while the traditional male definition of morality is justice-focused--Carol Gilligan was retelling Aesop's fable of The Porcupine and the Moles:

Seeking refuge from the cold, a porcupine asked to share a desirable cave for the winter with a family of moles. The moles agreed but, theirs being a small cave, they soon found that they were being scratched each time the quilled porcupine moved about. Finally, they asked the porcupine to leave but the porcupine stood his ground, saying, "If you moles are not satisfied, I suggest that you leave." The poor moles, burdened with a permanent guest, had learned their lesson: "It is well to know one's guest before offering him hospitality."

Asked for Solutions

Now, said Gilligan, researchers presenting the dilemma of the moles and the porcupine to a study group of 11-to-15-year-old suburban American children and asking for their solutions found the boys opting for justice--"It's the moles' house. It's a deal. The porcupine leaves"--while the girls looked for solutions that would keep all parties content and comfortable, such as "Cover the porcupine with a blanket."

Gilligan is not here to say that one gender is superior in its thinking, just that there are differences, long ignored in the psychological literature, in people's ways of thinking about relationships, ways that she refers to as "male and female voices."

And, while these differences are not strictly biological, she believes, it is clear that they "arise in a social context where factors of social status and power combine with reproductive biology to shape the experience of males and females and the relations between the sexes."

Gilligan, a psychologist and associate professor of education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, has spent more than a dozen years exploring these differences, which she delineated in her acclaimed 1982 book, "In a Different Voice" (Harvard University Press).

Her work has won for her academic honors, honorary degrees and, in January, 1984, Ms. magazine's cover as its "Ms. Woman of the Year." In singling her out as a leader of the future, Ms. proclaimed: "Gilligan's work has implications for a rather different kind of future--one in which humanity takes its cues not from Big Brother, but from sisters, mothers and daughters." In retrospect, Gilligan said during a visit last week to Claremont, where she participated in a three-day symposium sponsored by the Claremont Colleges, the Ms. honor was a mixed blessing. "I live a very private life," she explained. "I guess I thought I could send my work in without myself."

After the magazine came out, she said, she received considerable criticism from some feminists who felt she was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. But, said Gilligan, "My work has always been criticized by certain groups of feminists who thought to talk about differences was to invite oppression."

There was a turn-away audience for Gilligan's talk at the Garrison Theater of the Claremont Colleges. Many were women, who related instantly to her recounting "one of the more illuminating moments in my research"--a woman, given a moral problem to resolve, had asked, "Do you want to know what I think or do you want to know what I really think?"

The implication, Gilligan said, was that she had "learned to think" in a way different from how she "really thought."

Historically, she said, there has been the implication that there is a single standard of morality, defined as the moral perspective-- and it is the male perspective, measured against which women's moral development has been found wanting.

Origins of Morality Traced

She traced the origins of morality to early childhood relationships and the two factors that shape this development: inequality, "reflected in the child's awareness of being smaller and less capable," and attachment to others.

In early childhood, she said, "the experience of attachment lessens the experience of inequality by empowering the child in relation to the parent who otherwise seems unmoveable and all-powerful. Perhaps because girls generally identify with their mothers . . . the experience of inequality seems less overwhelming in female development and the experience of attachment more salient. Women may pay less attention to the consequences of unequal relationships, especially when norms of feminine behavior impede striving toward equality."

On the other hand, Gilligan said, "If boys identify with their fathers and are not closely attached to them, concerns about equality and justice become more salient, and separation or independence more necessary to self-esteem." When their childhood feelings of inequality are compounded in adolescence by social inequality and by norms of male dominance, she said, "feelings of helplessness and powerlessness become heightened and the potential for violence increases."

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