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Carol Gilligan's 'In a Different Voice' Revisited: On Gender and Morality

Are gender stereotypes always wrong?
Ask the elephants

If we subscribe to the theories of Freud or of Piaget, we might conclude that, as a result of some arcane developments in early childhood or of a socialization process during middle childhood, girls mature more slowly and less completely into moral reasoning than boys do.

Later researchers have strongly disagreed. In the mid-1970s, Norma Haan and Constance Holstein argued that women's morality was not less developed but simply different from men's, and that it relied more on empathy or compassion. Women's morality, they concluded, had a different tone or style . . . or a different voice, as the idea was articulated by Carol Gilligan, in her best-selling In a Different Voice (1982).

Gilligan found the young women in her own research to be less certain of their moral analyses than men. "Women have traditionally deferred to the judgment of men," she wrote, "although often while intimating a sensibility of their own which is at variance with that judgment." Gilligan discovered that women were more likely to consider moral problems in terms of "care and responsibility in relationships," rather than with the more typically masculine examination of "rights and rules." A morality based on rules alone, she thought, was incomplete and likely to become oppressive and damaging.

Gilligan's book became a feminist classic, while Time magazine anointed her as one of America's 25 most influential persons for 1995. Some critics, however, expressed concern about her work's possible implications.

Superficially at least, Gilligan's idea reinforces some of the old stereotypes about gender differences, and in doing so, it may seem to undermine an axiom of traditional feminism: that gender is a social construction. Gilligan herself recoiled from any extended debate about the origins of such differences. "I find the question of whether gender differences are biologically determined or socially constructed to be deeply disturbing," she protested in a 1993 introduction to her book.

Disturbing or not, the question remains, as does the concern about whether her famous book resuscitates dying notions and damaging stereotypes. In speaking of two different styles or "voices" or approaches to morality, aren't we perpetuating harmful stereotypes about human gender?


We usually think of stereotypes as unfair oversimplifications applied meanly. But if we can think of them as potentially useful generalizations applied kindly, then I would like to explore the matter further--but focusing on mammalian rather than merely human gender. Elephants are an interesting example if only because males and females live in separate societies that cleanly demonstrate some behavioral and temperamental differences.

The sexual segregation happens because once males reach adolescence they leave their natal families, while the females remain. This reduces the likelihood of inbreeding, and it works because elephants have evolved to make it work. The males probably want to leave. Their mothers and the other females may be glad to see them go. But the temperamental differences between males and females are evident almost from birth, according to studies done by Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole in Kenya's Amboseli National Park.

Even during their first year, the males play more roughly than their female counterparts, and by four years, the males start to move independently of their mothers, and are more of a nuisance, pushing and bullying others, for example. The females stay closer to their mothers and become involved in "babysitting"-playing with and caring for the youngsters in their group. At the start of adolescence, the males drift away and join a bachelor group or wander by themselves.

In bachelor groups, adolescent males form bonded relationships with other males of their size and age, and they also develop friendly, mentoring relationships with the big bulls. At the same time, they begin to test each other's dominance.

In fact, both males and females form dominance relationships with other members of their own sex. For the females, though, dominance is decided by natural circumstance. The most powerful female, the matriarch, is the oldest and most experienced individual, the one who retains the fullest memory of social and ecological environments. Elephant females, then, live in a familiar, family world where social power is defined by circumstance and consensus, while the males enter a less familiar world of strangers, where social rank is defined more by size, power, and testosterone level.

Unlike females, the males continue to grow for most of their lives, which makes the older males, into their forties and fifties, enormous. The biggest of them will measure up to 13 feet at the shoulders and weigh around six tons, and their size alone--twice that of the biggest adult female or a twenty-year-old male--is enough to ensure a proper deference from the others.

Testosterone is the wild card here, since the males periodically undergo radical surges in male hormones during the musth phase that can transform them from normal, easy-going creatures into raging and dangerous beasts. Dangerous, that is, to other males, even somewhat larger males, who under other circumstances would have the upper tusk. The big males do occasionally battle ferociously, earth-shakingly, for access to a fertile female. Yet most of the time they don't need to fight, since usually, during their long bachelor existence, they have already established a hierarchy of dominance. The males understand already, without having to risk a physical confrontation, who's at the top and who is not, even when the musth phase is factored in.

I don't want to create the impression, as stereotypes often do, that everything can be very simply explained in fixed terms, or that the differences between males and females are rigid and stark. Katy Payne, a bioacoustician from Cornell University, writes in Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants (1998) of having watched two male elephants standing together at midday in extreme heat in a Namibian desert. One was a very big bull, the other much smaller and younger. The little male leaned over against the big male, whereupon the big guy lifted his ear as if unfolding a parasol, a giant beach umbrella, that provided shade for his dimunitive companion. The two stood that way, sleepily waiting out the hot overhead sun "for a long time," Payne reports. True, the big bull may have improved his own self-cooling efficiency by keeping the one ear lifted, but at the same time he was gently and generously protecting his little pal from both heat and possible sunburn.

So males do form emotional attachments. Nevertheless, I believe that Payne would be the first to agree that elephants, too, have gender-sensitive value systems that will recall Gilligan's notion of different moral voices.

Actually, Payne came to Africa to listen to elephant voices. Having spent time with zoo elephants, she began to suspect that those animals were communicating with each other infrasonically, that is, with sounds beneath the range of human hearing. So she went to Africa carrying tape recorders capable of registering the infrasonic environment. Using that equipment and working with Moss and Poole, Payne began listening to elephant voices, which include a complex variety of snorts, rumbles, roars, bellows, screams, trumpets, along with "a long half-muffled, half-shrieking sound . . . associated with play."

Poole had previously identified 26 sonically-complex vocalizations made by adult elephants, 19 of which were produced only by females, four only by males, the remaining three by both. So females were more actively vocal, with nearly five times the vocabulary of males; but when Payne began analyzing the elephants' calls, she also realized that the males only made individual, solitary calls, whereas the females were often vocalizing communally, with overlapping and sometimes chorusing calls. The distinction was unmistakable. It was as if, she writes, the females would begin a sentence with the collective pronoun "We," while the males communicated always as the solitary "I."

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