Gilligan’s Framework and its Implications: The Benefits and Dangers in my Mormon Context by Caroline Kline


This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium,  Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

Gilligan’s In a Different Voice was a revelation when I discovered it three years ago. At the time I was struggling within my Mormon tradition, wondering if I could continue to remain practicing when doing so, in a sense, perpetuated an institution which I saw as limiting women’s opportunities. Many of my Mormon feminist friends had made the painful decision to leave. They left on principle, as they could no longer lend their support to an institution which promoted teachings which violated their core beliefs in men’s and women’s equality. They were willing to face the pain and disappointment their families would undoubtedly experience, as well as possible ostracism.

I understood and supported my friends’ choices to leave. However, I knew I wasn’t ready to make that choice. My wonderful, kind, devout Mormon husband would be devastated if I left. (Mormons believe that spouses can be together eternally, if, and only if, they both remain faithful and righteous.) When I read Gilligan’s framework in which a focus on caring and relationships was held up as morally equivalent to a focus on principles of justice, I felt enlightened. I had worried that my choice to remain a practicing Mormon was evidence of my lack of backbone, my weakness. I had worried that the truly moral choice was to leave the institution which I saw as violating my principles. But with Gilligan, I had a new way of viewing my decision. I was choosing to save the person I cared most about from pain. I was putting that relationship above the principles of justice and equality which I also treasured. And that, I now saw, was a morally justifiable position.

Having made that pivotal decision to remain practicing three years ago, I now can see my choice as honoring both justice and care orientations.* My husband is one driving force behind my decision to stay, yes. But I know now that I also stay for other reasons. I cannot deny that I am still inspired by the unique liberating ideas and insights that are embedded within my tradition. And I stay because I know that in order for my church to move forward, Mormonism needs people who can push the boundaries from within the tradition.

While Gilligan’s framework has personally been meaningful for me in helping me evaluate (and validate) my personal choices, I do admit that I worry about the implications. Gilligan is very careful to say that she is not essentializing women and men, that she is not trying to extend her findings beyond the particular time and place in which her particular subjects are embedded (p.2), but I can’t help but feel, because her findings are so clearly correlated with gender, that a trajectory of this framework is a type of thinking that would place women as fundamentally different from men in some sense. Now women may actually be fundamentally different from men (hormones, experience, etc.) — I don’t know. But what I do know is that that kind of thinking – men and women are different — has been used to justify limiting women’s and men’s options and choices within my Mormon context.

Take note of Mormonism’s Family Proclamation, issued by Church leaders in 1995, which has gained near canonical status. After stating that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose,” it goes on to say, “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” Now to be fair, I should note that a sentence later, it says that fathers and mothers are to help each other as equal partners. However, despite the nod to equal partnership, I see a focus on difference between men and women, and I see this difference being intertwined with patriarchy. Men preside over their wives and children. Women nurture.

Male and Female by Jackson Pollock

I find it interesting that this paradigm set out by Mormon leaders correlates to some extent with Gilligan’s. (Though I freely note that Gilligan’s paradigm is descriptive and contextually limited, while the Proclamation’s is prescriptive and contextually expansive.) Women are placed in the relational realm as they care for and nurture others. Men are placed in a more distanced, more oppositional realm, as they protect (implied potential violence?), provide (generally outside the walls of the home), and preside (literally “sit in front of”, implying apart from) the family. Thus, in Mormonism, the idea that gender is eternal and tied to our ‘purpose,’ leads to prescriptions for gender roles, which in this paradigm, are inseparable from a hierarchy of men over women.

And so in Mormonism we are left with an association of women with care and men with leadership – and this has served to limit Mormon women’s and men’s options. Men who would love nothing better than to be stay at home dads and nurture their kids full time are left in an awkward space within their Mormon culture. Women who have a driving passion to serve their communities through their careers, even as they also have kids, are left doubting whether they are violating the wishes of God in doing so.

So I see in practice within my Mormon culture a narrowing of possibilities and options when women are associated with care, even as I personally appreciate the validation of this other framework for making moral decisions. My questions are these – Where do you fall as you evaluate the benefits and potential dangers of Gilligan’s framework and its implications? Are women and men better served by deemphasizing differences between the sexes? Does that open more space for people to grow and develop as they will, without gendered expectations and associations being imposed upon them? Or is it a better choice to lift up and embrace that which has been typically associated with the female and therefore denigrated, as Gilligan does?

(*N.B. I also think that both justice and care could likewise be served by choosing to leave a tradition, depending on the circumstances.)



Categories: Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue, Mormonism

Tags: , , , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. What a fantastic first point and way to kick-off our class blogging project! Your insights are so feminist in so many ways: in grounding your commitments through personal experience, in taking seriously the impact of your decisions on real flesh-and-blood people, on acknowledging that “ideas have consequences” (i..e, where on sides on the essentialism vs. social constructivism debate). I thought your most thoughtful line–where I saw clearly that you understood the readings well– was here: “I find it interesting that this paradigm set out by Mormon leaders correlates to some extent with Gilligan’s. (Though I freely note that Gilligan’s paradigm is descriptive and contextually limited, while the Proclamation’s is prescriptive and contextually expansive.)” Your parenthetical was key and highlights a question in moral reasoning: how does one go from an “is” to an “ought…” and should the leap even be made?

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  2. Caroline,
    I talked with you earlier a little about these struggles. I wanted to thank you for this post. As a person who was on the way out of religious tradition a long time ago, I appreciate hearing the opinions and reasons why people choose to stay within a religion, specifically one that seems to oppress them at every angle.

    I feel that your choice to stay for your husband and other reasons is so prevalent in women’s experience within patriarchal religious institutions. Specifically within a religion that promotes the eternal family structure like Mormonism does. You chose to stay with your partner and support him as he seems, from your comments above, to do for you. In a church where such rigid sex boundaries and leadership roles exist, it seems that, like with Gina’s post before, you have chosen a partner who walks alongside you whether than in front of you.

    Gilligan’s framework is very crucial to incorporating a feminist ethic into Mormon theology. More importantly, including the voices of women and women’s experience into Mormon theology allows a re-visitation of the rights and duties to be performed by each sex. However, Mormon feminists have to work from the “bottom up” it seems in a Church structure that is so rigidly “male first, women second” and the important work that you and your allies are doing is working to make the church power structure more horizontal than vertical.

    Thank you for your post. I always enjoy reading what you have to say!

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  3. dear caroline,

    as you say the issue of “essentialism” is prominent in feminist discourse these days and indeed has become a conversation stopper. in response to what you say here, I am going to repost a comment i just made to a student in my online course who asked why women fear being called essentialists.

    “i suspect that most women are so conditioned to think that difference is not equal but must be ranked, that they are afraid of being called woman, female, etc. on the other side, i think many women overreact to the idea that women could in some ways or in some times or places be better at some things than men, because they fear that the mere thought of that would cause men to react negatively and they fear male disapproval.

    these are the wrong reasons to fear essentialism, but that is not to say there might not be good reasons for arguing that there are no essential differences b/w women and men.

    indeed though i usually disagree when the charge of “essentialism” is made against feminist thinkers, i do not think there are any essential differences b/w women and men. we are all finite, limited, embodied, embedded in relationships, part of nature, able to love and hate, and able to make choices, etc. if women as a group or women in a particular time and place are more likely to recognize some aspects of what is essentially a human condition (ie that all people are part of nature or that ethics should be based in care and caring), that this does make for an essential difference, but only to a difference in likllihood of perceiving a universal truth.”

    i am not an essentialist but i do think that women as a group may be more tuned in to some things than men as a group and that for example women in western culture are more likely than men in western culture to take “caring” into consideration in ethcial decision making. but if care should be part of ethical decision making, then that means that men should take it into account too.

    warmly,

    carol

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  4. Thank you so much for your comments everyone!

    Prof. Kao, “how does one go from an “is” to an “ought…” and should the leap even be made?” That’s a great question, and it reminds me of what Ruether says in the first chapter of Sexism and God-Talk. She describes the prophetic liberating tradition in the Bible as “destabilizing toward the existing social order and its hierarchies of power — religious, social, and economic” and goes on to say, “When the religious spokespersons see themselves primarily as stabilizing the existing social order and justifying its power structures, then prophetic language becomes deformed in the interests of the status quo.” This seems to me to relate tangentially to your question, at least in terms of feminist theology. If some social system or mind frame or whatever is an “is” and it serves in practice to constrain people’s possibilities, then it seems to me that Ruether would then say that it should not become an “ought.” Of course, it’s complicated to apply this to Gilligan. She is describing what “is” but depending on one’s viewpoint and experience, its implications are either constraining or liberating.

    John, you said, “including the voices of women and women’s experience into Mormon theology allows a re-visitation of the rights and duties to be performed by each sex.” Yes, absolutely. Which is one of the most exciting things about what’s going on with Mormon feminism and blogs. For the first time, we have a range of women’s voices on the ground discussing how Mormon concepts are affecting them for good and bad. Before we pretty much just had top down rhetoric about women’s experiences with Mormonism. It’s a whole new world now, and I’m hopeful a lot of the things that are discussed on the blogs will eventually filter upward.

    Carol, thank you for your comment. I love hearing where you come down on questions like these. You said, “i am not an essentialist but i do think that women as a group may be more tuned in to some things than men as a group and that for example women in western culture are more likely than men in western culture to take “caring” into consideration in ethcial decision making.” I see this is a real possibility too, especially if I think about the ways that girls are socialized differently than boys. But even though I acknowledge this as a (probably) possibility, I admit the idea makes me a little wary — mainly because I then see the logical possibility for argument that men just might be more likely to be tuned in to some other aspect of universal truth, and then that can be used to justify certain power structures or hierarchies that place men on top. Do you see the possibility that such thinking could be turned around and used against women, or am I just making leaps that are not necessary?

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  5. Caroline –

    Thanks for this post. In some ways, I heard echoes of my own Mennonite tradition and my struggles within it in some of your reflections. Since college, I have found myself working for one of our national denominational agencies, in a department that is composed primarily of white, middle-aged men. It became immediately clear that my co-workers were most comfortable when I assumed stereotypically “female” forms of leadership: leadership that was not too direct, supremely relational, included acts like bringing snacks and planning parties, and was based around the virtues of compromise and care (which seem compatible). While many of these traits are things that come naturally to me (whether through socialization or some essential quality, I don’t know), I began to feel uncomfortable when it became clear that people reacted negatively when my behaviors didn’t fit into these predisposed notions of “women’s leadership.”

    The Mennonite Church has come a long way in the last 30 years. We are ordaining women and welcoming them into positions of leadership (although at the top executive levels of all church institutions, women and people of color are still grossly outnumbered by white men), but I can’t help but feel that we are welcomed into these positions with strings attached: strings that are tied to assumptions about the nature of the essential appropriate behavior for women. I must say, I was surprised to find these vestiges of “old sexism” still alive and well in a self-professed “post-colonial” institution.

    Just as I struggle with my own religious tradition and wonder how much pragmatism is smart, and when staying is just stubborn and hurtful, I too wonder about the effects of Gillian’s work. While Gilligan’s analysis can be very liberating, and it opened up new spaces and possibilities for study in psychology, moral development theory and many other fields, I find myself wondering whether the benefit is worth the side-effects of re-enforching these ideas about the ways that women behave. There is probably no easy outcome to either of these internal arguments.

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  6. caroline,

    any idea can be used to justify just about anything. that is the sorry truth of human history. and the sorry truth of human history is also that just about every idea can be used to oppress women (and others). that knowledge is heavy to bear but it can also be freeing.

    does the fact that women’s capacities to give birth and nurture life have been used to keep women in their place mean that we should not value the contributions of women who have given birth and nurtured to human history? to me that feels like giving in to the oppressors and denying the contribution my own mother and grandmothers made to the life i am living today which granted is very different from theirs.

    here is the question i would raise: to what extent are matriphobia and somatophobia fueling the essentialist debate within feminism. by matriphobia i mean do we fear that if we value motherhood in any way we will “become” our mothers and is that a horrifying thought? ditto for somatophobia. i personally want to be my mother and more than my mother and to be my body and more than my body.

    and yes if giving birth and nurturing are should be valued then i would argue that men should participate as much as possible in the birthing process and that they should learn to become nurturers and that we really should restructure work and life so that there is time for both women and men to work outside and inside the home equally. this was one of the early feminist goals, but it sure has been lost as corporate capitalism expands the work week for white, blue, and pink collar workers.

    warmly,

    carol

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  7. Hannah,
    Thank you for your comment. It’s fascinating to get a glimpse into these other traditions that have made the leap towards incorporating women into church hierarchy (albeit with some ways to go). Your comment reminded me so much of what my Mormon feminist friends and I have discussed about the possible ordination of women into my Mormon tradition: that it is necessary, but not sufficient, in order for women to gain equal status in the Church. So many other things — the things you mention — would need to be changed before true equality could be achieved. Attitudes would have to change. Strong leadership from both sexes would need to be respected. Women would need to be welcomed into the highest echelons of Church hierarchy. While it sounds like there is some progress still to be made in the Mennonite tradition, I take heart that traditions like yours have made that crucial decision to welcome women into leadership. It gives me hope that perhaps change can happen in my tradition as well.

    Carol,
    Thank you again for your reply! . You said, “any idea can be used to justify just about anything.” How true! It’s good for me to remember that.

    “does the fact that women’s capacities to give birth and nurture life have been used to keep women in their place mean that we should not value the contributions of women who have given birth and nurtured to human history?” I’m glad you asked that, and I would definitely agree that respecting and validating and lifting up the act of nurturing (in men and women, like you say in your last paragraph) is hugely important. Like you, I would never want to denigrate those contributions.

    I had never heard of somatophobia and even matriphobia before. I need to read up on this! Your statement, “I want to be my mother and more than my mother.” is something I really relate to, though saying that makes me feel a bit guilty (wanting to be more than my mother — who is an awesome person.) So maybe there is a bit of matriphobia informing my thinking…

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  8. “I was choosing to save the person I cared most about from pain. I was putting that relationship above the principles of justice and equality which I also treasured. And that, I now saw, was a morally justifiable position.”

    “…Mormonism needs people who can push the boundaries from within the tradition.”

    Caroline, your love and generosity know no boundaries; I can’t help but think of your love for your husband as, against all possible odds, heroic. I have no doubt that you possess the courage to be a positive force for change within the Mormon church, because you certainly have the compassion.

    However, I’m curious to know how he feels about the role of women in the church. Is he sympathetic to Feminist evaluation of the tradition? Love is never easy, but (at the risk of universalizing ^_^) love is always morally justifiable; it is the ultimate expression of relationality.

    I hope your husband appreciates everything you’ve done and all you’re doing. You’ve made a very bold choice to stay within Mormonism and help it blossom into a more fully human consciousness and I think your progressive thinking is a sign that things can change.

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  9. Ben, thank you so much for your kind words, though I don’t know if I deserve them. :) The truth is that I adore my spouse — and i can’t deny that Mormonism made him what he is to a significant degree. A guy who wakes up every day and asks himself, “What can I do to make Caroline happy and help her out? What can I do to be a good parent? How can I best show kindness to my friends and colleagues?” When I take all that into consideration, my relationship and attitude towards my Mormon tradition become complex — it helped produce a spectacular partner for me, and that nuances some of my feelings and helps to allow me to continue to participate and see the good in the tradition, despite the issues i have with it over gender roles and power dynamics.

    As for his attitude toward gender issues, he sees the problems and he wishes things were different. Yet even seeing these problems, he can’t deny the power and goodness he has experienced spiritually within Mormonism and its community. We both hope for change, and one of our best hopes for it will come from men like him who have the potential to rise through the church hierarchy and gently push the status quo. I of course have no chance to rise through the hierarchy, but I am optimistic that having conversations about gender issues on blogs like this and in other forums might someday raise the general consciousness among Mormons about these issues.

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  10. Caroline, like Ben I was moved by your sentence: “I was choosing to save the person I cared most about from pain. I was putting that relationship above the principles of justice and equality which I also treasured. And that, I now saw, was a morally justifiable position.” However, I must admit that my initial reaction when I read your post three days ago was disappointment in your husband’s choice to continue practicing a faith tradition that undermined certain aspects of his ethical values. I wondered, why do you have to make the sacrifice?

    After a few days discerning how I would respond to this post (and after reading Nel Noddings Caring), I realized that (perhaps) the risks you and your husband may face if you decide to leave your Mormon tradition may not outweigh the potential gains at this point. A decision such as this has countless repercussions on your relationships with your family, your friends, and your relationship with the Divine. In this sense, your husband could also claim that he too is choosing to save the person he cares the most about from pain.

    Both Gilligan and Noddings expose the intersectionality of care and justice by revealing that in praxis we define these terms situationally, rather than systematically. In your mutual care for each other and for your faith you have decided to stay within your tradition hoping to be an arbiter of justice in regards to equality from within. And yet, caring in this way has consequences that can cause you to question whether justice is even possible.

    Thank you so much for sharing and writing this great post.

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    • Christopher, thank you for your insightful comment. Yes, you’re right – one reason my husband would not leave Mormonism is that the positives outweigh the negatives for him. He feels spiritually sustained and fulfilled by the tradition, even with its faults, and he believes the God wants/needs him within Mormonism. Also,as you might know, leaving Mormonism is an emotionally and psychologically fraught decision, as doing so consigns you to an eternity outside God’s presence in Mormon thought. Even if the leaving Mormon no longer accepts this formulation of eternity, chances are family members would, and that would cause them immense pain. I like your point about mutual care — I think that certainly describes our relationship, and as you say, that care extends out beyond us two and towards our general community and its future, and that extension incorporates some ideas about promoting justice as well.

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  11. Caroline,
    Every organization has its own hierarchy, formal rules, unwritten rules, customs… At some point every individual needs to decide if an organization has too many points of contention for them to continue to belong. It’s a rare find that any single organization’s beliefs and rules align perfectly with every member’s beliefs, it’s simply the way organizations and individuals are. Gilligan’s assertions may have many wonderful benefits for women, pastoral counseling …but there is a cost depending how far we take it.

    You carefully evaluated what the Mormon tradition provides for you and your family, what you cherish in it and the high cost associated with renouncing your membership. I applaud your decision, it works for you and your husband, and no judgment need be made.

    Raised Catholic I can relate to the Mormon Church’s hierarchy and traditions. When I recognized that the many beliefs and needs I had did not align with what the Catholic Church could provide me was a time of great sorrow, confusion and suffering. With the position taken by the Catholic Church regarding birth control (in the wake of aides), abortion, re-marriage, women as priests and homosexuality I made the brutal decision to leave the church. Staying was not acceptable to me, but leaving had many unanticipated and life altering side effects. It has taken decades to sort out the grief, loss and confusion that leaving the Catholic Church had on me. Leaving a church is like leaving your family, you’re an outsider and the potential loss is huge! Every call with family, each Sunday, every holiday was a painful reminder that I chose to leave not just a church, but a family and community.

    I commend you for looking at the decision to stay with your Mormon home not just from a single perspective of what you as a women can achieve or cannot achieve within the Mormon church but from a position of understanding Mormonism as more than just a religion, it’s your family and community – family and community are seldom 100% satisfying, but you have chosen to stay and I’m sure that you will open a mind or two, show through your living example the value you as a person, women, member, wife, daughter…contribute.

    Thanks for your thought provoking post.
    — Sharon

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    • Sharon, you said it all far better than I did. “Leaving a church is like leaving your family, you’re an outsider and the potential loss is huge!” Yes, absolutely. I wanted to articulate that in a comment somewhere, but didn’t. For me to leave Mormonism would be like undergoing a painful divorce. It’s absolutely worth it for some people, but at least right now, it’s not worth it for me. You described poignantly your own experience with leaving and the pain that comes with it, though in your case it sounds like the choice was worth the pain, and I totally affirm that choice.

      You also said, “It’s a rare find that any single organization’s beliefs and rules align perfectly with every member’s beliefs” That’s something I thought about too when I was in my crisis period. Patriarchy is all around me — in the academy, in the government, in the corporate world. That realization made me realize that I’ve chosen to work within patriarchal structures on other levels, so there should be space to figure out how to work within (against) patriarchal structures in my religion too. Of course, it’s triply painful to deal with it in religion, since religion is purporting to communicate God’s will on the subject.

      Thanks for the great comment!

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