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.
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.)