A different voice from Carol Gilligan

Special to The Times

THIRTY years ago, Carol Gilligan was a mother of three boys, living a cozy life in Boston -- teaching part time at Harvard, summering on Martha's Vineyard -- when she sat down at her kitchen table and wrote an essay that would turn her into an intellectual celebrity. Soon she was revered by supporters, reviled by opponents, credited with changing basic aspects of our understanding of human psychology.

"It started to circulate like in the underground, and I thought that was fine," Gilligan said recently of the essay that, in 1982, was published by Harvard University Press as "In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development."

In it, Gilligan argued that for psychologists, and the public, to understand human psychological development and ethical reasoning, women's experience must be studied, analyzed and taken into account as well as men's. What's more, Gilligan wrote, women approach moral questions so differently than men do that it makes little sense to lump the two sexes' responses together under the umbrella of "human morality." Women have a more emotional response to ethical decision-making, while men act out of a more impersonal sense of justice.

This was intellectual heresy. Women's critical thinking was assumed to be either identical to men's or too uninteresting to study on its own. Yet "In a Different Voice" went on to sell more than 750,000 copies and be translated into 16 languages.

Riding the tail of second-wave feminism, the book became a staple of the new women's studies curricula across the country -- and a frequent target of those who wanted to ridicule feminism in the name of the "culture wars." Even some feminists bridled at the notion that women were so essentially different than men. Wasn't that, in the end, the same idea that had kept women in the home for so long? As the feminist writer Katha Pollitt wrote, isn't it dangerous to reinforce the idea that women are emotional creatures, less prone to objective reasoning than men are?

Today, with women's and gender studies departments so strongly oriented toward issues of identity, Gilligan's ideas seem almost quaint as academic concerns. As far as pop culture goes, they've become downright common-sensical. "Women think differently than men" is practically the core notion of the self-help industry (Venus and Mars, of course). But Gilligan herself is still working over the themes that made her name, this time in a whole new genre. At 71, a dozen years after being named one of Time's 25 most influential Americans, Gilligan has written a novel.

"Kyra" is about a woman trying to break down walls in her chosen profession: architecture. It is a book of big ideas (architectural and otherwise), a love story, and a history lesson. Kyra is a widowed professor and architect who is building a small planned city on an island off the Massachusetts coast in the early '80s.

She falls in love with Andreas, a widower with a small son; he is a theater director passing through town to work with a friend of Kyra's on a staging of the opera "Tosca." But when Andreas suddenly leaves Boston for his native Hungary to start his own company, Kyra loses her ground and goes half-mad trying to understand how someone who loved her could abandon her.

It's an ambitious first book, full of lyrical passages, surprising in a sense, as Gilligan's work has not typically been praised for its elegance. Her style is soft and a little wistful. Always there is a sense in the book of looking back.

On the surface, "Kyra" seems like a departure from Gilligan's academic work. Yet the novel addresses many of the themes of her scholarship, raising the thorny contention that most riled up her critics in the past: namely that women have a more personal, emotional response to the world while men act out of a broader sense of justice.

Gilligan herself does not see direct parallels. "I wasn't trying in my novel to say, 'Oh, let me write my academic work in a novel,' " she said. Sitting with a coffee in her town house in Manhattan's West Village, Gilligan spoke softly and deliberately, but was prone to occasional bursts of laughter that show off a wide, generous smile; in those moments, she looks like a younger Catherine Keener (yes, younger). She has long, loose hair and wears not a stitch of makeup, seeming happy and comfortable with where she is in her life.

"If you went as an academic I think it's very hard to write about love. . . . What happens to a woman and a man, both of whom are caring . . . how do people move forward? I didn't want to answer that question in the abstract way of a psychologist. I wanted to see how two people would deal with it," Gilligan said.

All in all, "Kyra" took about 15 years to complete. Gilligan insisted she didn't "decide to write a novel," and even spoke of the novel's evolution as a sort of magical, consciousness-raising experience

"When I was in analysis [in the '80s] I started writing. . . . I didn't know who was doing that writing. I used to think of it as Saturday writing. And I just did it. And that was that," she said. She can, however, remember the moment that "Kyra" was born.

"I was reading the New York Times Book Review, and there was this review of this translation of the Aeneid, and the reviewer singled out this passage where Aeneas goes to the underworld in search of his father and he comes upon Dido and he's absolutely stunned. He says, 'I couldn't believe I would hurt you so terribly by going.' And I thought that was amazing. How could an intelligent, sensitive man not know the effect of his actions on someone whom he actually loved? Then the counterpoint question, which is how crazy a woman feels when she thinks someone is in connection with her, and that there has been this love between them, and he does something as if he has no idea. It seemed like a very contemporary problem."

First of two new books

KATE MEDINA, Gilligan's editor at Random House, said that "Kyra" is the first of two Gilligan books she will publish. (There's also a collection of stories, but the novel is coming out first.) Medina said that she had read "In a Different Voice" and Gilligan's later book, "Meeting at the Crossroads," about girls' development, when they first appeared. The two were also friends before being matched as editor and writer, having met when Medina was a Bunting Fellow at Harvard while Gilligan was teaching there.

"I was thrilled that there was this ability in Carol to in fiction go into the problem that she was writing about in her nonfiction," Medina said. "I actually think that to do the work Carol has done in the past takes a certain kind of empathy and imagination, and that has come together in another way in this novel."

Gilligan, who was born and raised in New York City, is a university professor at NYU, enjoying the perks that come toward the end of a long, successful academic career, including the freedom to be innovative and interdisciplinary with her courses. Yet sitting with her, it's hard to imagine a female academic today having a career -- or a life -- like hers. As Gilligan is quick to point out, when she graduated from Swarthmore College in 1958, the only goal for her or any woman at the time was to get married and have children, both of which she did long before she launched her academic career.

"I was teaching part time, and I would take three months off every summer," she recalled. "I remember going to the public library at the Vineyard and reading all of Jane Austen one summer. . . . They were summers -- long days, long light, kids at the beach, everyone had three or four children. When I think of the kind of freedom my kids had, I don't think you could do that now. Now there's a structure that makes it very hard for anyone to work."

So how do we change those structures? Gilligan doesn't have any quick answers. She scrunched up her forehead and a look of concern, something like what must have crossed her face 30 years ago, passed across her face. For a moment she almost looked sorry. "You have to be creative," she instructed. "I think that's the problem, I really do."

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