Gilligan Carol (2011) Joining The Resistance. Cambridge: Polity Press. ISBN=9780745651705

Reviewed by: Finn Mackay, FWSA Executive Member.


“the seeds of transformation, lie within ourselves…” (p.13).

This new book from Carol Gilligan starts off from, enriches and adds to possibly her most well-known publication, the 1982 feminist classic ‘In A Different Voice’. Then, her concern was with how the discipline of psychology, like the academy generally, assumed a universal male norm to represent personhood – theoretically and practically. She noted that many supposedly neutral studies used only male participants for example, yet extrapolated their findings to humankind generally. Thus, half of humanity was being missed from scholarly studies and their perspective overlooked. Patriarchal socialisation being as it is, an active and brutal process of development and initiation, women’s consequently often different viewpoint was thus not represented in academic, public and political debate. This was a significant omission, because, Gilligan argued, it is women that often give voice to an ethics of care; being made largely responsible for the world’s caring work, and care being coded as female and feminine.

She argued this not to suggest that women are biologically more caring than men, or to present all women as natural earth mothers driven to breast feed anyone in their midst; in between bathing in the moon’s shadow etc. She just pointed out that women often have a different perspective to men, and that elements of that perspective may be really important to political and academic questions; yet the answers they could provide are being lost. Gilligan sees these answers as equally, if not more important today, thirty years after the publication of ‘A Different Voice’. She sees women still the backbone of social justice and equality movements, still those most responsible for caring tasks and still those most likely to raise these issues publically. Her point is that we need this most human perspective – whether it is voiced by women or men – now more than ever, “given the value of care and caring and the costs of carelessness” (p.17).

She spends a lot of her book exploring what it is that leads to the above situation, where women are more likely than men to voice this ethics of care that she recognises is so vital in a world ravaged by a patriarchy that threatens all life. Contrary to many of the criticisms and, she would say, misreadings of her earlier work, she of course does not say that this is down to nature; inscribed in biological gender norms that make women fluffy and caring and men bristly and violent. She is interested in the processes, in people of all ages, but especially in young people, which lead to the embodiment and enactment of such gender norms. She is interested in when, how and why some young people try to resist them and when, how and why their resistance “to losing the grounds of our humanity” (p.12) gets beaten down. Thus, it is unsurprising that she focuses a lot of the book on masculinity.

She asserts that all human beings are actually caring and collective: “we are, by nature, responsive, relational beings, born with a voice and into relationships, hard-wired for empathy and cooperation, and that our capacity for mutual understanding was – and may well be – key to our survival as a species” (p.3). While such urgent and human attributes may be praised and developed (yet simultaneously culturally and materially devalued and demeaned) in girls and women, they are, of course, often not encouraged in boys. Especially, in the difficult period of what she calls middle-childhood, or mid primary school, where boys are beginning the Freudian process of disassociation from their mother and all things female and feminine. Her point is that such training leads to inevitable tears in the psyche, dividing people, particularly men, from a core element of themselves; perhaps the most human element of themselves. This leads to many problems. Not least, the expression and institutionalisation of violence; coded as masculine. That most base fallback for men to prove that, whatever their individual experience of powerlessness, they are at least still men, in a patriarchal world where that means dominance and control, especially over those classified as weak.

So far, so old news! Reading her book felt a bit like Feminist Theory 101; but then, there is never enough feminist theory, or publicising of feminist theory, so, all well and good! Also, because Gilligan is a psychologist, literati type and a philosopher, the book is full of interesting and relevant references to literature, to Greek myths, and quite a lot of Freud. Gilligan seems a bit of a fan. In fact, in Chapter Three we get a spirited defence of Freud, arguing that he had to move away from his attachments to women and his desire to publicise their truths in order to make his way in the world as a man and as a scientist. Apparently, therefore, he had to make fantasy of women’s very real experiences of oppression because if he hadn’t he would have been cast out of the order of men, coupled to women and femininity, thus irrationality and subjectivity. Most of what I know of Freud I know from Kate Millett, who describes him as: “beyond question the strongest individual counterrevolutionary force in the ideology of sexual politics during the period” (Millett, 1972[1969]:178). So, I wasn’t convinced by that chapter!

I also found myself wanting more from the book generally. It uses a lot of anecdote, from conversations with her students over the years, with friends and it re-visits interviews with children from ‘A Different Voice’. I sometimes thought that there wasn’t much new here. Also, there wasn’t much offered practically as to how exactly we can heal the world, or mend the splits in our psyche that are fractured in the process of patriarchal initiation. Perhaps the latter is the answer to the former. We are told that we need to listen to girls and women. Because of their socialised gender roles and the later timing of their most brutal patriarchal initiation – compared to boys much earlier experience – “girls and women are key in exposing patriarchal structures” (p.38). They are also more likely to be able to explain and highlight these, because they don’t risk doubts being cast on their femininity – as boys fear questioning of their masculinity or maleness.

Gilligan is aware that this sounds a lot, and worryingly, like the old ‘woman questions’ and separate spheres approaches of 1800s Europe. Where women were heralded as representatives of nation and vessels of morality – particularly men’s morality; mainly so men didn’t have to bother being so moral themselves, least of all to women. This is the inherent and still persistent contradiction, sparked from ancient Cartesian dualisms. A situation where morality is publicly promoted by the institutions that make up our patriarchal architecture – religion, politics, military, business – and where morality is often explicitly attached to femininity; yet, where femininity is despised. As JS Mill wrote in 1869: “As for moral differences, considered as distinguished from intellectual, the distinction commonly drawn is to the advantage of women. They are declared to be better than men; an empty compliment, which must provoke a bitter smile from every woman of spirit, since there is no other situation in life in which it is the established order, and considered quite natural and suitable, that the better should obey the worse” (JS Mill, [1869] 1984:320). It adds insult to injury to suggest that women should be responsible for curing patriarchy and saving men from themselves. And, I don’t think this is what Gilligan is saying, though sometimes I can see why people may take away that so very gendered and essentialist message.

What then are the answers? As stated earlier, we should listen to and value the insight and perspective of girls and women. We should parent more communally and differently and men must parent more. On page 56 she presents biological evidence that caring for children is good for human beings, enhancing hormones that promote nurturing. We should also attempt to un-gender ourselves and our children. It doesn’t matter if children are raised by men or women, though they do need at least three core, care-giving adults who are reliable and consistent. It is better if the third party is slightly outside in some way, acting as a check and balance to the child’s relationship with the other two care-givers. Grandparents are given as an obvious example here, but it could be anyone. We need to stop brutalising boys into manhood and allow them to be the human beings they are. We need to praise girls for care and empathy, rather than write these skills off as feminine and weak; we need to do exactly the same with boys. We need to re-build and value the natural links between morality and justice, morality needs to be brought into politics and policy, not seen as some sort of humanitarian (girly) add-on after the real (men’s) work has been done.

The different voice she wants everyone to speak in, and be allowed to speak in, is not really anything to do with gender. Though gender norms are what silence this voice. She insists that this voice is our natural human state. It is, in fact, not ‘different’ as such, in any unusual or spectacular way. It is the norm, but is crushed through the complex and fierce rituals of patriarchy. We should take heart from the fact it still emerges nonetheless. Take heart from the fact that morality, justice and human kindness are all around; even within a world that attempts to suppress them at all costs. It is this oppressive backdrop to which we should speak truth to power in our different voice: “joining reason with emotion, self with relationships. Undoing patriarchal splits and hierarchies, it articulates democratic norms and values: the importance of everyone having a voice, being listened to carefully, and heard with respect” (p.24).

Gilligan’s key message, which is repeated time and again throughout the book, is that: “[a]s long as human qualities are divided into masculine and feminine, we will be alienated from one another and from ourselves” (p.178). But I wanted braver answers to this accepted and obvious conundrum. I wanted more explicitly feminist answers from this book rather than flowery references to democracy, Obama’s recent election, Greek mythology, and love being the opposite of patriarchy. As hooks says: “any critique of patriarchy necessarily leads to a discussion of whether conversion to feminist thinking and practice is the answer” (hooks, 2004:38). Or rather – should. That should be the discussion. And the answer is obviously yes. Much in this book confirms that. And, Gilligan’s different voice is also useful and necessary, and contributes to feminist theory as well as to re-translating feminist theory for a new generation; a much needed project.


hooks bell (2004) The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity and Love. New York: Washington Square Press.

Mill JS [1869] ‘The Subjection of Women’, in Robson John M. (ed.) (1984) JS Mill, Collected Works, xxi, Essays on Equality, Law and Education. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 261-340.

Millet Kate (1972) [1969] Sexual Politics. London: Abacus.

Finn Mackay has been involved in Feminist activism for over twenty years. In 2004 she founded the London Feminist Network and the revived London Reclaim the Night march. Many more Feminist Networks and Reclaim the Night marches have now grown across the UK, but the London group and event remain the largest of their kind. Finn is soon to finish her PhD on British Feminism since the 1970s, which she is completing in the Centre for Gender & Violence Research, at the University of Bristol. Professionally her background is in Youth Work, training and adult advice; most recently Finn set up and managed domestic abuse prevention and anti-bullying initiatives for a London Local Education Authority. A regular media commentator, Finn speaks, writes and lectures on Feminist history, theory and contemporary activism, particularly activism against male violence against women. Articles can be found and Finn can be followed on Twitter @Finn_Mackay