Free research paper on empathy and equality

Empathy and Equality: Assessing Traditional Notions of Gender Identity



Carol Gilligan’s contention that male gender identity is threatened by intimacy while female identity is marginalized by separation has its basis in the generally accepted view that men approach morality from a justice perspective in contrast to women, who adopt a care-focused outlook. Gilligan’s view of this sociology of gender identity is quite plausible given her contention that care is a viable agent of moral development for women and that separation and individuation are profoundly rooted in complex, mother-child relationships. While Gilligan essentially concurs with Lawrence Kohlberg as to the universality of the male-justice/female-caring construct, she disagrees as to his methodology and with the male-centric argument that women have a less-developed sense of morality. If one accepts Gilligan’s assertion that an empathic, relation-based perspective is as developed and valid as the male outlook, then her statement concerning male/female gender identity must itself be considered valid.

Keywords: intimacy, separation, gender identity, morality

Empathy and Equality: Assessing Traditional Notions of Gender Identity

Carol Gilligan’s ground-breaking work, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, forced a reassessment of the dominant, male-centric Freud-Erikson-Kohlberg psychology. Gilligan’s landmark study opened a new dialogue in developmental psychology, revealing as it does that prevalent models of female moral development are incomplete, limiting and erroneous because they attach a predominantly male perspective to females. Gilligan’s major accomplishment is that she showed a perspective of caring, the prism though which females tend to view morality, could itself viably represent an important stage of moral development for girls. Having made a convincing case for a gender-influenced view of morality, Gilligan argued as plausibly that male identity is threatened by intimacy, while female identity is threatened by separation (1982).
This is an appropriate and defensible position, particularly given the strength of Gilligan’s contention that care is a distinctive agent of moral development for females and the extent to which gender identity hinges on separation and individuation. Gilligan contends that “ relationships, and particularly issues of dependency, are experienced differently by women and men…separation and individuation are critically tied to gender identity…” (1982). Theorists such as Eleanor Maccoby contend that girls begin to separate quite early from their more boisterous, demonstrative male counterparts, who scrupulously avoid associating and identifying with anything feminine. Thus, from an early age, boys socialize the need to separate from their mothers in order to protect their maleness (Maccoby, 1998). Maccoby asserts that girls, on the other hand, find it much easier to transcend this gender divide (1998).

As such, the female’s natural proclivity for intimacy and attachment leads her to invest more heavily in relationships, while the male’s sense of inequality fosters a concern with justice and objectivity. This mirrors a societal tendency in which men are perceived to be more in tune with the dispassionate business of allotting and maintaining fairness. The resulting cultural construct manifests itself in a persistent, traditional social role division, of which both Kohlberg and Erikson wrote. “ Late adolescent and adult males in our society are afforded greater opportunities to take on roles of responsibility having societal import…females’ sex role socialization has discouraged such activity for women” (Puka, 1994). The male assumes the pro forma mantle of “ judge” because it is presumed that his moral development supposedly better equips him to think and act rationally.
This tacit role requires that he is able to make moral determinations without emotional hindrances, without having to see and interpret through an inhibiting veil of intimacy. In this gender identity model, intimacy becomes not only burdensome to the male’s view of himself as responsibly and fairly determining what is just, it alters the socio-cultural conception of what it means to be male. This fundamentally male conception is reflected in Kohlberg’s highest stage of moral development, which, he contends, women attain less frequently than men. While Gilligan counters that a highly developed sense of morality simply takes a different form in women, she concurs with at least the basis of Kohlberg’s stages theory, specifically, the male-justice/female-caring orientation (Rathus, 2008). If one accepts this formative precept, then it is quite possible to accept intimacy as a threat to the self-identifying male characteristic of objectivity. Conversely, separation is a threat to the identity of the female, whose caring outlook is relational by nature.

Women form relationships with their mothers that are key to gender identity development. Erikson argued that girls develop behavior patterns that are intended to attract a mate. Thus, the mother-daughter relationship is seen by many as reinforcing this social construct and, consequently, as facilitating the development of a caring and nurturing feminine persona. Thus, the mother-daughter relationship is key in the development of a relationship-oriented personality. “ Intimacy goes along with identity, as the female comes to know herself as she is known, through her relationships with others…” (Gilligan, 1982). The cultural expectations for females establishes a self-perpetuating cycle in which females learn from their mothers that it is expected of them to be caring and nurturing, and that relationships are part and parcel of this expectation. Thus women are conditioned to abhor separation, the realization of which is a threat to their identity.
According to Freud, sexual repression during adolescence results in a sense of inferiority, which the young female must confront and overcome. This may be further complicated by an aversion to separate from her parents. In particular, the mother-daughter conflict may cause conflict leading to confusion over the nature of relationships and engender feelings of vulnerability and reliance (Navaro & Schwartzberg, 2007). All of these phenomena may be attributed to cultural norms arising from gender roles ascribed to females quite early in life and enhanced by older female role models, for whom separation may well be a lifelong fear. Thus, intimacy and identity become inextricably linked.

The mother-daughter relationship may be the bedrock upon which the young girl’s sense of identity forms, though it can be fraught with complexity. The development of heterosexuality in girls may contribute to a rift between mother and daughter as the girl seeks to assert her own personality and avoid becoming subsumed by her mother. She may gravitate toward her father during adolescence. But the mother invariably remains the predominant influence during the formative years, and the young female’s “ relationship to (her) mother remains consistent, on-going and strong” (Navaro & Schwartzberg, 2007). The repercussions of the mother-daughter dynamic on the female affinity for relationship building are profound.
Gilligan emphasizes the importance of the mother in the early development of daughter and son alike. The mother is a pivotal figure, a “ primary caretaker” whose impact is different, though no less important for either male or female (Gilligan, 1982). Whereas girls “ experience themselves as like their mothers…mothers experience their sons as a male opposite,” and the son soon separates himself as distinct and unconnected, or at least differently connected than the daughter (Gilligan, 1982). For a boy, separation is truly a gender-related matter and represents a distinct difference in the development of male and female. This difference has, traditionally, meant that boys develop independently and that girls are, by comparison, at a developmental disadvantage.
This view has undergone a significant reappraisal in recent years, with researchers such as Gilligan and Nancy Chodorow maintaining that girls, rather than developing more slowly (or inadequately), develop an identity rooted in the parenting they receive from another female, which confers decided advantages in terms of empathy and a care-based perspective (Gilligan, 1982). The debate over whether women utilize their reason and sense of logic at a level inferior to that of men is, in a sense, tied to their gender identity and the influence of the mother in their early development. Gilligan bases her criticism of Kohlberg’s methodology in the fact that Kohlberg tested males alone. Another argument is that traditional notions of morality are the products of a male justice-oriented perspective. It would appear that male-focused psychology has simply overlooked or ignored the fact that women reason and assign moral judgments of their own based on the gender identity that stems from the influence of a strong, mother-care figure.

Chodorow uses the oedipus complex in her consideration of gender identity. Whereas, as has been noted, girls “ tend to remain part of the dyadic primary mother-child relationship itself,” boys comprise one side of an oedipal relationship that must eventually exclude them (Chodorow, 1978). Theirs is a far more distinctive, individuating experience, one that sets them on the path to separation. Chodorow describes this experience as one in which “ boys are more likely to have been pushed out of the pre-oedipal relationship, and to have had to curtail their primary love and sense of empathic tie with their mother. A boy has engaged, and been required to engage, in a more emphatic individuation and a more defensive firming of experienced ego boundaries” (Chodorow, 1978). The formation of gender identity and the establishment of its boundaries (and the identification of those things that threaten it) can be ascribed to the oedipal ramifications of the mother-child relationship. Thus, Chodorow offers a theoretical model that accords with and supports Gilligan’s statement concerning threats to male/female gender identity.

Separation and intimacy are not precise terms in the sense that, for example, separation is an intrinsically male condition, vital for a necessarily healthy male identity. Just as men and women may both utilize care- and justice-oriented views in assigning moral quality, “ separateness” can be a relative state that may or may not be healthy in terms of interpersonal relationships. In other words, as Erikson points out, it is possible to be too separate. “ Where a youth does not accomplish…intimate relationships with others…in late adolescence or early adulthood, he may settle for highly stereotyped interpersonal relations and come to retain a deep sense of isolation” (Erikson, 1968). Erikson goes on to explain that it is possible for a man to succeed in life by going through the motions, by convincing others as to his sincerity and yet be incapable of engaging in a meaningful relationship (1968).
Gilligan asserts that males learn to be circumspect in their relationships, and that maintaining the male identity lends itself to a habit of establishing parameters, or boundaries. “ Proceeding from a premise of separation but recognizing that ‘ you have to live with other people,’ he seeks rules to limit interference…” (Gilligan, 1982). In contemporary society, the pursuit of male separateness has taken on the mantle of dogma, or ritual. Through these physical manifestations, males continue to demonstrate and standardize their independence from women, though some theorists have insisted that there is something revealingly overt about such behavior.
In Male and Female, Margaret Mead writes that male identity reinforcement is self-perpetuating and that the imposition of ceremony amounts to over-compensation (2001).

“ When in addition male separateness from women has been developed into an institution, with a men’s house and the male and male initiation ceremonies, then the whole system becomes an endlessly reinforcing one, in which each generation of little boys grows up among women…” (Mead, 2001). Thus isolating themselves from women, men formalize separation in a way that they cannot do in separating from their mothers. Thus, intimacy is expunged and distance and independence are affirmed in a form of ritual joining (once more popularly known as “ male bonding”).

Carol Gilligan’s theory about what constitutes gender identity – and what threatens it – represents an extension of, rather than a break with, the psychology of her colleagues Lawrence Kohlberg and Erik Erikson. All find common ground in the belief that moral development differs according to gender-based, socializing factors; namely, that men are conditioned to view their environment according to objective ideas about equality and its role in society, and that women are conditioned to an empathic, relational understanding of morality in the world around them. Gilligan’s disagreement with Kohlberg, Erikson and other subscribers to the male-oriented view lies in her argument that just because moral development in women is care-based does not render it less well-appointed, or capable, than the ostensibly impartial, cerebral approach prevalent among men. Furthermore, Gilligan is correct in claiming that the emotional distance characteristic of male behavior is aimed at averting intimacy, and that the relational orientation of feminine identity runs counter to separation.


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