A group of girls walk past the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, DC

At the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Photo by Hossein Fatemi/Panos


Silencing of the girls

Girls are still in a bad bargain with patriarchy: the price of relationship is keeping their true thoughts to themselves

by Carol Gilligan + BIO

At the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Photo by Hossein Fatemi/Panos

I am back in girls’ schools. Listening again to the voices of girls and wondering about women’s silences. I had spent the 1980s talking and listening to hundreds of girls between the ages of seven and 18 in a range of schools and after-school programmes in the United States. I remember the turning point at adolescence, when, in coming of age, girls came to call an honest voice ‘stupid’ or ‘rude’, ‘selfish’, ‘mean’, or ‘crazy’. ‘Unpleasant’ and ‘insufferable’ were adjectives used by Anne Frank.

I remember teenage girls naming precisely what had happened to their voice. Neeti at 16 saying: ‘The voice that stands up for what I believe in has been buried deep inside me.’ Iris at 17 saying: ‘If I were to say what I was feeling and thinking, no one would want to be with me, my voice would be too loud,’ and then adding, by way of explanation, ‘but you have to have relationships.’ And I remember saying to Iris: ‘But if you are not saying what you are feeling and thinking, then where are you in these “relationships”?’

Most of all, I recall being struck by people’s investment in silencing girls. As if it were impossible to listen to girls and go on living in the way that we have been. As if somehow girls would blow the cover. I was taken aback by the incentives held out to girls not to say what otherwise they would say, and by the force brought to bear in making sure that, once a girl has come of age, her voice – a voice readily heard among young girls, a voice artists have heard and recorded across time and cultures – will be covered or, if outspoken, will be heard as ‘too loud’ or too much or somehow not right, and will not be listened to or taken seriously.

Listening to girls led me to think again about what we mean when we talk about relationships. The US Surgeon General speaks about the pervasiveness of loneliness and how connections are essential if we are to survive and thrive. Yet the silencing of the girls alerts us to a deeper problem. From girls I learned about a crisis of connection, a turning point when relationships are on the line. Where, if you say what you are feeling and thinking, no one will want to be with you, and if you don’t say what you are feeling and thinking, no one will be with you. Either way, you will be all alone. And it wasn’t just girls, although it was listening to girls that proved both revelatory and revolutionary in the sense of naming a problem – a crisis of connection – that has turned out to be both pervasive and urgent.

Last spring when I was again interviewing girls, I found myself saying again what I had said to Iris in the 1980s. When Liza at 16 tells me that she is ‘holding [her]self back’ so as not to jeopardise ‘deeper connections’, I say: ‘Should I ask the obvious question?’ which is obvious to her as well. She speaks about ‘care and protection’, and from other girls I hear about not hurting people’s feelings or keeping the peace or not making trouble or not provoking exclusion and retaliation – reasons girls give for silencing an honest voice and for concluding, as Liza does, that the fight for relationship is ‘a battle not worth fighting’.

‘People won’t appreciate it if you say that,’ I hear people tell girls, over and over again, in one way or another. I know what they are talking about. Jane Eyre is 10 at the beginning of Charlotte Brontë’s novel. When her aunt calls her a liar, Jane says that, were she a liar, she would say she loves her when she does not. This is not a voice people want to hear.

When people tell me they want girls to have their voices, I think of Elise, a fifth-grader in an urban public school. In a conversation about whether it is ever good to tell a lie, Elise, 11, says: ‘My house is wallpapered with lies.’ In Euripides’ tragedy, Iphigenia tells her father Agamemnon he is ‘mad’ to think of sacrificing her to gain the winds that will carry the Greek army to Troy. She is challenging the culture he is defending, a culture that values men’s honour over life. In the film Wadjda (2012) – written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour (who, as a woman in Saudi Arabia, was forced to direct from inside a van) – 10-year-old Wadjda wants a bicycle. She is undaunted by a culture where women can’t drive and girls can’t ride bicycles. She enters and wins a Quran-reciting contest and, with the help of her mother, she gets the green bicycle she coveted and, by the end of the film, we see her riding it.

Diane brought a whistle to the dinner table and, when she was interrupted, she blew the whistle

Judy, 13, speaks of losing her mind. Pointing to her gut, she explains that the mind ‘is associated with your heart and your soul and your inner feelings and your real feelings.’ She contrasts her mind with her brain, which she locates in her head and associates with her smartness, her intelligence and her education. Judy observes that, in the course of growing up, children are in danger of forgetting their minds, because of all the things that are ‘shoved at you into your brain.’ Thus she implicates schools in children’s losing touch with what she describes as ‘a deeper sort of knowing’.

Which is why I am back in schools. And why heads of girls’ schools are once again sounding an alarm, or perhaps more accurately taking the lead, seizing a moment and seeing the potential for a transformation that starts with girls and involves their education.

Here’s what I learned from listening to girls, and what surprised me. People speak of girls finding their voices; but, in fact, girls have their voices. Their outspokenness, their confidence, their clarity and their courage can be startling. Asked about a time when she wasn’t sure what to do about a decision, Diane, eight, says she feels bad because, every night at dinner when she tries to speak, her brother and sister interrupt her, ‘stealing’ her mother’s attention. What did you do? the interviewer asks. Diane says that one night she brought a whistle to the dinner table and, when she was interrupted, she blew the whistle. ‘Mother, brother and sister abruptly stopped talking and turned to me, at which point I said in a normal voice: “That’s much nicer.”’

Listening to a first-grader last spring, I hear this same clarity in naming what is happening in her relational world and the same sense of agency in responding to what she knows. ‘I have wonderful friends,’ Talya tells me, but she also has a ‘frenemy’. The frenemy ‘poured sand in my eye in kindergarten’ and, in first grade, ‘she made her whole class act like her when I don’t really like how she acts. She’s like, I’m the owner of this class … Everyone follow my rules.’ Asked if she did anything, Talya says: ‘I just … we need to use the power of ignore.’

These little girls illuminate the consciousness that the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes in his book The Feeling of What Happens (1999). In their bodies and in their emotions, they register their experience from moment to moment, picking up the music or the feeling of what happens, which then plays in their minds and thoughts. Thus they name what one can think of as relational crimes and misdemeanours – stealing someone’s attention, acting like one is the owner of others – and they are confident in their ability or power to do something about it. In Meeting at the Crossroads (1992), Lyn Mikel Brown and I report the findings of our five-year study involving close to 100 girls between the ages of seven and 18; we call these young girls ‘whistleblowers’ in the relational world. And you know what happens to whistleblowers!

‘I don’t know… I don’t know… I don’t know.’ As girls crossed the threshold from childhood into adolescence, this phrase peppered our interview transcripts. Listened to closely and questioned, it turned out that girls often knew what they claimed not to know. About themselves and others and the world they were living in. It was more as if they had lost their trust in their knowledge or had learned to cover what they knew on the basis of their own experience, for fear of offending or giving the wrong answer. Not saying what others wanted to hear.

At 14, Anna, a top student, writes two papers about the hero legend: a paper to get the A, and another that she wants to write. A girl from a working-class family, Anna needs the A to get the scholarship that will enable her to go to college. But she also needs her teacher to know what she really thinks about the hero legend, because to Anna, whose father is unemployed and violent, this is a dangerous legend – one that leads men to cover vulnerability with violence. Thus she submits two papers: one the teacher will like, and one that she knows will make her teacher ‘mad’. Anna is fighting for relationship and, to her credit, the teacher reads both papers.

Anjli, a 12th-grader, reads Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ (1681) in a way that is marked ‘wrong’. The grading teacher writes: ‘This is not a college-level paper.’ But Anjli listens to Marvell’s speaker, a man anxious about his mortality, and hears his voice from the vantage point of his mistress, the lady whose resistance he is bent on overcoming. Given the assignment to analyse the poem for tone, Anjli hears it as powerful: a ‘terrifying’ and ‘frightening’ poem. Another teacher in a city-wide cross-grading exercise comments: ‘She misreads Marvell’s playfulness. She doesn’t understand carpe diem,’ and grades it C minus. But Anjli’s school teacher recognises her originality and her brilliance.

The research showed girls resisting losing their voices, but the culture was invested in girls losing their voices

Reviewing Meeting at the Crossroads for The New York Times, Carolyn Heilbrun, a leading feminist and distinguished professor of English at Columbia University, singles out Anjli’s reading of Marvell’s poem as, in the words of Anjli’s teacher, ‘a new appreciation of the poem’s power and a new reading.’ Yet, Heilbrun reflects, ‘There are graduate schools still unable to appreciate this kind of reinterpretation.’ The implication is that, to be admitted to graduate school, Anjli may need to tone down her originality and her brilliance.

Crossroads was heralded by Heilbrun as ‘revolutionary’. It was chosen as a New York Times book of the year in 1992. ‘Should sound a national alert,’ wrote the Boston Globe reviewer, calling the book ‘revelatory’. It is now out of print. The research showed girls resisting losing their voices, but the culture was invested in girls losing their voices. Yet to the women students in the seminar on resisting injustice that I co-teach at the NYU School of Law, Crossroads resonated with their experience in a way that differed from other readings. In her weekly reflection paper, one student writes: ‘I remember a huge chunk of my life where my response to everything was “I don’t know,” and where I (still to this day) will preface my response with this phrase.’ Reflecting on the implications of this for resisting injustice, she introduces a startling image: ‘When we teach people not to use their voices openly and authentically, we sew a veil of doubt over everything they know, which stifles their willingness to speak and confront conflict.’ To another woman in the class, this was ‘the trauma of my childhood educational experience’.

Here is an ‘I poem’, composed by listening to the first-person voice (subject and verb) of a seventh-grader interviewed last spring:

What did I do?
I was confused
I said
I didn’t know
What did I say?
I was
I didn’t
I’m sorry
I didn’t know
I just
I forgot
I tried
I tried
I see
I did
I don’t care
I apologised
I spoke
I can
I don’t really care
I said
I don’t

A second-person voice, a ‘you’, then speaks to the ‘I’, telling her:

You got to take the good with the bad
You can’t always fight battles
You got to pick which battles you want to fight

And here is the ‘I’, trying and then not caring:

I’m trying
I mean
I don’t
I honestly don’t care
I don’t really care.

In his book Descartes’ Error (1994), Damasio reports the findings of his research in neurobiology. The Cartesian split between reason and emotion, long considered the sine qua non of rationality, turns out instead to be a manifestation of brain injury or trauma. It leaves the capacity for logical deduction intact, our ability to solve logical puzzles, but impedes our ability to reason inductively, to learn from experience and thus navigate the human social world. In her book Trauma and Recovery (1992), the psychiatrist Judith Herman makes a similar point. The separation of the self from relationships, once seen as a move from dependence to independence and celebrated as a hallmark of maturity, is in fact a residue of trauma, the response of the self to the experience of having been overwhelmed.

It was listening to girls, however, that drew my attention to the gendered nature of these splits and how integral they are to a rite of passage that will compromise children’s ability to live in relationship with themselves and with others. By severing thought (‘masculine’) from emotion (‘feminine’), and separating the self (‘masculine’) from relationships (‘feminine’), this gender coding of human capacities creates a crisis of connection. What had seemed ordinary (having a voice and living in relationship) then becomes extraordinary.

It was teenage girls who brought all this out into the open. Because relationships depend on having a voice, and the culture of patriarchy depends on women’s silence.

Where patriarchy is in force and enforced, the human voice is a voice of resistance

I say this at a moment when the voices of two teenage girls have in fact had an outsize effect. I’m thinking of Greta Thunberg, at 15, with her handmade sign, standing alone in front of the Swedish parliament. Her one-person school strike sparked the largest climate demonstration up to that time in history, with millions across the world coming out to protest the failure of politicians to take the climate crisis seriously. When she visited the US Capitol and members of Congress flocked to thank her, Greta told them, in effect, don’t thank me, do something. As she said to the World Economic Forum in Davos: ‘I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.’ To those who said she should be in school, she said, ‘since you grown-ups don’t give a damn about my future, I won’t either.’

I’m thinking also of Darnella Frazier, 17. Among the crowd of people who witnessed the murder of George Floyd by the policeman Derek Chauvin, she was the only one who took out her cellphone, clicked on the camera and recorded the entire incident. Her recording provided the evidence that led to Chauvin’s conviction. Had she not recorded what she saw, she said, no one would have believed her. And yet, as she said: ‘he was suffering’ and ‘it was not right.’ In one sense, what was happening was obvious, and yet Darnella was the only one who did something about it.

I have called my new book In a Human Voice (2023) because what once was confused has now become obvious. The ‘different voice’ (the voice of care ethics), although initially heard as ‘feminine’ and associated with women, is in fact a human voice. The voice it differs from is a patriarchal voice, bound to gender binaries and hierarchies. And where patriarchy is in force and enforced, the human voice is a voice of resistance.

From girls I learned how to listen for a human voice that has gone under cover and to hear the difference between a cover voice (culturally sanctioned) and an under voice (grounded in experience). From girls I learned to pay attention to the words ‘really’ and ‘actually’ and the phrase ‘to be honest’, and to recognise how they can signal a shift from a cover voice, the voice that says what I think and feel, to an under voice: the voice that says what I really think, or how I actually feel, or what I would say if I were to be quite honest. Girls taught me that the under voice is more accessible than I had imagined, but also that, to hear the under voice, I might have to question the cover voice. In a study with couples, I found this to be true also with men. My ability to hear a human voice could depend on my questioning a cover voice that had sounded more manly. What I learned from listening to girls proved to be much more far-reaching than I had imagined, because, when I started out, the silencing of the girls had been dismissed as either a necessary correction or inconsequential.

At the end of the fall semester last year, a student sent me an email. A former litigator in her late 20s, she had returned to school to get her master’s in law and had enrolled in my seminar on listening. She was writing to thank me. ‘It has been really eye-opening to practise listening to myself, and to what I already know. I find too often, in various parts of my life, I have not trusted my own intuition, or stopped short of coming to conclusions that I have the evidence for, and haven’t known why.’ She wanted to thank me especially for disbelieving her when, in presenting her work to the class that day, she had said she did not know why the word ‘dissociative’ was used twice by the person she had interviewed. Listening to her presentation, it was clear to me that in fact she knew what ‘dissociative’ was doing on the landscape of this interview. As she had pointed out, the phrase ‘I don’t know’ was ‘everywhere’. When she said she didn’t know, I had voiced my disbelief. In effect, I had trusted her where she hadn’t trusted herself. ‘Giving me and our class the permission to listen to and impart this trust in ourselves – it means so much to me, more than you may have been aware of.’

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teenage girls in the US currently suffer from unprecedented levels of depression and suicidal ideation. According to the Girls’ Index, a survey of more than 10,000 teenage girls in the US, when asked if they don’t say what they really think nor disagree (when in fact they do disagree) because they want people to like them, 46 per cent of teenage girls say they do this, a figure that goes up to 62 per cent among girls with a grade point average of 4.0 or above. I suspect this may be because, having more opportunity, they have more to lose.

The crisis of connection is marked by signs of psychological distress

People attribute the current high levels of psychological distress among girls to the effects of social media – and it’s true, it heightens the costs of speaking. Two girls, interviewed last spring, when asked if there was one thing they could change about the world, mentioned people’s judgments. The readiness to judge falls heavily on girls, often in the face of little evidence, once they reach adolescence, and social media only magnifies the effects of negative judgments. But it is also my suspicion that, as more opportunities become open to girls and women, there is also more pressure on them not to say what they really think and feel, so as not to jeopardise their connections and thus diminish their chances for advancement.

Silencing the self, however, is a recipe for depression, and the loss of relationship can lead to despair and detachment. The crisis of connection is marked by signs of psychological distress. But, looked at from the point of view of society, the silencing of the girls is a way to ensure that women can enter patriarchal structures without naming the obvious or making trouble.

I am back in girls’ schools because I have come to see them as lab schools: educational experiments in freeing democracy from patriarchy. What this means is that the fight for relationship is a battle worth fighting and an inescapable part of girls’ education. To educate girls, it is necessary first to join their healthy resistance and strengthen their courage to not make what is a bad bargain: the bargain of silence that women make with patriarchy. And then to take up the challenge of discovering how to be present and live in deep connection, both with oneself and with others, especially in the face of conflict and disagreement.

29 February 2024