Psychologist and author, Carol Gilligan, became widely known in the 1980s for her book, “In a Different Voice.” In her work on the moral development of women she countered a prevailing criticism of their supposed inferior moral development to men. She pointed out that “women’s construction of the moral problem as a problem of care and responsibility in relationships rather than one of rights and rules ties the development of their moral thinking to changes in their understanding of responsibility and relationships.”
Gilligan asserted that the conflict between self and other constitutes the central moral problem of women, complicated by the fact that “conventions of femininity” have equated goodness with self-sacrifice.
Now Dr. Gilligan with Naomi Snider, a Research Fellow at New York University, has published a new book that asks, “Why Does Patriarchy Persist?” which examines her earlier points in a broader context. They ask why patriarchy, a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, and social privilege, persists in the face of #MeToo and a seeming political revolt by women. How is it possible that even those committed to gender equality somehow participate in a system they consciously oppose?
The answer in this new book proposes a psychological reason for patriarchy - that it is a defense against loss. Specifically, a psychology of loss comes into play when a fear of vulnerability, rejection or betrayal leads people to seek safety in detachment from others. This work apparently involves studies of the reaction of babies when the connection to their mothers is interrupted. Reactions to the loss of connection go through stages of protest, despair and detachment which mirror what happens when young men and women begin to display stereotypical male and female behaviors such as the detached heroic male and the selfless, overly nurturing female.
The authors suggest that our cartoon male and female behaviors derive from pathological attachment styles leading to detachment, the loss of intimacy and genuine emotion. It is interesting to find a psychological theory about the reason for patriarchy connected to attachment theory which has played a large role in thinking about child development and child care in recent years. John Bowlby, the British psychologist who introduced the theory of attachment, described it as an innate need to form a strong bond with a caregiver that has an evolutionary basis.
It is the interruption of this bond that appears to be at issue here with detachment as the end result of attempts at repair. Yet development requires an ability to separate from and move beyond this initial bond in the service of achieving individual identity. Developmental theories have described a process by which boys and girls accomplish the separation from mother by identifying with the parent of their own gender. Boys identify with the masculine traits of their fathers, girls with the nurturing traits of their mothers - in both instances traits as defined traditionally by the culture.
Earlier feminist writers have pointed out that the boy’s task in separating from the mother is to define himself not only as a different person, but a different kind of person. To develop a distinct identity the boy sets himself in opposition to the mother and all that is feminine, cutting off a sense of continuity and empathy with others.
Attachment theory has loomed large in various discussions about development and in advice given parents. Now we find attachment theory implicated in a psychological theory of patriarchy. One conclusion emerging from these theories is the lasting importance of both fathers and mothers in the care of infants.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.