Disrupting Patriarchy in the Classroom with Carol Gilligan

Posted by Kaitlin Smith on March 23, 2020

Patriarchy_LargeIn a recent presentation to the staff of Facing History, eminent Facing History Board of Scholars member Carol Gilligan shared an array of insights from her body of work on gender. Gilligan is perhaps best known for her pathbreaking 1982 book In a Different Voice in which she exposed the limitations of prevailing conceptions of men’s and women’s psychological development. There she pointed to the unique needs and priorities of women that had not previously been addressed in the psychological literature. Gilligan’s presentation of her most recent work offers a number of rich insights on the continuing significance of gender, and has provoked reflection for us around how middle and high school educators might bring these insights into their work.

Gilligan’s most recent book, Why Does Patriarchy Persist?, was released in 2018. Jointly written with Naomi Snider, the text asks why patriarchy persists alongside an apparent commitment to democratic institutions and values. Gilligan has defined patriarchy as a harm-inducing hierarchy that elevates some men over other men, and all men over women. Yet patriarchy is oppressive to people of all genders as they grow and develop, not just girls and women. In this book, Gilligan and Snider offer a framework for understanding the social forces and psychological needs that perpetuate patriarchy. 

In contrast to traditional conceptions of development that place reason without emotion at the apex of human development, Gilligan offers a decidedly different vision. Imagine a young person who is celebrated for becoming valedictorian, but who manages to do so by bullying her classmates and restricting their access to study materials. In our present society, such domineering behavior is often rewarded, whether it is shown in the classroom or the board room. In a challenge to attitudes that regard such behavior as hallmarks of personal independence and maturity, Gilligan argues that this “separation of reason from emotion” is actually a “sign of injury or trauma.” Though she notes that both boys and girls face pressure to achieve this separation and are judged harshly for their failures to do so, girls and boys experience it differently and at different times. For young people of all genders, however, Gilligan found that what psychologists previously conceptualized as development in their research subjects was actually experienced by the subjects themselves as profound loss.

In her presentation, Gilligan outlined how this loss develops and how it affects us:

  • Stifling Authenticity Induces Loss
    Young people forced to squelch their innate proclivities (e.g. to “achieve” in socially prescribed ways at the cost of their emotional authenticity and desire for connection) will feel a profound sense of loss.

  • Protest and Despair Often Follow
    Resistance to these imposed norms is healthy, but if a child’s resistance is fruitless, they will exhibit despair and disconnection.

  • We Cling to Rigid Gender Norms
    The imposition of this developmental model leads people to cling to oppressive ideals of masculinity and femininity that further undermine the ability to repair breaches in connection. These oppressive ideals include heroic, compulsory self-sufficiency for males and compulsory caregiving for females.

  • Further Breakdown of Relational Skills
    Patriarchy undermines the ability to repair ruptures in relationships, shames the move toward repair, and gives way to the use of force. This impacts people in their interpersonal relationships, but also on a broader scale that surfaces in forms of social oppression.

Despite the profound sense of loss uncovered in Gilligan’s work, she insists that the developmental capacity for connection is present in all people regardless of gender and should be actively nurtured. Learn more by reading her book Why Does Patriarchy Persist?

There are many ways that middle and high school educators can apply Gilligan’s psychological theories in their daily work with young people. Here are some ideas:

  • Design a Relational Classroom
    Establish classroom norms that communicate the importance of empathy and relationships alongside individual academic achievement. Promote this shared understanding through deliberate use of classroom contracting, self-exploration exercises outlined in our Back-to-School Toolkit, and these classroom design hacks.

  • Hit All 3 Corners of the Pedagogical Triangle
    Intellectual rigor, ethical reflection, and emotional engagement are equally important in the classroom, and are essential for helping young people become informed civic actors. These principles form the three corners of our Pedagogical Triangle for Historical and Civic Understanding. Check out our classroom-ready Teaching Idea on gender and democracy in the struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to see what it looks like in action!

  • Leverage Mental Health Colleagues at Your School
    If you notice that you have a student who appears disconnected and withdrawn, they may benefit from meeting with a school-based social worker or psychologist. These clinicians can help students explore their feelings, practice vulnerability, and cultivate new skills for relating that will complement your work in the classroom.

  • Learn More about Patriarchy in the History of Schooling
    The evolution of modern schooling in the U.S. has been shaped by patriarchal values and modes of social organization in significant ways. This includes everything ranging from the individuals who have served as teachers, how they have been compensated, and how their work is valued. Learn more about the history of teaching through the lens of patriarchy—and ways that brave women teachers have disrupted patriarchy and changed education for the better—in “Teaching in the Light of Women’s History.”

Facing History and Ourselves invites you to use our Teaching Idea, "The Equal Rights Amendment: A 97-Year Struggle" in your physical or virtual classroom.

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Topics: Women's History Month

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Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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