In the Radical Listening Project, Carol Gilligan’s work has found its voice

The psychologist’s new project makes explicit the moral imperative that has animated her work for decades.

Carol Gilligan has been a distinctive presence in feminist discourse for a generation. She’s a psychologist, ethicist, researcher, and author who worked alongside Lawrence Kohlberg and Erik Erikson as a PhD student and then joined Harvard’s faculty. Gilligan’s first book, In a Different Voice (1982), shone a critical light on the omission of women’s experience in her colleagues’ research on human development and moral reasoning and named a “different voice” of relationality and care to which feminine experience often attests. In a Different Voice sold over 700,000 copies, was reprinted in a dozen languages, and was a significant springboard for re­search and writing about the lives of women.

Her work was criticized by some psychologists and feminist scholars because of its narrative methodology and seeming reiteration of binary gender stereotypes. But Gilligan’s attention to the psychology of women and girls was groundbreaking, and the descriptions of women’s experience gleaned from her interviews resonated with thousands of readers. In response to her critics, Gilligan claimed that she never intended to theorize or define experience for all women but rather to raise awareness that people do not speak with a single voice nor do we follow a single trajectory of development or a universal model of moral decision making. “I thought of the book as the opening of a conversation—certainly not the close of one,” Gilligan explained.

The book and its author have fueled a wider cultural conversation about gender and moral agency. Gilli­gan’s interests in psychology, ethics, literature, and gender have traversed disciplinary boundaries and certainties not only in her research and writing but in her academic affiliations and her teaching as well. She was Harvard’s first professor of gender studies, she taught American history at Oxford, and she is affiliated with the humanities and the law school at New York University. Gilligan’s work transcends (and to some minds, transgresses) traditional academic languages and methods and defies simple categorization.