- Ahead of her discussion at this year’s How the Light Gets In festival, the American feminist and psychologist discusses patriarchy, democracy and the struggle for gender equalityThe world’s largest philosophy and music festival, How The Light Gets In kicks off on May 23 in Hay-on-Wye, and features an ambitious programme of talks and performances from leading experts in critical thought, philosophy and political theory.
This year’s theme Errors, Lies and Adventure is being debated across a range of debate subjects, including the intriguingly titled talk The World After Men. American feminist, psychologist and author of the seminal text, In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan debates with former Observer editor Will Hutton the future of feminism, matriarchy and whether the idea of equality is limiting.
Ahead of the festival, Betty Wood spoke with Carol about the idea of feminism in the 21st century, and whether matriarchy is a possible (or even desirable) future.Betty Wood: In its simplest form, to me, feminism is the idea that men and women are, and should be treated as equal. In 2013, how close do you think we are to achieving this as a reality in the UK and USA?
Carol Gilligan: To me, democracy says men and women are and should be treated as equal, and feminism is the movement to free democracy from patriarchy. In the USA, this is what the culture wars are about. During the recent election, the word “patriarchy” appeared on the op-ed pages of The New York Times to characterise the group of older white men seeking to legislate control over women’s sexuality. Obama’s re-election, with people standing for hours to cast their votes, was a victory for democracy over patriarchy. As far as I can see, this battle is now being fought on a world-wide scale, which is one reason why the situation of women is so telling. Think of the Arab Spring, how present women were in Tahrir Square, and now, where are they? I think time is on the side of democracy, but I don’t underestimate the power of patriarchy and we might just run out of time.
- Betty: It seems prudent, given the recent passing of Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s only female Prime Minister, to discuss the future potential of women are leaders of a new, matriarchal society. Only 146 MPs out of 650 elected MPs are female – that’s just 22 percent. Realistically, how far off are we from having an equal representation of women in government?
Carol: There’s a lot of talk in the USA these days about the potential now for electing a woman as president, meaning Hilary Clinton, who is no Margaret Thatcher. And that makes the point I want to make as to why the election of a woman is not necessarily something I would celebrate. I would chose Barack Obama any day over say Sarah Palin. To me, the issue is not patriarchy vs. matriarchy, both of which are hierarchies based on gender. The alternative is democracy, based on equal voice or equality, and there’s something amiss in a democratic society when only 22% of elected MPs are female – which is better than the number of women in the US congress (18.3 percent).
To me, the most intriguing statistic from the last USA election is that while single women overwhelming voted for Obama (70 percent), married women by a slight majority voted for Romney. White men were only other group where a majority voted for Romney. Demographics are on the side of democracy, so again I think it’s a question of time, unless we have a right-wing take-over. In the US, Republicans are trying to change the rules about voting and redraw congressional districts, since this is the only way they can win – in essence, by curtailing democracy. Obama’s victory came as a surprise to those who didn’t realise that single women, people of colour, gays and lesbian etc are people with voices. I find it heartening that their voices prevailed over the vast amount of money spent on trying to negate or silence them.
Betty: Looking back to the UK, how has the legacy of Thatcherism slowed the progress of feminism, and the gender neutralisation of government?
Carol: Margaret Thatcher showed that feminism is not an issue of women per se or a battle between women and men. If you accept my definition of feminism as one of the great liberation movements of human history—the movement to free democracy from patriarchy – then Thatcher showed something we’ve known for a long time: women as well as men are implicated in perpetuating patriarchal institutions and values. Thatcher slowed the progress of feminism by slowing or reversing the progress of social democracy. By definition, democracy – rule of the people – is a gender-neutral form of government.Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1980. PA Archive
- Betty: It seems ironic to me that women, who are out-performing men at school and in the work place (up to middle-management level) make up only 7 percent of executive directors on the FTSE 100 companies list. Why aren’t more women realising their potential in the economic arena?
Carol: That’s a complicated question because in fact, it’s many questions: what’s keeping women from reaching the top levels of management? Who makes these decisions? Is Cheryl Sandberg right that women would rise to the top if only they “leaned in” or is Anne Marie Slaughter closer to the mark in observing that although women are now gaining entry to the work place in ways and numbers they didn’t before, the structure of the workplace has not changed?
Perhaps it’s not only a question of women realising or not realising their potential as it is about women rising to a certain point in the higher echelons of the economic arena and then perhaps questioning what they see and making different choices. My question is why are men and women not uniting to make the work-place more viable for anyone who wants to combine work and family.Top right: A herd of African elephants, one of the natural world’s most celebrated matriarchal models. Photography BBC
Betty: If we were to go the other way – moving beyond equality to a matriarchal society, as the title of Saturday’s debate postures – would this be a regression in your view? Or is it time for women to take control and create a strong female-focused social model?
Carol: There are many lessons one can draw from the animal kingdom (or queendom), and recent data highlights the evolutionary origins of empathy and cooperation. But Margaret Thatcher (along with Catherine the Great) are hardly an advertisement for having women in power. To paraphrase Gandhi – who when asked what he thought about western civilisation said it would be a good idea – equality would be a good idea and not only a good idea, but as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show in The Spirit Level, would lead to health and long life and social peace (via a decrease in violence).
- Carol: What also would be a good idea is to recognise that qualities that have been gendered “feminine” – empathy, cooperation, mutual understanding and care – are in fact human strengths and the foundation of a strong social model.
Knowing what we know about the costs of inequality, the intriguing question is why do we perpetuate it? I suspect it has to do with masculinity, meaning not men’s biology but how masculinity has been constructed around a gender binary where being a man means not being a woman or like a woman, and also being on top.
Given the costs of carelessness on people’s lives and on the planet, it’s time to embrace an ethic of care, not as the grounds for a matriarchal society but as integral to a democratic society. The requisites for love and for democracy are one and the same. The good news is that both voice and the desire to live in relationships inhere in our human nature, along with the capacity to resist false authority.
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