Different Voices: Quaker Moral Frameworks in the Light of Gender Differences

July 4, 2012 § 2 Comments

This is another really long post (I’m really a long-form writer when it comes down to it), so like the last post, I’m providing a pdf file for those who would rather read it on a mobile device or print it out. This is an expansion of an essay I wrote in 1990 after New York Yearly Meeting summer sessions when I first read Carol Gilligan’s book In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Gilligan’s book was considered by many a landmark contribution at the time it was written in 1982.


The following article applies some of the ideas in Carol Gilligan’s book In A Different Voice to Christian moral debate in general and to Quaker process and community dynamics in particular. Subtitled “Psychological Theory and Women’s Development,” the book suggests that, because of our quite different experiences of moral socialization, women and men approach moral problems with different moral frameworks, assumptions and styles. I suggest that these differences account for certain aspects of the conflicts which bedevil contemporary Quakerism and that they might help us approach some of our internal moral conflicts with new understanding.

I read In A Different Voice soon after the 1990 sessions of New York Yearly Meeting. In those sessions, one of the meetings introduced a minute that called on the Yearly Meeting to condemn “goddess worship, witchcraft and paganism,” following a conference on women’s spirituality sponsored by Women’s Rights committee at the Yearly Meeting’s conference center, Powell House, and several years of increased interest in goddess worship, Wicca, and other forms of women’s spirituality in the Yearly Meeting. The debate over this minute brought to the surface differences in the Yearly Meeting over both theology and morality, over what we believe and how we behave. As I read Gilligan’s book, I began to see these differences in a new light. Since then, I have often applied her ideas to other situations among Friends and I continue to find them helpful at times. I therefore offer the remarks below in the hope that they might help us both to understand each other better and to examine our own moral assumptions in the light of gender differences.

I will start with a brief description of the ideas that I have found helpful in Gilligan’s book. Then I’ll describe specific situations in which I see them applying. Finally, I’ll share some generalizations that have occurred to me while working all this out.

How women and men develop morally    

First, let’s mention that Gilligan’s work is at its heart a critique of the dominant theories of moral development in the social science of psychology at the time, which she claims only really looked at the ways that men develop morally and assumed a male moral framework for moral decision making as not just the norm but virtually the only way to approach morality. The studies Gilligan cites and the following analysis all presuppose that women are the primary caregivers of children. Also, as Gilligan’s critics have pointed out, the studies she cites have all been of white middle class Americans and mostly, baby boomers. However, this describes a large percentage of our own Quaker community, especially its leadership. Finally, because Gilligan focuses on play as the primary arena for moral socialization, and because childhood play has changed so dramatically in the last couple of decades, her findings apply much more clearly to those of us who have grown up with the clearly differentiated patterns of play typical of the baby boomer generation. Our children (and especially, grandchildren) are apparently growing up under a different system of moral socialization, one that is much more dominated by rules of play, play that has been organized for them rather than by them, and by the roles presented to them by the adult organizers of that play. You will see how this applies in a moment. The final test for Friends is, do these ideas speak to our condition and do they correspond to our experience? So: let’s see if they do.

In terms of general psychological development from childhood to adulthood, Gilligan focuses on the relationship with the mother, the primary caregiver. As they mature, boys are forced to separate in stages from their mothers in ways that girls are not. As fetuses and as infants, both girls and boys share physical and psychic intimacy with their mothers. But then the time comes when boys start wearing different clothes than their sisters and mothers, playing different games, accepting different roles. They can no longer follow mom into the ladies room, or be naked in the same room at all, etc. They are less likely to be babysitters or to learn the same jump-rope songs mom sang as a girl, and so on. Their previous intimate identification with their moms is actively discouraged in many ways. Therefore, boys become men through a process of separation, gradually attaining an autonomous identity through differentiation and the withdrawal of and from intimacy with their mother. The end product—to be a man—is to be one’s own self.

By contrast, argues Gilligan, girls develop through a process of transforming or maturing within—but retaining—more intimate relationships with their mothers. Girls do not need to separate from their mothers in the ways that boys do. They do not need to give up dependence on the caregiver for independence. They are allowed to transform dependence into interdependence, retaining relationship as the defining context for their womanhood.

What does this mean for adult women and men? The strength for women from this process is sensitivity and skill in relationship; the problem: establishing a sense of one’s own self independently of her defining relationships; the challenge, to learn autonomy. The strength for men is autonomy and self-definition; the problem, more difficulty in establishing intimate relationships; the challenge, to learn to reconnect.

Moral socialization

In terms of moral development, Gilligan focuses on self-organized child play as the arena in which we are morally socialized. It is in our play together that we, as children, work out between ourselves how we’re going to treat each other, especially when conflict arises. Crucial to her model is the fact that boys and girls play very differently. At least they used to—the description that follows is exactly how I grew up, but many middle class children today, especially boys, I suspect, experience far less unsupervised, self-organized play than was the norm when I was a kid and that Gilligan describes. There were no “soccer moms”—or dads—when I was a boy. We literally had a sandlot in which we organized our own baseball games. Little League was as organized as our play got most of the time. And we almost never played with girls.

According to Gilligan, girls tend to play in small, even intimate groups, in private spaces, in cooperative or role-playing games, like “house” or jump rope. There are hardly any rules, though there are conventions and roles. If conflict arises, it is usually dealt with by changing the rules (roles) or switching to another game. If the conflict continues, it sometimes infects the relationships involved, leading to the end of play together and, in extreme cases, to more or less lasting damage to the relationships themselves.

Morally, then, girls develop by internalizing the prior claim of relationship, the avoidance of conflict, and by learning how to reconstruct situations so that the participants can stay together. Behavior doesn’t change, rules (or roles) do. The process of maturing involves the integration of feelings and one’s sensitivity to the other into one’s choices, and a commitment to keeping the relationships going.

Boys, on the other hand, tend to play in larger groups, in public spaces, often in competitive team sports or activities (like “army”). Rules govern the play. Conflict breaks out very often, usually over differing claims about key events (I was safe on second—no you weren’t), alleged infractions of rules or perceived unfair adjudication of the rules. However, within a very short time on average, the boys are back at play. If necessary, an impasse is overcome by a “do over.” The conflict can get rather heated, even physical; yet the contenders are soon back together again in the game with little or no lasting personal fallouts.

In this model, then, boys develop morally by internalizing a sense of fair play, adherence to the rules, and just adjudication of the rules when infractions occur. The rules don’t change; behavior does. The process of maturing involves the gradual disassociation of personal feeling from the process of fair play, increasing sophistication in knowing and dealing with the rules, and a commitment to keeping the game going fairly.

As adults, when in conflict with each other, these different backgrounds often lead to miscommunication. To the women, men seem insensitive, even when they are trying their hardest. The women say, why do you care more about the rules than about the relationship? For their part, the men ask, why do you keep changing the rules, or changing the subject? To the men, women often seem unfair, or they’re “coming from left field.”

Where do these ideas intersect with our religious lives? In what ways does the process of Christian or Quaker moral practice resonate with these patterns of moral socialization? That is, do they apply to how we actually treat each other when the community faces a difficult moral challenge?

If the Judeo-Christian tradition were a male child of God

Suppose we play Carl Jung for a moment and apply this model to the Judeo-Christian tradition as though it were a male child and God were the parent (in this case of course, the father—the one who writes the rules). In Gilligan’s male moral paradigm, boys mature through separation, achieve autonomous self-hood in adulthood, internalize a sense of fairness in the presence of agreed-upon law and the consequences of breaking the rules. The challenge now is to learn to reconnect. Or, to speak in parable . . .

Adam (because of Eve, says the tradition: she seemed to care less about the rules), as a child of God, ‘matures’ by eating of the tree of knowledge of right and wrong, separating from the parent, and achieving autonomous self-hood using his free will. The tradition originally solved this problem of separateness in part by embodying relationship in covenant, by establishing law for the religious community, and defining the parent in terms of sovereign will, the ruler and lawgiver, and requiring of its community members the internalization of a sense of fairness and obedience under the law, with the threat of punishment for violation.

Centuries passed up to the time of Jesus and the tradition continued to mature, refining law in several stages to the pinnacle achieved under Pharisaic culture, and internalizing a sense of fair play through the correctives of the prophets and the teachings of the rabbis.

The challenge has always been how to reconnect—to God, and to each other. The Christian tradition presents Christ as the key to reconnection, as the one who reestablishes the potential for relationship, mutual interdependence, and even intimacy—with each other and with God. Law is deemphasized, simplified and spiritualized—and right action is redefined as love. Relationship becomes the key element in religious life, love the key law for relationship.

In Gilligan’s terms, Jesus introduced elements of the female model for morality into a hitherto male-dominated paradigm. One of the reasons for the discomfort Jesus evoked in his contemporaries, in this context, may have been that he seemed to be throwing out the rules when he was actually asserting the primacy of relationship.

I think that in “Quaker process,” this word becomes flesh, as it were. By guaranteeing everyone a voice, by agreeing that we all go forward together or we don’t go forward, and especially by doing our business—like making collective moral decisions—in radical alignment with God’s guiding presence among us and through us in worship—by listening for the word of God in each other’s hearts and minds and mouths—we marry rulership to relationship, rules to love, roles to ministry in that love.

And, of course, we abandon force as an option for enforcement. Here again, the life and teachings of Jesus build a bridge between the male moral paradigm of law, justice, and enforcement on the one hand, and the female experience of the primacy of the relationship, caring, and yielding, on the other. Jesus showed us that the law, the rules, are not abrogated but fulfilled when we enter into loving relationship, to God as parent, and to each other as sisters and brothers.

Of course, sometimes this God-aligned process breaks down into unfaithfulness. At such points, we are likely to regroup around our personal, gender-conditioned, socialized experiences of the past. We try to enforce the rules—or we throw out our agreements without due process.

So far we have only been talking theory. Let me now apply these ideas to some concrete situations.

New York Yearly Meeting 1990

As I said above, I read Gilligan’s book in the months after the very difficult New York Yearly Meeting sessions of 1990 and I thought of those events continuously as I moved through the book. A small but very concerned and vocal group of Friends were very disturbed by what they saw as an incursion of paganism into the Yearly Meeting in the form of goddess worship, Wiccan practices, and other forms of “women’s spirituality.” This was taking place at conferences, interest groups, and informal gatherings of Friends, often sponsored by the Women’s Rights committee, held at the Yearly Meeting’s conference center, Powell House, and at Summer Sessions. Some of these gatherings were for women only; some were not. The concerns came to the surface when two conservative evangelical Friends attended a conference at Powell House at which several sessions convinced them that witchcraft was being practiced and that Satan was present and indeed welcome. They reported their experience to their pastor and their meeting brought a minute to Annual Sessions that summer asking the Yearly Meeting as a body to reject such activity.

I wasn’t present for every pertinent session of Yearly Meeting that year but I was there for most of them, including the one in which the minute was introduced. I observed at the time that the “dialog” quickly became quite gender defined. I know that there were women Friends who were concerned about the direction of the Yearly Meeting and basically supported the condemnatory spirit of the minute, but few of them spoke in the sessions I attended. I know that there were male Friends who were uncomfortable with the minute’s tone, the process used to present it, and even with it’s content, but the majority of speakers in the sessions I attended who resisted approval of the minute were women. Most Friends present, I think, were not as invested in the issues themselves as they were in finding a way to peace.

What I observed was this: the men saying, you are breaking the rules: goddess worship is no part of our tradition; and the women saying, we don’t care about those rules, they are your rules, not ours. The men saying you are changing the rules and you have no right to do that; and the women saying, it is our relationship with each other that matters, why do you care more about the rules than you do about us? Why are you willing to exclude us or even hurt us over theology?

The intense heat of those sessions, it seems to me, came from two moral frameworks realizing that each community completely failed to understand, let alone respect, the other’s moral make-up. Both communities became convinced that the moral fabric of the Yearly Meeting was disintegrating and they freaked out: the men speaking for the Christian tradition trying to keep the game going according to ancient agreed-upon rules; and the women speaking out of a long-established community of sisterhood, of mutual interdependence and nurture, trying to assert and protect their right to explore new roles in the context of relationship and safe, private space.

The worst part for most of us, I suppose, was that the heat got so intense it burned. People were hurt. We did emotional violence to each other. Many of us did. So now a word about violence, to which I have already alluded, though indirectly.

Rules and force

When you have rules, you have to enforce them. This requires force. The male model for morality, in so far as it is based on rules and a sense of fair play—that is, on justice—is inherently potentially violent: Justice—the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments in conformity to rules—often requires force, if not violence. That is, it requires the community to demand that members comply with the rules or face either discipline or exclusion. In the case of the state, which is defined by its monopoly on deadly force, enforcement sometimes involves violence. In the case of the Yearly Meeting, the proceedings often involved emotional violence.

Female morality, however, according to Gilligan, is predicated on the avoidance of conflict and violence, even at high cost, since maintaining the relationship is the priority. From this perspective, law is often arbitrary, especially in so far as it is written and enforced exclusively by men. And yet it can always be changed. (In fact, we revise Faith & Practice periodically.) So treating each other with care is seen by the female moralist as the higher call.

Enforcement—emotional or procedural—of the rules will usually evoke resistance. Force begets force. In the worst case, violence begets violence. (Is this why Jesus said “resist not evil”?) Once the cycle has begun, chickens and eggs hatch and peck and everybody’s crossing their usual lines of behavior.

My point is that, if I read Gilligan right, and if her analysis applies, then, in a male-dominant moral framework, the first stone is usually cast by those who are enforcing the rules, and they already are handling the rock when the rules are drafted.

Rules and relationship, faith and practice

I think I need to define rules at this point. For one thing, many “rules” of Quaker practice were broken during that Yearly Meeting, egregiously, and by just about everybody. These are not the rules to which I’m referring.

I think there is a correspondence between what I’m calling rules and the contents of our faith—our beliefs and practices. Put another way, the faith section of Faith and Practice is the section that lays out what we believe; the practice section lays out how we will behave in the world and how we relate to one another as we do our business. Together, they are the rules, literally, the “discipline,” by which we agree to worship and work together.

Put another way, the faith section is rules about what we believe, while the practice section is rules about how we believe. The faith section is about self-definition, while the practice section is about mutual interdependence. Both are sets of rules. But the practice section is a set of rules governing relationship; they are more in the character of conventions defining roles in our community life. In Gilligan’s terms, they are more akin to a female moral framework.

By contrast, the faith section defines the rules that comprise the “game” called Quakerism. In Gilligan’s terms, the faith section is more akin to a male moral framework. Especially in its considerable attention to Quaker testimonies (itself a legal term), it defines the rules by which, until the 20th century, the community guided its discipline of members. Friends were read out of their meetings for walking contrary to established tenets of faith, not for breach of procedure.

Let us return to concrete examples. The traditional definition of idolatry, of who we worship and do not worship, has been a basic rule of the tradition for at least 3000 years (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”). In New York Yearly Meeting in 1990, this rule seemed to be up for grabs. It is the underlying theological implications of abandoning these rules, especially without due process, that disturbed some Friends: where, then, will the boundaries be? they asked. How will we know who we are?

If we abandon the tenets of our faith—if, for example, we allow goddess worship in our midst or marry homosexuals—then, from the male/rule-of-law/faith-section point of view, we have abandoned morality itself. Without rules, there is no game. Without a consistent belief system, we have no religion. Nothing is sacred.

On the other hand is the violation of relationship: anger born of fear doing violence to others. A call to enforcement in the voice of force. Invasion of an intimate and often playful female space with the rules of the team. If you invade our private space (said the women), where we are exploring new roles in the intimacy of sister/collective-mother relationship, with your rules and their insinuated or actual violence, then where is your morality? Does relationship mean nothing to you? Is nothing sacred?

Hence the extreme anguish, experienced as the deepest, most genuine spiritual distress, with which both communities experienced the other’s apparent abject moral condition. A condition—so it seems—in which ancient agreements can be abrogated or changed without even a formal adjudicatory process; in which, in the name of rules, emotional and procedural force is a just means to an end.

Gender, morality, and the divisions in Indiana Yearly Meeting

If we apply Gilligan’s approach to the divisions in Indiana YM, we see Quaker communities choosing rules over relationships. Whether or not one thinks that conservative Friends who condemn homosexuality are interpreting the Bible correctly, they certainly are discerning and applying rules that they find there and they think the rules are more important than the relationships—more important than their relationships with gay members and attenders and more important than their relationships with West Richmond Meeting and its like-minded Friends. Or more important than their relationships with other humans, anyway, because one could argue that they are trying to preserve their relationship with God in their division.

However, they still are defining, or at least emphasizing, their relationship even with God in terms of rules. For these Friends, I suspect, the primary ‘emotional’ channel for the relationship with God is obedience. With Christ the Son of God, the primary emotion might be love, especially for those with deep personal convincement experiences. But even the commandment to love God is a commandment. To abrogate the Bible’s apparent injunctions against homosexual sex then is to throw out the rules, to willfully disobey God, and thus to violate the essential relationship. (The Bible does not condemn homosexuality per se because it has no concept of homosexuality per se. If it condemns anything, it only condemns homosexual sex.)

To abrogate the Bible’s apparent injunctions against homosexual sex then is to throw out the rules, to willfully disobey God, and thus to violate the essential relationship. (The Bible does not condemn homosexuality, per se, because it has no concept of homosexuality, per se. If it condemns anything, it only condemns homosexual sex.)

Now Friends have a process for changing the rules and we’ve done so for centuries. We’ve even changed the processes for discernment themselves over the centuries. But the essence has remained the same: When gathered in the Holy Spirit in worship, we sometimes receive new light. This is presumably what West Richmond Meeting has done. And presumably, this is what Indiana Yearly Meeting has also done. It’s a case of dueling discernments. As I said in my last post, the question really comes down to which process of discernment you consider to be legitimate—the one West Richmond used to arrive at its minute or the one Indiana Yearly Meeting used to decide to divide?

Josh Brown, pastor of West Richmond, wrote a fine little essay on discernment back in the early 1990s, I think, defining the tests we use in discernment of new leadings. He identified four: reason, scripture, tradition, and unity in the Spirit—the gathered meeting. I would add two more: the prophetic ministry that God is raising up among us, and the testimony of the lives of Friends who are already living under the discipline of the new leading. West Richmond’s minute fully welcoming all people regardless of their sexual orientation pretty clearly violates the test of tradition and at least it stretches to the limit the test of scripture.

The rules reside precisely here, in scripture and tradition. So for Friends who hold what Gilligan calls a male moral paradigm, the tests of scripture and tradition are decisive and homosexual sex is to be condemned.

The relationships, meanwhile, reside in the lives of real people. Look at gay couples and you see everything you see in straight relationships: love and faithfulness, troubles and mistakes. For Friends who hold what Gilligan calls a female moral framework, the lives and loves of gay couples testify to the presence of God in their lives and in their relationships. So the ‘sin’ here, for Liberal Friends, lies, not in the sex gays and lesbians have, but in the harm that is done to them in the name of the rules.

According to Quaker tradition, the third way, the way forward, lies in the Spirit of Christ. That is, in gathered worship and prophetic ministry. The arguments that liberals use to cut the teeth out of scriptural passages that seem to condemn gay sex are not more cunning or forced, really, than those that Margaret Fell used to reinterpret and get around Paul in support of women speaking in meeting. Nor are they any less prophetic than Fell’s ministry was—in theory. Ultimately, the only real test we can trust is the direct personal and corporate experience of God’s guiding hand.


We Quakers are in conflict over right and wrong, over the alignments and dynamics of the community, over moral priorities. But if Gilligan’s analysis is  helpful to us, perhaps the “other” with whom we seem to be in conflict is not immoral, as we have sometimes supposed, but rather speaking morality in a different voice.

In the light of Gilligan’s work, can we hear the other’s voice as valid, at least in part? What problems and challenges can we now identify in our own understanding of right and wrong? in our own moral upbringing? Are we willing to give up stridencies that we find, upon reflection, are partly the result of our gender-identified moral socialization?

What are the implications for our community of Jesus’ commandment to love God and each other as the essence of the law? And what are the implications for our community of a liberal atmosphere in which boundaries and self-definition (which are inherently exclusionary) are mistrusted or not even allowed?

Is there in fact, as I have suggested, some common ground in the Quaker tradition where these two approaches to morality and maturity become the same? I think so. I find that common ground in “Quaker process” as practice and in the faith that God is directly present to us for healing, guidance, and inspiration. When we make moral decisions as a corporate body under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and in accordance with our agreements about how this is to be done, we transcend our gender-conditioned differences. We call this “gospel order,” the ordering of the affairs of the community in the Light of God, and we call the transcendence the gathered meeting.

This Light comes to us through scripture and tradition, as a faith, a set of rules, a set of common experiences and agreements that define the boundaries of who we are. In actual practical terms, this Light is given also through us, through individuals as ministers of God in their healing acts and their vocal ministry in meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship; and through the gathered meeting itself, when it lays down all wars and all occasions for war and seeks true unity in God’s love. We seek this Light in the faith that, with God’s help, we can come into it. We seek this Light by practicing nonviolence, humility, simplicity, prayer, and worship together, and the discipline of discipleship, of faithfully following the Guide.

The heart of this faith is loving relationship—direct, unmediated relationship with God, both as individual Friends in our own spiritual lives, and as the gathered meeting in worship—and loving relationship with each other. The heart of this practice is loving obedience (a word to which most of us are at least mildly allergic): the willingness to commit ourselves, personally and corporately, to follow the guidance we receive from the Spirit.

In practical terms, this means holding faithfully to “Quaker process,” or, as I prefer, gospel order, and laboring with each other patiently in a spirit of willingness and respect, born of the convincement that the “other” whom we do not understand or trust joined a Friends meeting for reasons other than sabotage. When someone presents the rules, remember we need them. When someone abandons the rules, that is, the tenets of our faith, ask for a process of discernment—question the rules as well as the abandonment. When someone uses force or manipulates the rules, remind them that love is the basic rule. If changing the rules unnerves you, seek security and understanding through relationship with the changers.

For love is a law. This spiritual love is not some good feeling that results from fortuitous chemistry between people or that one romantically “falls into.” This love is what you are supposed to do precisely when you really don’t want to, with the people with whom the chemistry is not a simple gift but rather a real challenge, over the very things that strain the unity of the church. This love is not even a matter of the heart, at least not at first: it is a matter of will. And it is often up hill and into the wind.

I believe this means submersion in the spirit of Christ, who comes to us as the least of us—not through theological harangue, but through face-to-face encounter with the Redeemer in the other. I believe it means radical attunement to that of God in each of us—not lip service to a platitude or an impatient waiting in some howling silence for your chance to counterattack, but the genuine laying aside of all those things which weigh our arms down from a hug.

I believe we are also called by this understanding to a new kind of spiritual discernment. We need rules, boundaries, content, self-definition; we even need discipline. But when the presentation of rules turns to force, we violate the basic commandment and the basic relationships. We need to become better at discerning when we are approaching that threshold of violence, when we have crossed it, and what to do when we find ourselves on the other side. Hopefully, this analysis can be an aid to clerks in the conduct of meetings, to our committees for ministry and pastoral care in ministering to our wounds, and to all of us in the difficult work of making moral choices together.

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