The Problem of Silence in Feminist Psychology

Maureen A Mahoney. Feminist Studies. Volume 22, Issue 3. Fall 1996.

This article reassesses the meaning of silence and voice in feminist psychologies of women. Just as “voice” has been seen by some feminist writers-most notably Carol Gilligan-as central to women’s experience and exercise of power, I suggest that silence can also be understood as an avenue to power. The simple equation of voice with authority, and silence with victimization, needs to be reexamined in the spirit of recent challenges to the notion of women’s unitary “voice.” Just as women’s voices are as multiple and diverse as our cultural and personal histories, so the meaning of silence-being unwilling or unable to speak-can be seen as complex and multidimensional. Such a reassessment is timely because it allows for a new perspective on the psychological sources of women’s-indeed, anyone’s-subjective experience of power.

Current discussions about the psychological meanings of voice and silence exist within two competing stories about the psychological source of women’s power. These stories have developed in different sectors of the academy-on the one hand, among American feminist psychologists who have constructed a theory and practice of “relational” women’s psychology, and, on the other, among feminist theorists who work in the domains of literary criticism and philosophy and are influenced by postmodernism’s declaration of the “death of the subject.”

The view within U.S. feminist psychology, most clearly represented by Carol Gilligan and her colleagues, sees women’s strength emerging from the recovery of an authentic “voice” and the capacity to express it, and women’s subordination as rooted in the silencing of voice. Anthropologist Susan Gal points out that women’s historians, similarly, have justified their work on the basis of recapturing the “silent” past: “In these writings, silence is generally deplored” as “a symbol of passivity and powerlessness: those who are denied speech cannot make their experience known and thus cannot influence the course of their lives or history.” The conflation here of individual and collective experience is not coincidental: individual women’s voices become easily confused in this view with Woman’s voice. Equally important, women’s silence is equated with Woman’s silence, divesting silence itself from the possibility of multiple meanings anchored in different social roles and shifting subject positions. For example, Gal points out that in certain contexts, such as a job interview, confession, or psychotherapy, the silent party is the one with power. Carla Kaplan adds yet another dimension to the meaning of silence, as when silence represents a heroic act of defiance among slaves and, more subtly, when gaps in a slave narrative represent a subversive plot. More generally, feminist literary critics have recognized that textual silences reveal not only cultural suppression but also, alternatively, “women’s deployment of silence as a form of resistance to the dominant discourse.”

These insights about the shifting literary and social meaning of silence are crucial in understanding that silence is not a one-dimensional concept. My emphasis is not on silence as part of an identified social role or as a gap in a text. Rather, it is on the less-than-conscious experience of feeling unable or unwilling to speak, and feeling bad about it, due, in part, to feminist writing that conveys the expectation that silence is a sign of inauthenticity, of failure to be a “real” feminist. Academic discourse outside of feminist psychology, however, has been strongly influenced by a postmodern perspective that disputes the notion of “authentic” individual voice. Indeed, postmodern feminists reject the possibility of a whole identity that gives rise to a single, true voice and see liberatory potential in playing at numerous, contradictory identities. These feminists attack the idea that any fixed identity is healthy, especially a stable gender identity, which they see as a sentimental and dangerous construction. However, in the United States feminist psychologists have not shared the enthusiasm of feminist writers in other disciplines for a theory of contradictory identities.

This article suggests that the particular contradiction between U.S. psychological and postmodernist discourse illuminates a painful and productive psychological experience: an intellectual rejection of the notion of “authentic selves” juxtaposed with a continuing intrapsychic resonance of that very concept. It is the psychological embeddedness of the ideas of integrity and authenticity that motivates, in part, concern about voicing contradictory thoughts and feelings. Creative disruption of given identities suggested by the postmodern agenda requires the transformation of contradiction from a shameful experience to an empowering one. This process, in turn, requires silence as an important psychological space of resistance and negotiation.

I became acutely aware of a contradiction in my own thinking about issues of voice when I participated in a writing seminar to which I had brought a work-in-progress about split subjectivity as a path to change. At the end of the seminar, the instructor asked us to write a statement about our writing process during the week-long workshop. With great enthusiasm and a surprising lack of self-awareness, I wrote a piece about “writing from the self,” testifying to the exhilaration I had experienced of locating my own voice and feeling free to express it. The subjective experience was of finding my voice, as if there was one, a unified whole, a source of clarity and power waiting to be uncovered and unleashed. Only later did I realize, with a feeling of hot shame, that I had contradicted my own arguments in the scholarly paper I was writing.

I have come to recognize the feeling of hot shame as an alarm signal warning me of the need to be careful about exposing what I “really” feel or think and to take into account the expectations of others who are listening and judging. This subjective experience linking shame and silence is echoed in the clinical literature: “Shame teaches us the value of privacy: the privacy that protects us from shame, and the private place to which we must repair when humiliated. Just as shame follows the exposure of whatever we wished to keep private, the wish to withdraw provides a reasonable compensatory stratagem.” From childhood, I have been a close observer, standing on the edge of the playground, trying to figure out how to become part of the group that was playing in the center. To this child the center was populated by one group of happy, secure, enviable participants. (I now know that those “happy” children were no doubt struggling with their own insecurities and contradictions, but nothing would have convinced me of this then.) The intense activity in observing and anticipating, and occasionally making a foray toward the social center, was not a playful exercise in taking on various roles but an enterprise of deadly seriousness. Standing on the margin, by myself, did not seem to be a position of power but of possible annihilation. The quest to belong was far from a passive exercise in conformity, although someone observing from the outside might assume this was so. I was determined and single-minded, using the only tools I had available, my intelligence and insight, to figure out how to get what I wanted. Apparent passivity and silence obscured an intensely focused enterprise.

My position at the margin of the playground was reproduced several times in my life because my father held a government job in which he was transferred three times before I entered fifth grade. The child of a ranger, born in Yosemite National Park, I became the envy of anyone who heard about it. From the child’s perspective, however, the spectacular beauty of the setting was a matter of mundane, everyday life. Before the first job transfer, I enjoyed the security of a small-town community where everyone knew me, where everyone was “Park Service.” This relatively seamless social existence was challenged within days of the first move from the huge national park isolated in the Sierra Nevada to Muir Woods, a small national monument near San Francisco. There I attended for the first time an upper-middle-class elementary school in Mill Valley, even then an exclusive, progressive suburb of the city. In my first life I had been a member of a community where all the families lived on minimal government salaries subsidized by assigned housing and reduced prices at the concessionaire’s grocery store. Clothing was purchased from the Sears catalog; television signals could not penetrate the granite of the Sierra Nevada. Now, I was on my own in a school where the principal, Miss Grimm, wore tailored suits and three-inch high heels and where my classmates took lessons in English riding or interpretive dance.

What became clear to me was that I was now an outsider. I did not understand how to be like the other kids, and I made humiliating mistakes. One morning I went to school in corduroy pedal pushers, as I had done nearly every day in the mountains for warmth and ease of movement, only to realize that all the girls wore skirts. Indeed, there was a school rule that forbade girls to wear pants. I berated myself in my shame. I should have seen beforehand; I should have been able to protect myself from this; why didn’t my mother warn me? Difference meant isolation, so the trick was to cover over difference and make oneself seem to be part of the group. I wore skirts every day after that. I looked the same (more or less-the colored scarves I wore around my neck every day in an attempt, along with my ponytail, to achieve the fifties’ poodle-skirt look may have marked me as a bit unusual). But I was convinced now that I lived in a world where inadvertent mistakes could exclude and isolate and the solution was to be “advertent”-so that I could recover a sense of control. The fact of difference, carried with me as surely as my new wardrobe, was the secret that must not be told. Behaving as if I were wholly like the others, I felt that I was split into different selves, one outer, one inner; one public, one domestic; one shared, one private. The particular “error” was small-one of the stories parents laugh about when, after years have gone by, children sometimes reveal them. And, indeed, compared with the trauma of many children’s lives, my stories are relatively inconsequential. However, the shame experienced over small mistakes can create a sense of the splitting off of an “inner,” or private, self that propels conformity out of fear of exclusion. Silence about difference is propelled by the threat of public humiliation. But the very awareness of difference equally depends upon social experiences of comparison and judgment.

Not only was I having a difficult time “adjusting” to a recent move, but in taking action to protect myself and to gain acceptance I felt doubly disgraced. I had learned the moral stricture to be honest from my mother, a woman whose own experience of being raised in the poverty of a rural Northern California lumber town by German immigrant parents positioned her far outside of middle-class comfort. Like other immigrant parents, hers (no doubt unconsciously but nevertheless very effectively) attempted to insulate her from social humiliation by instilling a quiet but stubborn pride that viewed all the others as more or less lacking in intelligence, responsibility, morality.

A family belief in personal integrity may have allowed a moral superiority that was a salve for the humiliation of being German in the United States during the world wars as well as for the disgrace of being poor in a culture that values money. But for me, the stricture to be consistent and honest meant that my shame grew. Being like the others required a degradation and suppression of the “truth” about my background. I experienced this move as dishonest and felt it as a betrayal of my mother. I now had to pretend to be confident and normal when the ground of normality had shifted wildly. This is a story about pain and conflict and struggle over authenticity beginning (for me) in second grade, long before the female adolescent crisis on which Carol Gilligan insists.

Of course, the same experience can be seen as early training in conscious awareness of split subjectivity, an experience of the controlled expression of public behavior, as opposed to concealed private thoughts and vulnerabilities that can be protected. For me, however, the language of a “true self” covered over by falseness described my subjective situation. Shame merged into guilt over lack of integrity, locating the experience within the moral domain. Obviously, as a girl I was not taking pleasure in the playful possibilities of being different selves, of being complicated, of being smart, or even of being a child. The playfulness that such a perspective prescribes as a project for personal and political change requires an amused detachment-a psychological maturity and sophistication unavailable to me as a child. But even in adulthood it is problematic, because it idealizes the notion of fun and invention and ignores the pain that moments of contradiction also evoke.

My story about a young girl’s first realization that clothing makes a statement about inclusion and exclusion-that is, my discomfort and the meaning I made of it-initiated a lifetime of active (but mostly silent) attention to the public message apparel conveys. Such chance, highly charged encounters of childhood located me in the social world, operating in multiple and contradictory psychological directions, both to silence through humiliation and to energize the psychological work required to gain control and avoid being taken unawares in the future. Writing about her experiences growing up as the working-class child of a single mother in 1950s’ England, Carolyn Steedman, in Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives, argues that the puzzlement and shock of such experiences “can provide a sharp critical faculty in a child.” Steedman suggests that the processing of such experiences and the relocation of oneself in the newly altered world is a paradigmatic developmental moment (thus, she emphasizes meaning and narrative in her account rather than emotional loss and defense against it). Accordingly, she understands power as the capacity to understand and reinterpret one’s past, incorporating multiple layers and retellings, as the child moves through geographical and social space. “The only point,” she writes, “lies in interpretation.” But this interpretation is far from passive, as postmodern descriptions of subjects who “are spoken,” rather than who “speak,” might imply: “worked upon and reinterpreted, the landscape becomes a historical landscape; but only through continual and active reworking.” Steedman suggests the possibility of continual play between unconscious and conscious experience, awareness of contradictions provoked by social circumstances, and the act of making meaning about them. While meaning shifts and contradicts itself, Steedman places a reflective subject at the center of the process: “It’s not the outcome [of confrontation] that signifies. It’s the children watching the confrontation … that we should look at, watch their watching this disjuncture….” Here we see the possibility of a subject who speaks within language and culture but who occupies changing positions at the convergence of continually conflicting histories and interpretations. Her subjectivity, anchored to her particular position in the social and cultural grid, consists in interpreting these contradictions, moved and motivated by the emotional impact they have on her.

But what is the relationship between reinterpreting one’s history and acting in the world? And what is the psychological source of women’s capacity to act and to resist, in other words, of women’s personal power? Although many feminist theorists have justifiably criticized any psychological analysis as drawing attention away from the economic, social, and political realities that reproduce women’s subordination, the nagging question of personal change reappears again and again and needs to be confronted as both a psychological and a social issue. Yet an adequate theory of psychological empowerment must incorporate social and historical circumstances and, in particular, class and concepts of femininity.

Carol Gilligan and the Politics of Voice

From her first major work to her most recent one, Carol Gilligan has single-mindedly developed the notion of “voice” as the linchpin of her theory of women’s development. Arguing that voice connects psyche and body as well as psyche and culture, Gilligan presents a developmental model that depicts young girls as forthright, outspoken, and matter of fact about conflict and hurt feelings. The dawning of adolescence, however, “muffles” that clear voice, silencing girls and rendering them confused about what they want to communicate. Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown provide evidence from their interviews with girls at a private school in upstate New York that developmental progress in the realms of cognition and insight “goes hand in hand with evidence of a loss of voice, a struggle to authorize or take seriously their own experience … increased confusion, sometimes defensiveness, as well as evidence for the replacement of real with inauthentic or idealized relationships.” They go on to assert: “If we consider responding to oneself, knowing one’s feelings and thoughts, clarity, courage, openness, and free-flowing connections with others and the world as signs of psychological health, as we do, then these girls are in fact not developing, but are showing evidence of loss and struggle and signs of an impasse in their ability to act in the face of conflict.”

In Gilligan’s view, the power of voice, the freedom to speak one’s mind and act on one’s feelings, emerges from a specific relational context, a context of “real” or “authentic” relationships:

We speak about authentic or resonant relationships, that is, relationships that are as open and mutual as possible, in which partially formed thoughts and strong feelings can be spoken and heard … A shift from encouraging (enforcing) consensus or agreement to engaging diversity creates the possibility for real rather than fraudulent relationships with those with whom we engage in our work.

Thus, paradoxically, personal power for women emerges from relationships that are already mutual. That is, she argues that personal power is born in social circumstances devoid of unequal power struggles (and this hardly seems likely). False relationships are those “in which people cannot speak or are not heard” because the power imbalance is too great.

Gilligan, along with self-in-relation theorists at Wellesley College’s Stone Center, arrive at a conception of “power with” in favor of “power over”-power as “capacity” versus domination. For example, Jean Baker Miller states that “most women would be most comfortable in a world in which we feel we are not limiting, but are enhancing the power of other people while simultaneously increasing our own power.” Jessica Benjamin’s work, as well as my own with Barbara Yngvesson, attempts to go beyond this dichotomy. Following Benjamin, I use D.W. Winnicott’s developmental model to help conceptualize a psychological dynamic in which “power as capacity” is born of the infant’s struggle between the disparate desires to be omnipotent and to be recognized by an other over whom one does not have complete control. Thus, “power with” and “power over” are linked in a psychological dialectic. Tension between the two can easily be ruptured in favor of insistence on one aspect of the dynamic or the other-a kind of splitting that produces a false dichotomy. This dynamic is discussed more fully below.

Gilligan’s developmental model of relationship, authenticity, and power represents only one side of this dichotomy and carries with it several implications. First, the model suggests that relationships of mutuality, relatively free of power dynamics, are not only possible but desirable because they set the social context for girls’ feelings of empowerment. Second, in idealizing girlhood when conflicts are met openly and an authentic voice is readily available, the model suggests that the struggles of development begin only in adolescence. Third, it assumes that the struggles themselves limit rather than propel development. The silence that they may produce is seen as pathological, a defensive reaction born of confusion or the desire to appear in a way that one is not “really” feeling. In this view, silence should be understood as defeat rather than an active choice and an ingredient in resistance, either now or in the future.

Notions of true selves covered over by false appearances are not confined to white middle-class psychologies. They also appeal to writers trying to understand their own experiences of marginalization. In an essay on her dissonant experience as a Black female law student at Harvard, Patricia Williams describes the way relations of power and the legacy of slavery render some in this culture “masters” while others are constructed as “servants.” Then

the struggle of the self becomes not a true mirroring of self-in-other, but a hierarchically inspired series of distortions … It is essential at some stage that the self be permitted to retreat into itself and make its own decisions with self-love and self-confidence … Since the self’s power resides in another, little faith is placed in the true self, in one’s own experiential knowledge.

Here, in a brief aside on human nature, Williams evokes a story of true selves denied by unequal power relations as a way of arguing that women, children, and Blacks operate in a dual world, one in which intuitive experience challenges the socially prescribed “reality” of the dominant power structure. The paradox is that Williams herself is a master of the politics of split subjectivity. She confronts audiences with the contradictions of her own subjective experience to expose power relations and sources of subordination, as when she surprises a formal academic meeting by describing how she wrote the paper she is delivering only by overcoming a depression that left her wanting to stay in her frayed bathrobe and spend the day in bed.

In juxtaposing her fear and lack of confidence with her skill and power as a public speaker, Williams hints at a possibility that Gilligan does not fully explore-that silence can reflect a posture of resistance rather than defeat. Williams overcomes the isolation implied by the impulse to spend the day in bed by using it to launch her argument and to disarm and provoke her audience. The move is an intellectual version of Freud’s original observation that trauma is overcome and development occurs when the subject engages in “making passive active”; in this case, a narrative of a true self denied by racism helps mobilize a resistant stance based on the playful possibilities of split subjectivity.

D.W. Winnicott, the British object relations theorist, used a similarly provocative technique to gain the attention of his audience when he was invited in 1962 to address the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute. He began his remarks with the comment: “Starting from no fixed place I soon came, while preparing this paper for a foreign society, to staking a claim, to my surprise, to the right not to communicate.” Winnicott’s refreshing opener provides the entree to his psychoanalytic analysis of the meaning of not communicating. I cite his account to complicate Brown and Gilligan’s assumptions about the necessary pathology of silence. Winnicott helps us see that silence contains the possibility of power as well as pathology, of action as well as passivity (although, of course, not necessarily so).

Winnicott, on Communicating and Not Communicating

Winnicott tells us that his claim to the right not to communicate “was a protest from the core of me to the frightening fantasy of being infinitely exploited. In another language this would be the fantasy of being eaten or swallowed up. In the language of this paper it is the fantasy of being found.” Winnicott takes a stance opposed to Gilligan’s, seeing silence as an active protest against intrusion rather than a passive, submissive position. Ironically, this active use of silence, or resisting communication, is illustrated in Brown and Gilligan’s own study. They describe “signs of an emerging underground” as the initial reaction of the students to the researchers’ presence at their school. This underground consisted of whispered hallway conversations about the questions on the researchers’ interviews so that friends could be properly prepared. Brown and Gilligan write that “the girls responded to our research by aligning themselves against this strange intrusion.” Brown and Gilligan view the girls’ reaction as an unfortunate obscuring and muting of voice, a sign that the girls know that the “dominant culture” is “out of tune” with their voices “and for the most part uninterested in girls’ experiences.” They see the girls as victims of a misattuned patriarchy, not rebels against the power of adults.

Winnicott suggests an alternative motivation for the response of the underground, one that is more respectful of the possibility that the girls are agents of change as well as victims of the dominant patriarchal culture. In his view, silence or secret conspiracy to prepare responses are healthy forms of resistance to unwelcome probing. Brown and Gilligan deny the power of their own position as researchers and adults visa vis the girls and seek to find “a way of working that sustained other people’s voices and our own-to voice the relationship that was at the heart of our psychological work.” By translating the young girls into simply “other people,” Brown and Gilligan muffle the power dynamics between adults and children; the girls, acutely aware of such disparities, become suspicious and take action to protect themselves.

Although Gilligan does discuss adolescent girls’ use of silence as “a way of maintaining integrity” when someone does not listen to them, “a way to avoid further invalidation,” she nonetheless goes on to assert that “willingness to speak and to risk disagreement is central to the process of adolescent development, making it possible to reweave attachment, and informing the distinction between true and false relationships.” Winnicott makes the story more complicated psychologically:

I suggest that in health there is a core to the personality that corresponds to the true self of the split personality; I suggest that this core never communicates with the world of perceived objects, and that the individual person knows that it must never be communicated with or influenced by external reality … Although healthy persons communicate and enjoy communicating, the other fact is equally true, that each individual is an isolate, permanently non-communicating, permanently unknown, in fact unfound.

Winnicott here plays on the notion of opposites, on the paradox of simultaneous sociality and isolation, setting up dual motivations to communicate and to be silent. Perfect communication is as threatening as absence of communication, because it obscures the difference between subject and object and threatens to annihilate the subject’s sense of agency and creativity in the world. Paradoxically, it is imperfect communication that Winnicott values, because these “adaptation failures” help the child understand that although adults are in control, they are not in absolute control. The anger that results from a failure of communication motivates a subjective sense of agency and resistance. This sense does not exist sui generis; it is not a natural or inborn part of the personality, it is not the result of isolation. Rather, it emerges from social relations and efforts to communicate that are not fully successful and that may evoke painful emotions like shame.

Here we can begin to see a theory of psychological power that paradoxically locates the capacity for creativity and resistance in the delicate balance between being heard and not being heard, between speaking and refusing to speak. Winnicott understands that the struggle of interpersonal power relations, far from obscuring one’s own sense of agency, as Gilligan suggests, actually may set the conditions that give rise to it.

Part of the problem is Gilligan’s concept of “voice.” In her earlier work, Gilligan restricts her use of the term “voice” to “ways of speaking about moral problems” and “modes of describing the relationship between other and self.” She sees voice as a way of representing a mode of thought and discerns different themes in the moral reasoning of women and men, one representing an ethic of care and the other an ethic of justice. Ten years later, with the publication of a recent book, the term “voice” has taken on a broader meaning. More than representing a mode of thought, or a moral logic, voice now signifies for Gilligan the ability to express feelings as well as thoughts, to embody “strength, courage, and a healthy resistance to losing voice and relationship.” Having a voice enables one to “speak freely of feeling angry, of fighting or open conflict in relationships, … [to] take difference and disagreement for granted in daily life.” Uncertainty about such outspokenness is construed not as “a different voice” but as a “loss of voice,” the result of confusion. In shifting her analysis from speaking about different voices to dichotomizing voice as either present or absent, Gilligan has transformed her discussion from one of moral logic to one of self-esteem and agency: girls’ struggle to “voice their feelings and thoughts and experiences in relationships” affects “their feelings about themselves, their relationships with others, and their ability to act in the world.” Loss of voice, or silence, becomes both the cause and result of low self-esteem, poor or inauthentic relationships, and inability to take action in the world. In other words, loss of voice is equated with loss of self or at best with an inauthentic or “fraudulent” self: “Voice became key insofar as girls feel pressure to become selfless or without a voice in relationships, and the experience of self in the sense of having a voice became central to girls’ experience of authentic relationships.” False relationships are those “in which people cannot speak or are not heard.”

Gilligan’s notion of not being able to speak or not being heard ignores more instrumental sources of a sense of accomplishment, such as work, and also attributes infinite power to the listener and little to the would-be speaker. In this view, not speaking is not a legitimate response but, rather, the result of “silencing” by cultural and political forces outside the subject’s control. Further, although Brown and Gilligan do note in passing that voice is “polyphonic and complex,” their way of speaking about it implies that it is a unitary thing which one either possesses or does not. “Voice” becomes reified in much the same way that concepts of id, ego, and superego were reified by Freud’s popularizers (much to his distress). It is this reified notion of authentic voice, and the related concept of the whole self, that the postmodern critics ridicule and reject in favor of a notion of split subjectivity, shifting identifications, and selves constructed retrospectively out of cultural myths, distorted memories, and psychological fantasies.

In rejecting the unitary account of voice and self, however, postmodernists have also given up a major insight of the object relations theorists and of Winnicott in particular. Although Winnicott introduced the concept of “true” and “false” self into the psychoanalytic lexicon, he himself was less interested in a thing possessed or achieved in development than in a quality of experience, a subjective state which he describes as “feeling real.” His major question was what “makes a baby begin to be, to feel that life is real, to find life worth living”?

Winnicott argues that the sense of feeling real begins to emerge in the earliest stages of infancy, in the interaction between a responsive caregiver and a baby who cannot exist outside of the caregiver’s willingness to nurture. Paradoxically, however, the caregiver must collaborate with the infant in producing the infant’s subjective sense of control in the world. The caregiver must help create the illusion that the infant produces that which she or he desires.

This process goes wrong when the caregiver demands too much, either by being neglectful or by being excessively intrusive. Winnicott suggested that the overzealous caregiver is particularly threatening because relentless attention forces the baby into a reactive mode. A reactive mode, in turn, is a state in which “coping” substitutes for “being.” “The self can only grow in a state of protected unawareness because at the very earliest stages,” Winnicott writes, “there is not sufficient ego-strength for there to be a reaction without loss of identity.” In explaining this early state, Adam Phillips uses the analogy of a telephone ringing long after one has gone to sleep: “Having to deal with critical interruptions, like being woken by the phone in the middle of the night, involves a loss of continuity that Winnicott equates, at the earliest stage, with an emerging self. What Winnicott will call the False Self is habituated through early environmental failure to living reactively….” The telephone jars the sleeper awake; there is no ignoring it. The infant cannot not respond to the impinging environment. When the infant’s experience is more of impingement than sensitivity, the state of “feeling real” is overcome by the state of “feeling false,” or living with a false self characterized by a mode of reacting and compliance.

Daniel Stern’s recent research on mothers and infants provides some empirical evidence for Winnicott’s theory. Stern finds that mothers who pursue their babies excessively, who do not recognize or respond to the baby’s delicate signal to let go of eye-to-eye contact for a moment, dispose their babies to less healthy development. Although neither Winnicott nor Stern offer a gender analysis of these experiences, I speculate that the dangers of compliance are more immanent for girls than for boys in many cultures, not because mothers of girls are more disturbed but because girls are expected to be more relationally oriented than boys.

Living reactively produces a socially compliant subject and communication itself becomes linked to a sense of being controlled, to producing a response demanded by the other. Silence, or not communicating, can be a healthy response, then, to a sense of being controlled. Such a compliant subject can be seen in Brown and Gilligan’s example of the fifteen-year-old girl Neeti, who, in the researchers’ new open style of “mutual” communication, had been given a draft of the analysis of her own words. Neeti’s response to the researchers reveals her discomfort in taking up the given terms of the analysis:

Neeti then conversed with us about our interpretation of the changes in her life. She told us of her dismay when at fifteen she was asked to write an essay called “Who Am I?” and she realized she did not know. Unhappy with her “fascination” with the “perfect girl” and her “fraudulent view” of herself (phrases from our writing that resonated with her feelings about herself), Neeti spoke of a “voice inside” her that “has been muffled”: “The voice that stands up for what I believe in has been buried deep inside of me.”

Here we see Neeti taking up the terms of a discourse of true and false selves that has been given her by the relatively powerful psychologists who, the girl might reasonably believe, know her better than she knows herself. From this infinite regress of reaction and compliance, noncommunication may be the only possible escape.

Carla Kaplan, in a brilliant study of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, shows that the girl’s silences in this slave narrative are active and resistant responses to a repressive social order. Whereas white silence, in the context of the debate about emancipation, is “cowardly,” Black slave silence can be heroic and is to be “valued, privileged, and protected.” Jacobs notes at the outset that “I have not written my experiences in order to attract attention to myself; on the contrary, it would have been more pleasant to me to have been silent about my own history.” Seen from this perspective, Neeti’s silent refusal to accept the narrative of true self offered by Gilligan might have served to protect her own sense of integrity.

Gilligan and her colleagues go wrong, I believe, in reifying the notion of “authentic voice” as a precious object buried and available to be uncovered, freed in the process of being listened to and heard. According to Gilligan, this listening requires mutuality in relationship, an absence of power relations or inequality:

[W]e are … attuned to the ways in which institutionalized restraints and cultural norms and values become moral voices that silence voices, constrain the expression of feelings and thoughts, and consequently narrow relationships, carrying implicit or explicit threats of exclusion, violation, and at the extreme, violence. As resisting listeners, therefore, we make an effort to distinguish when relationships are narrowed and distorted by gender stereotypes or used as opportunities for distancing, abuse, subordination, invalidation, or other forms of psychological violation, physical violence, and oppression, and when relationships are healthy, joyous, encouraging, freeing, and empowering.

Gilligan and her colleagues imply that some relationships are mutual, and therefore freeing, whereas others are infused with power and therefore restraining. Winnicott sees that power and defiance within the intimate relationship constitute the essential ground for experiencing a self that feels authentic: “Shall I say that, for a child to be brought up so that he can discover the deepest part of his nature, someone has to be defied, and even at times hated, without there being a danger of a complete break in the relationship?”

A Developmental Story: The Convergence of the Social World and the Psyche

Winnicott’s account provides us with insight into the developmental importance of secrets and silence, of their place in allowing a subjective sense of authenticity or feeling real, of the necessity of resistance to powerful others upon whom the child depends. This, in itself, challenges Gilligan’s notions about the relational conditions for feeling “free.” But it is a story detached from the historical and cultural grid, told as if all that matters is the child and her mother. In her autobiographical Landscape for a Good Woman, Carolyn Steedman adds another essential dimension to the story about secrets: the dimension of social class, or, more generally, social marginality. She focuses on the child watching disjunctures between “systems of authority.” Children in impoverished families are often confronted with discontinuity between the domestic authority of the parent, on the one hand, and, on the other, the power of representatives of the dominant culture, such as social workers, who may have authority over the parents. White middle-class children, by contrast, tend to have a more seamless experience of domestic and public authority. Their fathers, and often their mothers, hold positions of power both within and outside the family (i.e., in the public world of work). Steedman begins her book with an account of having moved with her mother to a house on Streathem Hill in 1951, just after her younger sister was born. She and her mother “both watched the dumpy retreating figure of the health visitor through the curtainless windows. The woman had said: `This house isn’t fit for a baby.'”

The child watched the retreating figure and recalls the image decades later. She remembers her mother weeping and then picking up the pieces with the offhand comment: “Hard lines, eh, Kay?” Here is what the adult, who has carried this confrontation all her life, has made of it:

And I? I will do everything and anything until the end of my days to stop anyone ever talking to me like that woman talked to my mother. It is in this place, this bare curtainless bedroom, that lies my secret and shameful defiance. I read a woman’s book, meet such a woman at a party (a woman now, like me) and think quite deliberately as we talk: we are divided: a hundred years ago I’d have been cleaning your shoes. I know this and you don’t.

Thus, Steedman argues, “all children experience a first loss or exclusion, lives shape themselves around this sense of being cut off or denied.” But, as Steedman herself is at pains to demonstrate, some exclusions signify more than others because they combine psychological with social marginalization. They become embedded in the unconscious, in Elizabeth Abel’s words, through “the complexity of feeling and class positioning.” My experience on the alien playground was trivial in social/historical terms, but momentous psychologically. As an adult, I now see the moment as a metaphor, throwing into relief my strangeness and exclusion, but also my private uniqueness, my separateness not only from the other children but from my mother as well. My refusal to speak about the matter to my mother or anyone else reveals shame but also determination to keep on the course of inventing myself as distinct from my family.

There are myriad ways of constructing and reinterpreting such a moment. Another seven-year-old may have turned to her mother in her distress and learned that her family had a long tradition of opposition to bourgeois values such as those that require girls to wear skirts to school. Mediation of a family narrative through a mother might set the ground for an experience of inclusion (in a family and cultural tradition) rather than exclusion (from a desirable public world) and estrangement (from the mother). Whether the mother is available for such a reinterpretation depends upon the relationship between mother and daughter and upon the cultural meanings available to the mother.

Audre Lorde, in her biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, offers several examples of the limits of a mother’s efforts to reinterpret, among which is the following. As a small girl living in Harlem during the thirties, Lorde often had the experience of walking with her mother in “racially mixed zones of transition,” hearing a “hoarsely sharp, guttural rasp,” and having a “nasty glob of grey spittle upon my coat or shoe an instant later.” Wiping it off, Lorde’s mother

fussed about low-class people who had no better sense nor manners than to spit into the wind no matter where they went, impressing upon me that this humiliation was totally random … It was not until years later once in conversation I said to her: “Have you noticed people don’t spit into the wind so much the way they used to?” And the look on my mother’s face told me that I had blundered into one of those secret places of pain that must never be spoken of again.

Lorde may never have spoken to her mother about it again. But this experience of her mother’s protectiveness and later refusal to speak about the pain of knowing that the protection must crumble, indeed be revealed as a lie, as the daughter faced the world of racism in the United States, inspired Lorde’s deep insights about the disjuncture between Black women’s personal power and social powerlessness. The strength and resistance of Lorde’s own adult voice was no doubt fed by these paradoxes of power and powerlessness, experienced acutely and personally, in a delicately negotiated balance between words and silence.

We can see now that the simple story of voice and silence that Gilligan tells is both an attractive and coherent story and a misleading one that denies girls their own complications, their anger at the powerlessness they experience in the face of experts who want to know their secrets, and their active struggles-both spoken and silent-to resist such intrusion and authority. Gilligan’s story of voice and silence denies them their own knowledge of their marginalized position; their experiences “out of the borderlands”; the sense of exclusion and uniqueness that comes of such experiences; and the motivation to respond, reinterpret, reposition, and transform themselves. In doing so, it misses the complications of silence and its potential richness as a state of developmental change.

The process of responding to marginalization, full of contradiction and discomfort, mobilizes silence as one among many possible responses and recognizes the importance of incoherence, defiance, and the constructive possibility of not being heard. Cultural prescriptions of personal integrity based on coherence and rationality may help motivate the interpretations of her life that the child makes. Whatever the story, however, it is the capacity to feel real that allows her sense of herself as its inventor. This feeling real, in turn, as Winnicott suggests, depends on the experience of feeling false. Mobilizing possibilities and enjoying contradictions depend on the capacity to shift between states of “feeling real” and “feeling false,” not, crucially, between being real or being false. Indeed, “feeling real” is quite compatible with experiencing the incoherence and contradictions of a nonunitary self, just as “feeling false” is often the subjective experience of expectations for a self that is whole and seamless. Winnicott helps us see that communication itself may set the condition for “feeling false,” because it inevitably implies the possibility of conformity or compliance. Silence, then, should not be understood unidimensionally as the condition of disempowerment, or “being silenced,” but carries the potential for strength and resistance. As Winnicott suggests, “feeling real” may be more easily experienced in moments of noncommunication. This may help to explain why women treasure the solitude of their own rooms (if we are so fortunate as to have them) as the most fertile sites for creativity.

Standing and watching at the side of the playground, creating secret alliances with girl friends while responding silently to adults perceived as intrusive, lying in bed in an old bathrobe contemplating a public speech-these moments of withdrawal create a space of silence, where one does not have to be accountable. The capacity to speak out is nurtured in these episodes of nonspeaking that are often experienced subjectively as times of shame, confusion, and anxiety. Far from being (only) moments of defeat, they also contain the possibility of strength and action through the subjective state of noncompliance. Rather than relegating a girl or a woman to a life of acquiescence and loss of power, then, such silences may help foster the capacity to speak out with confidence and authority, indeed with “authenticity.”

I might have become a little girl who defiantly wore pedal pushers all my life. I could rewrite myself on the playground as a triumphant nonconformist. But it would not be my story. My story has to do with humiliation felt so strongly that it took forty years for me to rethink it. Those intervening years, filled with the contradictions of life lived now toward the center, now on the margins, of experience sometimes shared and sometimes secret, brought me to this interpretation.