THE PRESIDENT’S MOTHER AND CAROLE GILLIGAN

My wife and I were talking about the president during a commercial break from Morning Joe one day this past week. I said that the president seems not to understand that Republicans are not his friends, and they want him to fail. My wife said that he’s just too good to be president. He doesn’t want to offend people. I told her about Maureen Dowd’s piece in last Sunday’s Times. Ms. Dowd had quoted a few lines from Robert Frost’s “Lesson for Today”

“I’m a liberal. You, you aristocrat, won’t know exactly what I mean
by that. I mean so altruistically moral I never take my own side in
a quarrel.”

Later it occurred to me that the president was raised by his mother and grandmother. Carole Gilligan wrote in disagreement with her teacher, Lawrence Kohlberg, that women have a different value system than men. Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development end with the potential sacrifice of everything in pursuit of one’s values. Ms. Gilligan wrote that Doctor Kohlberg’s surveys that took him to that conclusion were too heavily based on male responses and that there were differences in male and female values. Simply put, the chief difference between men and women, Gilligan said, is that men see justice as the ultimate good, women see caring relationships as that good.

Several years ago when Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor resigned from the court to care for her ailing husband, I encountered this difference among my family and friends. I was concerned about the likely change in the complexion of the court from a relatively balanced one to a clearly conservative one. I thought Justice O’Connor’s first obligation was to her country, and all other obligations played a lesser role. The opposition was as surprising to me as it was vehement. My women friends, including my wife, insisted that Ms. Day-O’Connor’s first obligation was to her husband.

Is it possible, maybe even likely, that the president’s avoidance of conflict — his not taking “his own side in a quarrel” — is due to the predominant influence of his mother and grandmother in his growing up years with their caring relationship emphasis?

You may say that he has shown his male preference in strengthening the war in Afghanistan. Considering the American people’s opposition to the war, however, as well as that of the Democratic Party, is his aggression a case of his “Protesting too much?” Does he feel a need to prove his maleness by his willingness to increase the country’s use of force, thereby pleasing the hawks in his administration and in the Congress? Besides, the issue is not aggressiveness at all. The president doesn’t need to beat down his Republican opponents; he simply needs to assert forcefully his own side in the quarrel.

Does the feminine influence in the president’s upbringing explain the things he’s done that make progressives scratch their heads in wonder, and some to regretfully walk away? Maybe he’s only following his feminine training that says he must value caring relationships above all else, even caring relationships with his enemies.

We humans need balance, usually men need to feed their feminine side, consciously developing caring relationships with others. Women on the other hand, need to nurture justice and follow their social values as well as care for family and friends. Too great emphasis on one or the other — especially in leaders — causes confusion and loss of support among those who follow them. It’s also bad for the country.

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2 Responses to THE PRESIDENT’S MOTHER AND CAROLE GILLIGAN

  1. Don says:

    Good writing. My ultimate good is truth. Where does that put me?

  2. Rosie Bishop says:

    Jay, you got to the thoughts I was spouting as I read about Kohlberg’s* stages, female and male influences and values. I kept thinking, “I want both, Justice and Caring.” They make up a balanced person. Seems to me that the miraculous balance of Jesus stands out on this issue. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly. However I don’t think he would have made a successful President in 2011, and I have a pretty good imagination. Nor would he have turned gray, as that kind of thinking doesn’t last in this RAND-leaning world. Hope you will write about your take on Ayn Rand and her influence among the Cons. Seems ti be P. T. Barnum’s view, with the finer details articulated.

    Have you read Garrison Keillor’s HOMEGROWN DEMOCRAT. Several sections in it relate to this discussion. Other thoughts: Morning Joe–now there’s a show to keep you blinking. I agree with the hypothesis about Obama and Afghanistan–along with the strong influence of the military on him, up close and personal.

    *On Kohlberg–I refer to the stages frequently as we discuss the behavior of our twelve-year old Grandson.

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