In the works of the Bard, women find true voices

July 21, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

IN A STEAMY gymnasium, a tom-tom pounded as a young girl and a grown woman charged toward each other. They met in the center of a polished, hardwood floor and circled each other warily, fists raised, chins jutting.

Immediately, the cavernous gym rang with their angry voices as they shouted insults at each other. Shakespearean insults: "Well you rogue! I'll make a sop o' th' moonshine of you."

"I'll carbonado your shanks."

"You whoreson cullionly barber-monger."

"Thou art a boil, a plague-sore, or embossed carbuncle, in my corrupted blood."

The girl and the woman separated and stalked defiantly to neutral corners to howls of approval from the girls and women who were waiting their turn to shout out 300-year-old epithets.

What was this? Elizabethan assertiveness training?

In a manner of speaking, it was.

In the funny old barnyard and bathroom references of the Bard, there is a safe, neutral language that allowed these women and these girls to find their voices and hurl them fearlessly across the gym.

Those voices -- long silenced in the middle-aged women and in danger of being extinguished in the preteen girls there with them -- are the voices Carol Gilligan heard so clearly 20 years ago: the voices of women trying to make themselves heard in a man's world.

"Those are the voices to celebrate," said Gilligan, the Harvard psychologist whose book, "In a Different Voice," became a bedrock of feminist theory.

"We need to encourage women to bring those voices full into the world so what they say will resonate without distortion."

The shouting match in the gym at Loch Raven Academy last weekend was just one of the exercises employed by the Company of Women, in residence this month at Goucher College, during weekend retreats that bring women and girls, ages 9 to 13, together in a kind of consciousness-raising slumber party.

Founded in 1990 on Kristin Linklater's pioneering work on the physical voice and Gilligan's ground-breaking work on the psychology of women and girls, the Company of Women is also a theater troupe that will return to Goucher in September to perform Shakespeare's "King Lear" with an all-female cast.

These weekend workshops are both research and application for Gilligan's theories about the psychological development of girls into women, a transformation that was only inferred from the male version of growing up until Gilligan pointed out this remarkably obvious oversight 20 years ago.

In her earliest work, Gilligan challenged the male model on which psychology based all its conclusions about women. She talked to women -- something practitioners in her field had never done -- and concluded that they were different from, not inferior to, men.

Gilligan's work revealed the absence of women's voices not only in psychology, but also in the human conversation.

When women joined that conversation, "all sorts of things were spoken then," said Gilligan. "Domestic violence, incest, rape. But also desires, hopes and feelings. The range of women's feelings was much greater than the norm inferred from men."

If women were not part of the conversation, certainly girls were not. And as Gilligan listened to women and girls, she was hearing a sharp change in the timbre of their voices. Whereas the girls were confident and feisty, aware, honest and plain-spoken, the women were hesitant, controlled, afraid of risk, of discord, full of self-censorship.

Gilligan concluded that during adolescence, when girls come up against what she called "the wall of Western culture," they see that their honesty and feistiness meets with constant disapproval, and their self-assurance withers.

Sadly, it is the mothers and the women teachers around them who most often throw a rug over their spirit and encourage girls to be "nice."

"I saw the enormity of what these girls were struggling against," said Gilligan. "This is a time of learning how to be in relationship with yourself, with others, with the world. And it is just at this time that they are pressured to silence themselves."

The workshops like the one last weekend are the community outreach of Gilligan's work. She believes women live make-believe lives, acting from scripts either written by men or written not to offend men. We all play the part of the innocent ingenue in the nice play, no matter what is going on inside.

The exercises she and Linklater use -- poetry, theater, dance, dreams, improvisation -- are designed to help women remember what it feels like to be honest and brave and to help the girls trust these feelings even when these feelings are at odds with what is expected of them.

The lesson of Gilligan's work is that it is not too late for us, for the mothers determined not to let their daughters grow up to be timid and reticent. While we are helping our little girls retain their voices into adulthood, we may rediscover our own.

Carol Gilligan, professor of psychology and human development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, will conduct a seminar on her work Thursday at Goucher College, 4 p.m.-6 p.m. She will return to Goucher Sept. 8 at 8 p.m. for a public lecture. The Company of Women will present "King Lear" Sept. 9-10 at 7: 30 p.m. Call (410) 337-6311.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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