Lively discussion: President Karen Lawrence with Judith Jordan, Carol Gilligan, and philosophy faculty member Nancy Baker
If someone is standing on your toe and you can’t say ‘Get off my toe!’ you’re lost.
In the 1970’s, Jean Baker Miller ’48, a psychoanalyst, clinician, and social activist, confronted the widely held assumption that one need study only men’s experiences in order to understand human experience. Her groundbreaking book, Toward a New Psychology of Women (1976), challenged conventional notions of autonomy and dependency and explored the sense of well-being derived from connection with others. Miller argued that characteristics like the need for intimacy, widely perceived as feminine weaknesses, are actually human strengths.
Miller passed away in 2006, having transformed the way psychology views women. Judith Jordan and Carol Gilligan, two of Miller’s colleagues, joined Sarah Lawrence students and faculty in celebrating her life and work at the Helen Merrill Lynd Colloquium in October. This event was one of a series celebrating the inauguration of Karen Lawrence.
After the publication of her best-selling tome, which became a standard in psychology and women’s studies classes, Miller collaborated with three psychologists to develop a new approach to mental health termed Relational Cultural Theory. The theory focuses on the need for growth-fostering relationships that are created through shared empowerment, emotional accessibility, and “good conflict.”
Jordan, director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College and one of the founders of Relational Cultural Theory, explained the potential benefits of conflict in relationships. “Acute disconnections between people are inevitable,” she acknowledged, “but when a person represents her experiences authentically, they can be repaired.
“Jean believed that anger moved relationships forward, but most conflict was done badly. If someone is standing on your toe and you can’t say, ‘Get off my toe!’ you’re lost.”
That ability to speak out has political implications, explained Carol Gilligan, author of In a Different Voice, which examines gender differences and moral development. “Having a voice and addressing conflict are requisites for citizens of democratic societies.”
She and Jordan were both motivated to study ways of handling discord by a line from Miller’s book: “Authenticity and subordination are totally incompatible.”
Philosophy faculty member Nancy Baker, who moderated the panel, was also inspired by Miller’s writings, and her resulting interest in the constraints that keep people from fully blossoming led her to teach Toward a New Psychology of Women as part of a popular Center for Continuing Education course on theories of human nature.
Miller’s son Ned spoke at the event as well, expressing his mother’s deep appreciation for her scholarship to Sarah Lawrence. Miller studied with psychology faculty member Helen Merrill Lynd, the event’s namesake and her mentor, to whom she later dedicated her first book.
Miller’s final paper was entitled “Telling the Truth about Power,” underscoring her lifelong study and pursuit of relationships based on respect.