Why Women Don’t Have a Midlife Crisis: Female Research Subjects as Counterexamples in the 1980s
This talk sheds light on a case where a study of women was used to falsify a generalization based only on men, and then the counterexample was rejected as insufficiently generalizable. I look at feminist research on middle age and the life course, published in the early 1980s, which challenged the newly-introduced notion of a normative midlife crisis. By demonstrating that few women experienced a major crisis at middle age, feminist psychologists (and some sociologists) refuted the notion that this was a universal developmental stage.
Instead, they suggested, proponents of the midlife crisis described a pathology, chronicling some men’s inability to cope with social change. In their usage and re-evaluation of female research subjects as counterexamples to falsify existing theory, these studies––the best known of which is probably Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (1982)––were representative of American feminist scholarship in the 1980s, and they were broadly influential within academia and beyond. However, the work of Gilligan and others was read primarily as research on women and gender differences; implications about male middle age and developmental theory more generally were ignored.
Feminist ideas about the life course were accepted with restrictions, essentially turning from concepts of human development into theories about women only. I argue here that successful feminist science was read first and foremost with regard to differences, not commonalities between women and men. With the information on women accepted, but the claim to falsification disregarded, the midlife crisis consolidated into a men’s problem, in contrast to women’s supposedly stable life course.
This talk first looks at the change in social scientific research on women and middle age in the 1980s: there was more scholarship, and optimistic images dominated. I then move to “Lifeprints,” a study of women around forty, in which psychologists Grace Baruch and Rosalind Barnett and journalist Caryl Rivers refuted the midlife crisis and proposed an alternative model of human development. The third section looks at Carol Gilligan, by far the most visible critic of the midlife crisis, although In a Different Voice is hardly remembered for this. One aim of the talk is to situate this classic of psychology in historical context and draw attention to the fact that Gilligan’s was at key points an argument against the male midlife crisis. I also suggest that she sought to revise existing theories of identity, development and ethics––rather than propose alternative concepts for women, as it then came to be understood.
I suggest––in section four––that the feminist criticism of Gilligan’s supposed focus emerged in response to the reception of In a Different Voice more than as a direct result of Gilligan’s work. Widely circulating––In a Different Voice was probably the bestselling book ever published by Harvard University Press, and the most-cited work of feminist theory, before it was eclipsed by Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990)––Gilligan’s work as well as Baruch’s, Barnett’s and Rivers’s Lifeprints study were read as research on women and gender differences. This limited their impact on the concept of the midlife crisis, which consolidated into an exclusively male phenomenon.