Nation and the Feminist Ethic of Care By Roopa Rantham


From Carol Gilligan to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi—the author undertakes a revealing journey, and pleads for a different voice to speak of the nation. 


Roopa Rathnam is pursuing her PhD on feminism and religion with particular interest in the life and work of Pandita Ramabai and the significance of her legacy in Pune district in Maharashtra

Even as the din of the Bharat Mata ki Jai controversy surrounding me abates, I think of the many ways in which feminists can and are engaging with the concept of nationalism. Given that most of the history of nations, at least in the West, is also the history of excluding women from being its legitimate members, it is understandable that much of the feminist conversation on this issue is dominated with pleas to the sisterhood to renounce all that the nation stands for – often its wars, its violence and its intentional exclusion – within and without.

And yet, like in all of life there cannot be only one story; there must be other voices not captured in this overwhelming feminist response; stories of women participating in nation-building, shaping the spaces that its citizens will occupy, populating the institutions that its democracy prides, painstakingly influencing policy that will affect the lives of her sisters and her children. So it is to these possibilities that I turn, recalling some of the conversations I have had with women- self identified feminists, living in post- economic structural adjustment metropolitan India, educated in institutions of our colonial legacy and carrying all the markers of privilege – engaged in what to me spoke clearly of nation-building, one community at a time. I am tempted to add a ‘yet’ when I speak of their engagement in the face of their privilege, because to our trained sociological eye, it seems like a paradox if people of privilege step out and in to projects that seem less about self-furtherance and more about setting a common agenda affecting all, often at short-term ‘cost’ to themselves. But more on this paradox later.

The conversations that I draw from are part of my familiarisation of the field during the writing of my dissertation for my M.Phil course requirements at JNU, when I was enquiring in to the meaning that women gave to their decisions to prioritise care giving (albeit in a range of settings) over paid employment and the politics they identified in that choice. The women I met were known to me or came by through the well-worn snowball technique that we often invoke in our research methods.  What I am trying to say by this is that women such as the ones I got to meet for my research are not easily identifiable in today’s neo-liberal India that lives in its cities, where the default is a double income family racing to meet the next EMI while planning its next purchase, living the ‘better’ life driven entirely by the principle of consumption. And so it was that the common thread in all the narratives that I collected was the search for community; through writing, deep academic study of art or simply by being a patient listener and a generous host in a self-identified role as a faculty member’s spouse in an academic institution, to name a few.

Maybe you wonder how the lives of these women, in their own islands of relationships link up to our conversation about gender and nationalism. You wouldn’t be the only one if you do, for just as feminists have vocally spoken of nationalism with disdain, their long history of struggle to be counted as equal to man in economic, political and social arena has also brought in an impatience with women who make these ‘aberrant’ choices of prioritising the so-called private sphere over the so-called public. And this too is understandable, because stories of women such as those mentioned above act as fodder for people who want to cast aspersions at a woman’s ability to negotiate the so-called public sphere; using them to block the entry of many other women who are both willing and capable of working in and working with the systems of male dominance.

Carol Gilligan, a social psychologist who shot to fame when she contested the theory of moral development propounded by Lawrence Kohlberg and his team at Harvard (of which she was also a member) as they studied the choices men and women make when faced with moral conflict, holds some clues for us to draw links between these disparate threads presented to you up until now in this piece. In her book In a Different Voice (1982) Gilligan speaks of the tendency in psychological theory, as proposed by Kohlberg but coming from a long tradition of similar thought, to categorise women’s experience as ‘aberrant’ when the narrative is not in line with the representation of what model development should be, often using the male experience as norm. Gilligan astutely points out that surely when the woman’s experience cannot be accommodated in a particular representation of theory, the problem must lie in the representation and not in the woman’s experience!

Gilligan goes on to propose that data in the studies she and her team had conducted show two distinct modes of relating, which she calls ‘voices’. These ‘voices’ Gilligan distinguishes as male and female, not because of the sex of the respondent, but given that the ‘different’ mode is often located in women’s experience, the distinction is made likewise.

Coming to the distinct mode of relating, Gilligan claims that women define their identity through relationships of intimacy and care, and so “in the transition from adolescence to adulthood, the dilemma itself is the same for both sexes, a conflict between integrity and care. But approached from different perspectives, this dilemma generates the recognition of opposite truths. These different perspectives are reflected in two different moral ideologies, since separation is justified by an ethic of rights while attachment is supported by an ethic of care” (1982:164). Furthermore, she observes that

“[t]he deviance of female development has been especially marked in the adolescent years when girls appear to confuse identity with intimacy by defining themselves through relationships with others. The legacy left from this mode of identity definition is considered to be a self that is vulnerable to the issues of separation that arise at mid-life. But this construction reveals the limitation in an account which measures women’s development against a male standard and ignores the possibility of a different truth. In this light, the observation that women’s embeddedness in lives of relationship, their orientation to interdependence, their subordination of achievement to care, and their conflicts over competitive success leave them personally at risk in mid-life seems more a commentary on the society than a problem in women’s development” (170, emphasis mine).

Gilligan recognises the role of the social context in highlighting these differences during the development process and the very experience of gender, and identifies both patriarchy and capitalism as having influenced the legitimacy of psychological models that discredit the woman’s experience in our times.

Coming back to the women seeking community, ‘subordinating achievement to care’ so to speak, the feminist ethic of care as proposed by Gilligan and others, explains their ‘aberrant’ choices. The feminist ethic of care is distinguished from the feminine ethic of care, by the fact that it operates outside the realm of the interpersonal, and with an integrity of self, to borrow a psychological term from Gilligan, that is missing in the feminine ethic. The feminine ethic of care is what is promoted by the patriarchal structures of society, cordoning a woman to the private sphere – not because they recognise a woman’s embeddedness in lives of relationship or her orientation towards interdependence, but as many feminists of the Marxist tradition point out- to subordinate their reproductive labour in the relations of production in a capitalist system.

The feminist ethic of care, by its very orientation to connection and the fabric of humanity, is inclined towards community building, and if we take Anderson’s definition of nations being ‘imagined communities’, then we can extend it for the sake of our argument, towards nation building, though I suspect nations would look very different if feminists subscribing to the ethic of care were imagining the community that is the nation.

So then what separates these women from our garden variety ‘nationalist’? To begin with, in the feminist ethic of care, when applied to nations, there is absolutely no purchase for the neoliberal idea of ‘being the best’, hence there is no competition with other countries to feel any sense of validation about the health and integrity of one’s own. The strength and resistance of one’s own community to withstand vagaries brought about by activities of both the human and natural kind is gauged by the ability of the institutions therein to respond to needs of all, in different ways as the circumstances demand. Gilligan speaks of the ethic of rights as not being in an either/or situation with the ethic of care, only that in a feminist ethic, the principles applied to operate an ethic of rights do not draw themselves from an abstract absolute but are derived contextually, based on the situation at hand.

One of the women I had interviewed as part of my research had spoken of the story of Surpanakha in the Ramayana. Her own performance based on this story tries to present Surpanakha’s point of view. Is a woman filled with desire for a man necessarily an object of ridicule? Is the violence of the two brothers –Rama and, ganging up against her in deriding her for her openly expressed desire, even if we keep aside the eventual assault on her by Lakshmana, not to be condemned? Could a simple ‘no’, as we teach ourselves and our daughters to say to unsolicited advances in public spaces, not have sufficed? This is how the feminist ethic of care operates; it applies relational thinking where thinking and acting in abstract absolutes is experienced as violent.

Moving from myth to mothering, another participant spoke of how in order to cope with the constant moving from one city to another, often not only across the country but most of the Western hemisphere, which characterises the life of an up and coming corporate executive in these times of transnational corporations, mothers came to know and hold each other over the heads of their children who once shared the same physical space of a school or a neighbourhood park, but now operate in the virtual space offered by the internet. Their very transient interactions with each other become criteria for permanent membership to the group, as they speak not only of bringing up children in cultures alien to their own, but of their loneliness and other struggles that seem like, to many others and perhaps even to themselves, a petulant whine of an entitled child. Once again, it becomes easy to judge these women for the choices they have made, to pursue a career and a lifestyle that demands these changes, but once we factor in the commitment they have made in marriage to be with their partners, or the politics of their waiting for the time when a different ‘voice’ is owned by more members of their family, rather than they imposing a decision unilaterally because of an epiphany, or the beginnings of one, in their own lives, we begin to see the ripples of change they are making while trapped in a larger situation. This is how the feminist ethic of care would nudge and nurture their evolving worldview, the ‘different voice’ in which the mothers are beginning to speak tentatively to each other.

Yet another participant speaks of marriage as the arena of change, highlighting how such an interpersonal space can also become the realm of a feminist ethic, albeit rooted in spirituality. Claiming that the couple committed in a marriage is also committed to a common world view, in her case grounded in the Biblical understanding provided by her faith in Christianity, the institution of marriage then becomes the space where their belief systems are put in to practice and refined over time and repeated ‘intentional’ actions. Looking at the concept of service that acts as scaffolding to the institution of marriage, from a perspective rooted in her faith, this participant spoke of how the act of commitment by both members is to make a promise to serve each other a hundred percent, not meet each other half way in a conditional sort of way. This implies that each surrenders one’s own needs to be able to offer freely to the other, as opposed to being governed by an agenda of making the marriage and the partner a source of companionship, security etc., that is commonly understood to be the roles within this institution. That she sees the working of a principle of unity above differences playing out in this sphere enables her to extend this to living in a community, where the act of living together means a common claim to both the strengths and weaknesses of the other, accepting not only the benefits that the other brings to the group, but also owning the ‘weaknesses’ in a way that make them one’s own – the acceptance of which unlocks the frictions of living with difference.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi when speaking of trusteeship, albeit in the context of the economic challenges that would face the soon-to-become independent India, often used the metaphor of strength and weakness. In many an address to the zamindars worried about the state taking over private property, Gandhi is known to have exhorted them to consider the land they own as being shared with the ryots that till the land, to consider the riches they have been entrusted with as trustees holding it on behalf of the poor, and employing their skills to husband the resources such that they may grow and be more readily available for those that depend on it for their survival. On the other hand, while speaking to workers in both agriculture and industry, Gandhi is known to have clarified that this trusteeship principle does not mean that the vulnerable make themselves more susceptible to exploitation, but rather look at the capitalist as a neighbour of whom goodwill can and should be expected, and a model of community living where ‘one has to seek and win the willing co-operation of the other’ (Mukherjee,1993).

All this sounds rather counter intuitive, much like the character of Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1868) whose goodness and innocence seem out of place in a world created by the Russian ruling class of that time. Is that how somebody embodying the Christian ideal, as Dostoevsky is known to have modelled the character on, be seen in a world that has turned away from the life of Christ even as large swathes of the world population continue to wage war on finer points of their faith systems? And so it is also that the participant in my research who spoke of giving a hundred percent in marriage, not looking at it as a partnership where each has to meet the other half way as per the contract, seems utterly unaccounted for in our notions of what feminism stands for in today’s world, governed as it is on the abstract ethic of rights.

As I grapple with questions of who can speak for whom when it comes to people’s movements to assert their equality and the rights due to them as a consequence –in my own student community, country and the world, how does one account for the privilege one enjoys on the basis of one’s location in the caste-class-gender matrix and what a nation truly means to its citizens, I am tempted to make connections between the ‘different voice’ in which the woman participants of my research spoke, the increasingly jarring and different voice in which Mohandas Gandhi wrote the Hind Swaraj– a counter intuitive text standing in opposition to the dominant voices of that time and of course the consciously crafted different voice of ‘the idiot’ in Dostoevsky’s work. Can the feminist ethic of care, rooted in connection and community offer another/different voice to speak of the nation, where concepts of privilege/ trusteeship, citizenship, rights and relationships are renewed in the discourse surrounding nationalism?

Dostoevsky, F (1996 [1868]) The Idiot Wordsworth Editions Limited: Hertfordshire
Gilligan, C (1982) In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Mukherjee, R ed. (1993) The Penguin Gandhi Reader Penguin Books: Delhi

IMAGE: International Archives

This article is published in The New Leam, JULY Issue( Vol.2  No.13) and available in print version.To buy contact us or write at Or visit
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  1. Arguing for a feminist model of nationalism based on the ethics of care (relational, contextual, community centered, favoring attachment and cooperation) as opposed to an abstract masculine ethics of right, this article makes for a compelling and delightful read. Political theory has privileged pure reason over emotion, individual over community, conflict over cooperation, contract over compromise and mind over body. The likes of Carole Pateman (The Sexual Contract) and Martha Nussbaum (Political Emotions) have paved the way for a feminist theory by challenging capitalist patriarchy through their writings. Roopa Rantham’s research insights take us a step forward in that direction.


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