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Who is Carol Gilligan?

Katharine Swan
Katharine Swan

American psychologist Carol Gilligan was born in 1936 to a lawyer and a schoolteacher. Although her bachelor’s degree was in English literature, she went on to pursue a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a doctorate in social psychology. Gilligan began her career at Harvard in 1967, teaching alongside Erik Erikson, one of the most well known developmental psychologists.

Carol Gilligan is best known for her work on moral development in girls and women. Based on interviews of women who were deciding whether to have an abortion and men who were considering fighting in the Vietnam War, Gilligan devised a theory of how women’s stages moral development differed from men’s. Her theories were published in her 1982 book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development.

Carol Gilligan began her career at Harvard in the 1960s.
Carol Gilligan began her career at Harvard in the 1960s.

Gilligan’s theory of moral development in women and girls consisted of three levels. In the first level, moral reasoning is based entirely around what is best for one’s self. A girl or woman in the second stage, on the other hand, makes decisions based on a sense of goodness as well as self-sacrifice. The third and most sophisticated stage of feminine moral reasoning, Gilligan held, valued truth as well as self-sacrifice; in this stage, women are able to reason through consequences and the impact that one’s actions has on others.

Carol Gilligan’s stages of moral reasoning are very similar to the theory of moral development that was proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg. Gilligan worked closely with Kohlberg in the 1970s as his research assistant. Based on the work she did with Kohlberg, Gilligan devised her own theory about how girls and women developed moral reasoning. She argued that Kohlberg had based his theory solely on interviews with white men and boys who were reasonably well off, basing his findings on a relatively small percentage of the population. Therefore, factors that play into the most sophisticated levels of moral reasoning in women, such as truth and self-sacrifice, were considered inferior in Kohlberg’s model.

Because of her views that women were different than men, Carol Gilligan is considered the founder of difference feminism. Difference feminism holds that women think, feel, and behave differently than men, but that because men are upheld as the standard, what is normal for women is therefore considered inferior to what is normal for men. However, critics argue that Gilligan’s theory is unfounded, citing recent studies that find little or no differences in how men and women think.

Regardless of whether her theory of female moral development is accurate, Carol Gilligan’s work helped to encourage the field of psychology to include women and girls in studies and theories.

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    • Carol Gilligan began her career at Harvard in the 1960s.
      Carol Gilligan began her career at Harvard in the 1960s.