Carol Gilligan and her Theory Regarding a Woman's Sense of Self

Carol Gilligan and her Theory Regarding a Woman's Sense of Self
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Carol Gilligan proposes a different perspective to Lawrence Kohlberg on the moral development of the human being. In fact, this psychologist, philosopher, and feminist from Harvard University, considered that Kohlberg’s problem was that he marked clear differences between the development of boys and girls in this area.

According to Kohlberg, women exhibit a certain “moral weakness”. He claimed that not only are they slower in consolidating the different levels of moral competence, but they also don’t reach the highest stage, that of the ethics of justice.

It should be noted that Carol Gilligan was extremely familiar with Kohlberg’s work because she was his research assistant between 1964 and 1967. In fact, one thing that she often stated in her papers and publications was that her mentor used hypothetical moral dilemmas clearly biased towards the male sex.

A large number of the participants in their research were children. It was thanks to this work that Gilligan later published her well-known work, In a Different Voice.

Women, unlike men, don’t focus only on respect for moral rights or the ethics of justice. According to Gilligan, they move in context, in relationships, and in a global conception that transcends the normative.

girl at dawn thinking about Carol Gilligan's theory

Carol Gilligan: A feminist perspective

To understand the significance of Carol Gilligan’s theory, we must first understand the context. It was written in the decade of the 70-80s. At this time, feminist movements sought to gain a foothold in society. Above all, they wanted to reformulate theories that evidenced gender bias.

In the same way, we must also take into account that Lawrence Kohlberg presented his doctoral thesis on moral development in 1958, within a sexist context from which he couldn’t completely isolate himself. His theory consisted of three levels, the preconventional, the conventional, and the postconventional. In each of these, there were two stages.

Kohlberg claimed that not all people reach the highest levels of moral development. In addition, he pointed out that girls scored higher in seeking approval from others. However, the boys reached higher levels of moral conscience and were more concerned with the laws of society.

Carol Gilligan’s theory came to light years later and soon became a classic in the realms of feminist literature. As a matter of fact, Time magazine recognized her as one of the 25 most influential people. However, her approach isn’t without criticism. Let’s take a look at it.

In 1977, Carol Gilligan published an article in which she reformulated Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. She added a gender perspective centered on the figure of the woman.

The stages of moral development, according to Gilligan

Carol Gilligan’s theory acquired significance after the publication of her famous article, In a Different Voice, in 1977. In this research work, she claimed that Kohlberg left the concerns and experiences of women aside.

In addition, she claimed that the sample with whom he conducted his research was clearly biased. Indeed, the majority were middle or upper-class white children or young people. Gillian proposed an alternative model with which to reveal the woman’s self in this process of moral development. We take a look at it here.

Pre-conventional morality

At this first level, there aren’t many differences from those defined by Kohlberg. Indeed, Gilligan claimed that a girl’s moral judgment focuses entirely on herself and her need to survive. In fact, they always prioritize their own needs.

However, later, comes another stage within this period. This is when the young woman begins to value her ties with others. In fact, she understands that focusing on herself is a selfish act.

Conventional morality

This stage is the most illustrative of Gilligan’s theory. As a matter of fact, one of the concepts that best define this psychologist is her perspective on the aspect of care, a dimension that’s traditionally associated with women.

Women are partly defined by their concern for others. This priority sometimes leads them to self-sacrifice and they have a tendency to not pay enough attention to themselves. In fact, it’s a kind of morality that’s centered on self-sacrifice. However, we need to remember that this theory was proposed in the 70-80s. For this reason, education and gender models mediated this perspective. This was something that Kohlberg didn’t take into account.

Within the conventional stage, there’s also a second level. It’s when women begin to become aware that they must achieve a better balance between their needs and those of others.

Postconventional morality

At this stage, Gilligan claims that the woman reaches a moral judgment dictated by the principle of non-violence, both toward herself and others. Furthermore, the needs of oneself are as important as the needs of others. Equality is key.

In this phase, a woman’s sense of self reaches its highest level as she understands that she shouldn’t be exploited.

This implies that women have to find their space in society and in their relationships. In this way, they’re able to achieve a proper balance. One in which they’re able to develop and reach their full potential, without being exclusively subordinated to promoting the well-being of others.

According to Gilligan, a woman’s sense of identity always struggles with two tendencies. These involve the need for connection and attention to others, along with the need for her own independence.

Lonely Girl Thinking Carol Gilligan's Theory

Criticisms of Gilligan’s model

One of the most common criticisms of Carol Gilligan’s theory has much to do with its focus on the idea that women need attention and nurturing. In a way, her vision once again perpetuates the role of caregivers being associated with the female gender. Her idea that men don’t care as much as women about connection and relationships has also been criticized.

Furthermore, there’s another aspect that suggests she falls into the same trap as Kohlberg did. Indeed, like her mentor, Gilligan takes it for granted that boys and girls exhibit different moral and ethical development. Therefore, once again, she perpetuates the idea of a difference between the sexes.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Gilligan C, Kohlberg L, Lerner J, Belenky M. Moral reasoning about sexual dilemmas: The development of an interviews and scoring system. Washington, DC: U.S. Commission on Obscenity and Pornography; 1971.
  • Gilligan C. In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory And Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press; 1982.
  • Gilligan C. In a Different Voice: Women’s Conceptions of Self and of Morality. Harv Educ Rev. 1977;47(4):481-517. doi:10.17763/haer.47.4.g6167429416hg5l0
  • Wilkinson S. Feminist Psychology. In: Fox D, Prilleltensky I, ed. Critical Psychology: An Introduction. 1st ed. London: Sage Publications; 1997:247-264.

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