Carol Gilligan has broken new ground in psychology, challenging mainstream psychologists with her theory that accepted benchmarks of moral and personal developments were drawn to a male bias and do not apply to women. Gilligan proposed that women have different moral criteria and follow a different path in maturation. A psychologist who taught at Harvard and Cambridge, Gilligan brought a feminist perspective to challenge Freud and new life to the statement “The personal is political.”
Carol Gilligan was born on November 28, 1936, in New York City, the daughter of William E. Friedman and Mabel (Caminez) Friedman. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a teacher. Self-described as a Jewish child of the Holocaust era, she grew up with firm moral and political convictions. As a child she studied language and music. At Swarthmore, she studied literature and graduated with highest honors in 1958.
She went to Radcliffe for her master’s in clinical psychology, graduating with distinction in 1960. She got her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1964. Then, disillusioned with mainstream psychology, she left the field.
The 1960s were alive with new ideas and challenges to the establishment, and Gilligan caught the spirit. Having married James Frederick Gilligan—a medical student at Case Western Reserve—she also had the first of her three children. That did not keep her home, however. She became involved with the arts, joining a modern dance troupe. She also became active in the civil rights movement. She was part of a sort of international women’s community on campus, in dialogue with one another and keeping an eye on each other’s children.
In 1965 and 1966, Gilligan taught psychology at the University of Chicago, where she joined the other junior faculty in protesting the war in Vietnam by refusing to turn in grades that could jeopardize a student’s draft status. At the time, Gilligan wondered why members of the junior faculty were leading the protest, while the securely tenured professors—who would have risked little or nothing—held back.
Gilligan returned to teach at Harvard in 1968, working with Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg, two of the leading theorists in mainstream psychology. She observed that Erikson’s theory of identity reflected his own life, and Kohlberg’s ideas about moral dilemmas echoed his own experience. But she found that neither truly spoke to women’s identity and experience.
Gilligan noticed that approximately fifteen of the twenty-five women who signed up for Kohlberg’s class on moral development dropped it, even though it took considerable effort to get into the class. Only about five out of fifty men left. Gilligan found that women in the class proposed difficult questions of human suffering that could not be adequately addressed by moral theories of abstract rights. It was absurd to disregard these women as morally defective, yet they did not seem to fit the mold. Was there, then, a different perspective that women held in common?
Gilligan tracked down the women who left the class and interviewed them for their moral perspective. In 1975, she began writing to clarify these ideas for herself. Her first paper in this area was “In a Different Voice—Women’s Conceptions of Self and Morality.” She showed it to some students, who took it to the Harvard Educational Review. After some debate, the Review agreed to publish it.
As Gilligan pursued her idea that women held a different moral voice, she found herself moving further and further away from her colleagues. Her first book, which triggered nationwide debate, was In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, published in 1982. It argued that the standards of maturity and moral development that were generally used in psychological testing did not hold true for women. Gilligan held that women’s development was set within the context of caring and relationships, rather than in compliance with an abstract set of rights or rules. At a time when men and women across the nation were reexamining gender assumptions, Gilligan became a powerful voice.
Gilligan made a number of other contributions to the field of women’s moral and identity development. In 1989, she coedited Mapping the Moral Domain: A Contribution of Women’s Thinking to Psychological Theory with Janie Victoria Ward, Jill McLean Taylor, and Betty Bardige. In 1991, she published Making Connections: The Relational World of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School, coauthored with Nona P. Lyons and Trudy J. Hammer; Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development; and Women, Girls and Psychotherapy: Reframing Resistance, coauthored with Annie Rogers and Deborah Tolman. The Birth of Pleasure was published in 2002.
With the work came recognition. Gilligan became a full professor at Harvard in 1986. She was named Woman of the Year by Ms. magazine in 1984 and won the Grawemayer Award in Education in 1992. She held the Laurie Chair in Women’s Studies at Rutgers University in 1986–1987 and was Pitt Professor at the University of Cambridge in 1992–1993. Gilligan was named faculty fellow at the Bunting Institute in 1982–1983 and was a senior research fellow at the Spencer Foundation from 1989 to 1993. In 1997 she was appointed to Harvard University’s first position in gender studies. From 1999–2002 she was a visiting professor at the NYU School of Law. She accepted the offer of a position from NYU in 2001. That same year, she oversaw the establishment of the Harvard Center on Gender and Education, which was launched with a major contribution from Jane Fonda, who said that Gilligan’s research had been the inspiration for her gift. A portion of the donation was earmarked for the creation of an endowed faculty chair to be named for Gilligan upon her departure from Harvard. She began an interdisciplinary appointment to the NYU Schools of Education and Law in 2002 and serves as honorary chair of the Harvard Center’s advisory committee. While some of her documentation and conclusions remain controversial, it is indisputable that Gilligan changed the nature of debate in psychology. No longer was it casually acceptable to do studies excluding women and then draw conclusions about human behavior. Indeed, Gilligan altered the mainstream.
To see video clips of an interview with Carol Gilligan from the MAKERS project, click here.
Farnsworth, Lori, and Carol Gilligan. “A New Voice for Psychology.” Feminist Foremothers (1995); “Special Report: The Time 25.” Time (June 17, 1996); Tavris, Carol. The Mismeasure of Woman (1992).