Pioneering psychologist Carol Gilligan changed the way the field of psychology studied women and, arguably, the way society views women. While working with leading psychologists Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg, she observed that their theories described their personal fields of experience and began to question why dominant philosophical models and moral theories of abstract rights failed to draw women into the conversation. Her groundbreaking work In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development sparked a national debate. Whereas men developed their moral voice in the context of an “ethics of justice,” she argued, women developed their approach through an “ethics of care.” While some of her conclusions remain controversial, Gilligan was formative in how psychological studies are conducted and the very nature of debate on gender and moral development.
The pioneering work of American psychologist Carol Gilligan changed the way the field of psychology studied women and arguably—because of her influence in popular culture and the feminist movement—the way society views women. Gilligan challenged mainstream psychology through her interrogation of the accepted benchmarks of moral and personal development, which she argued were drawn to a male bias that does not describe the psychology of women. Gilligan proposed that women have different moral criteria and follow a different path in maturation.
Family, Education, and Early Career
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. A self- described Jewish child of the Holocaust era, she grew up with firm moral and political convictions. As a child she studied language and music and graduated from Swarthmore College, where she studied literature, 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.
Although her academic training beckoned Gilligan towards a bright future in the profession of psychology, she seemed to push against establishment almost immediately upon securing all her hard-earned credentials. Gilligan caught the spirit of the 1960s, turning her piercing eye on people underrepresented in the establishment and seeking new ways of looking at the very formation of the establishment itself.
Newly married to James Frederick Gilligan, a medical student at Case Western Reserve, and the new mother of the first of her three children, Gilligan explored her creative side by joining a modern dance troupe and affirmed her social activist commitments 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. What struck Gilligan at the time, and would inspire her to question mainstream psychological ideas about moral development in her blockbuster book a decade later, was the observation that tenured professors with little professional risk, held back while junior faculty were leading the protest.
Developing a Feminist Theory of Moral Development
When Gilligan returned to Harvard in 1968 to work with leading psychologists Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg, she observed that their theories seemed to describe their personal field of experience. That is, she found that Erikson’s theory of identity reflected his own life and Kohlberg’s ideas about moral dilemmas echoed his own experience. At the same time, Gilligan found that neither truly spoke to her own identity and experience.
Gilligan turned her professional setting into her research laboratory. She noticed that approximately fifteen of the twenty-five women who signed up for Kohlberg’s class on moral development dropped out of the course, even though it took considerable effort to get into the class, compared to only five out of fifty men. Women in the class reported that Kohlberg’s models and theories failed to address their questions of human suffering. Gilligan began to question why dominant philosophical models and moral theories of abstract rights failed to persuade or draw women into the conversation.
Gilligan tracked down the women who left the class and interviewed them for their 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. Her initial success paved the way for further efforts in mapping the moral constellations of women, culminating in her first book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (1982).
Sparking a national debate, Gilligan’s In a Different Voice argued that the reason that the themes of rationalism and abstract moral choices loomed so large in developmental psychology was because mainstream definitions of moral development centered a male subject who could assume his voice could be an agent of social change. If diagnostic tools assumed a male-centric perspective in relationship to an abstract set of rights and societal rules, Gilligan maintained that women tended to develop their moral consciousness more within the interpersonal context of their primary relationships and with the sense that their voices and choices could influence a much more personal sphere. Whereas men developed their moral voice in the context of an “ethics of justice,” Gilligan argued, women developed their approach through an “ethics of care.”
At a time when Americans were reexamining gender assumptions, Gilligan became a powerful voice for the unique sensibilities and experiences of women. The object relations school of psychoanalysis would discredit Gilligan’s dichotomization by arguing that the human personality, regardless of gender, develops through their relationships to their early caretakers. Feminist scholars also criticized Gilligan’s work as attributing her observations to gendered psychologies rather than socially constructed ways that boys and girls learn to express themselves. For example, boys might be more likely to describe their individual choices in the language of rationalism because they were expected to view themselves as inheritors and agents of civilization, whereas girls might be more likely to ascribe their choices to their own motivations because they were expected to take on more personal responsibility in conversation with adults.
Gilligan’s career has been celebrated both on the professional stage and in popular culture. She 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. She later 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.
Gilligan became a full professor at Harvard in 1986 and was appointed as the first chair in gender studies at Harvard University. She was named Woman of the Year by Ms. magazine in 1984, won the Grawemayer Award in Education in 1992, and was named by Time Magazine one of the top 25 most influential Americans in 1996. 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. She moved to New York University in 2001 and oversaw the establishment of the Harvard Center on Gender and Education the same year. The Center 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. Gilligan began an interdisciplinary appointment to the NYU Schools of Education and Law in 2002. In 2008, she published her first work of fiction; Kyra follows an architect who connects with a theater director over their mutual loss of their spouses to political violence in Europe.
While some of her documentation and conclusions remain controversial, it is indisputable that Gilligan was formative in the way that psychological studies are created and conducted, the consideration of women’s experiences in the discussion on human development, and the very nature of debate on gender and moral development.
To see video clips of an interview with Carol Gilligan from the MAKERS project, click here.
Selected Works by Carol Gilligan
The Birth of Pleasure. New York: Knopf, 2002.
Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development, with Lyn Mikel Brown. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
Women, Girls and Psychotherapy: Reframing Resistance, coauthored with Annie Rogers and Deborah Tolman. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Making Connections: The Relational World of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School, coauthored with Nona P. Lyons and Trudy J. Hammer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Mapping the Moral Domain: A Contribution of Women’s Thinking to Psychological Theory, coedited with Janie Victoria Ward, Jill McLean Taylor, and Betty Bardige. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Farnsworth, Lori and Carol Gilligan. “A New Voice for Psychology.” Feminist Foremothers: Women’s Studies, Psychology, Mental Health. New York: Routledge, 1995.
“Special Report: The Time 25.” Time, June 17, 1996.
Tavris, Carol. The Mismeasure of Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.