The civil uprisings and scientific progress of the 1960s ignited a transformation of the role of women in society. During the infancy of the birth control pill, a woman’s body came under her jurisdiction, a leap away from chance and a partner’s cooperation in the form of a condom.

Womankind made another leap forward in 1973 when Roe vs. Wade decided it was a woman’s choice if she gave birth or decided to terminate her pregnancy. Enter Carol Gilligan in 1977, not yet famous for her iconic feminism, jump-started by her work on the differences between men and women.

Gilligan (1977) observes that society “tried to fashion women out of a masculine cloth.” Naturally, the women would come up short, since they were women within men’s concepts, wearing masculine ideals at best, not the real thing.

Carol Gilligan is best known for her ground-breaking concepts of human moral development. Not “woman’s morality”, but human morality. She studied under Lawrence Kohlberg whose theories of stages of development felt inadequate, thus inspiring her to form a new theory that addressed the other half of society.

According to Griffin (1991) Freud claimed that “Women show less sense of justice than men,” they are more influenced by feelings. While Piaget contended that “the most superficial observation is sufficient to show that legal sense is far less developed in little girls than in boys.”

Since Kohlberg’s studies focused on adolescent boys, females on average would score lower on his levels of morality (Ericka I. 2016). This model was a smaller version of the problem at large, which was that society was a study of men reporting findings of men. In a world where the male is the standard, being human meant being male.

Gilligan’s Stages of Moral Development is called Care Based Morality. At the Pre-conventional stage, an individual’s survival is their main goal in decision making. Basically, save yourself and forget everything and everyone else. When a person shifts from complete self-centeredness to responsibility for others they arrive at the Conventional Stage.

At this level self-sacrifice is considered goodness. So, the person who gets hurt is the self while others are appeased. The next transition is from goodness to truth. Those arriving at the Postconventional Stage act on a principle of nonviolence when possible and make a decision to not hurt others or themselves. In this care-based model, levels are transcended by changes in the sense of self, not cognitive capability.

It is acknowledged that some men might experience moral development in a care-based way and that some women will experience it in a justice-based model that was Kohlberg’s emphasis. The care-based model is something that more women will intersect with but is not exclusively for women (Gilligan, 1977).

Instead of hypothetical moral dilemmas, Gilligan was able to test her theory on the very real dilemmas of 29 pregnant women considering abortion. As predicted the women made their choice within a care orientation rather than a justice orientation.

An exercise in “Care” being responsible and minimizing hurt. This employs sensitivity, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and peacemaking. These interpersonal connections differ from justice-based morality, which is more impersonal.

Gilligan (1991) elucidates, “Adolescence seems to be a watershed in female development. As the river of a girl’s life flows into the sea of Western culture she is in danger of drowning or disappearing.” The struggle is when this passage from girlhood to womanhood delivers a woman to a man’s world.

The goal is to connect her life to the history of culture in a world where for the most part being human means being a man (Gilligan, 1991). Carol Gilligan continues to support equality and female resistance as a professor at New York University and Cambridge University. Her work is widely esteemed for inspiring the 1994 Gender Equity in Education Act.


Gilligan, C. (1977). In a Different Voice: Womens Conceptions of Self and of Morality. Harvard Educational Review,47(4), 481-517. doi:10.17763/haer.47.4.g6167429416hg5l0

Gilligan, C. (spring – summer 1991). Teaching Shakepeare’s sister: notes from the underground of female adolescence. Women’s Studies Quarterly,19,31-51. Retrieved March 1, 2018,from

Griffin, E. A. (1991). A first look at communication theory.New York: McGraw-Hill.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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