Jewniversity : Carol Gilligan

In his latest 'Jewniversity' column examining the work of Jewish academics, David Edmonds considers feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan


There are feminists who believe that there are no psychological or cognitive differences between men and women. And then there are feminists like Carol Gilligan.

Gilligan was born in New York in 1936 into a middle class family. Her father was a lawyer, her mother a teacher. Both her parents were active in support of Holocaust refugees who made it to New York City. Carol went to Hebrew school three times a week, sang in the synagogue choir and grew up, she says, “with a love of Jewish ritual”.

By 1964 she had gained degrees at Swarthmore, Radcliffe and a PhD in psychology from Harvard. She then began teaching at Harvard, and worked as a researcher alongside the famous psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg (son of a German-Jewish businessman). Kohlberg posited that there were various stages in our moral development. As infants, we obey our parents to avoid punishment. By the time we reach adulthood, we have learnt to adopt universal ethical principles (eg “lying is wrong”).

Gilligan’s critique was that Kohlberg systematically focused on boys, men and masculine development. Many women, she observed, dropped out of his class. Why was that? Could it be that women approached moral questions differently? Maybe women found something alienating about the so-called ‘highest’ stage of development?

One of Kohlberg’s dilemmas involved a man named Heinz. Heinz faced this problem. His wife was dying. To save her, he needed to steal a drug (since he could not afford to buy it). Subjects were asked, ‘What should Heinz do?‘ Boys, she noted, typically see this as a tension between values, property and life. But girls and women don’t respond in the same way. “Was it possible for the husband to get a loan?”, a girl might ask. “What would happen if the husband was caught, went to jail and then couldn’t look after his wife?”

Gilligan also interviewed many women contemplating having an abortion. The female way of looking at problems, she concluded, involved questions of care, relationships and responsibilities.

The issue was less, “Do I have a right to an abortion?”, and more, for example, “who will be affected, who might be hurt?”

This approach, not couched in the language of abstract truths, was belittled, she argued; yet it was no less valid.

Her breakthrough book, In a Different Voice was published in 1982 and, remarkably for an academic work, was translated into multiple languages and sold 700,000 copies. Gilligan, who told The Jewish Chronicle that Jewish identity remains a central part of her identity, says that her ethical concerns and her ear for “who does and does not have a voice that is listened to and heard” reflect her Jewish heritage.

After publication of In a Different Voice Gilligan became the unofficial leader of “difference feminism.” In 1996, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People.

But already her research was coming come under intense scrutiny, and being attacked from all directions. The most damaging assault has centred on her qualitative methodology, and the nature of her rather unstructured interviews. Critics contend that her techniques lacked rigour; many other studies have failed to replicate the claim that there are significant gender differences in moral judgement.

Gilligan herself has modified some of her earlier views, though she continues to insist on the validity and significance of the ethics of care.

Nonetheless, her principal legacy is that she changed the nature of psychological debate. Were it not for her, research into the psychology of gender differences might not exist at all. And social psychologists are now mindful that their studies contain both male and female subjects.

What’s more, thanks to Gilligan, it is no longer assumed that the summit of moral development is an Olympian objectivity and detachment, far removed from the particularities of messy human affairs.

David Edmonds (@DavidEdmonds100) is a senior research associate at Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive