In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development


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Carol Gilligan believes that psychology has persistently and systematically misunderstood women. Repeatedly, developmental theories have been built on observations of men's lives. Here, Gilligan attempts to correct psychology's misperceptions and refocus its view of female personality. The result reshapes our understanding of human experience.

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Dec 13, 2007

Gilligan's classic helps us hear women's voices

Carol Gilligan taught seminars at Harvard with Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg, both noted human development theorists of the 1960?s and 1970?s. Though she expresses great respect for her colleagues in her article Recovering Psyche; Reflections on Life-History and History (2004), as she worked with Erikson and Kohlberg she started asking herself questions about what was missing in the theories developed by major theorists. She observed that early theorists extrapolated their studies of boys and men to apply to all humankind. She wanted to see how these theories stood to the test of including women?s perceptions and voices. Gilligan decided to listen to, interpret, understand, and convey women?s voices, which she felt had not been heard at all or at least not clearly through the ages.

Gilligan conducted her research for In a Different Voice during the 1970?s; a time when the women?s movement gave rise to a host of writings from the women?s perspective. The Supreme Court decision on Roe vs. Wade in 1973 prompted new questions about choice and morality in Gilligan?s mind, particularly with regard to the topic of selflessness. As she listened to women?s stories about their abortion decision process, she heard the words ?should,? ?right and wrong,? and ?good or bad? in relation to women?s perception of society?s expectations. Gilligan wanted to explore the definitions of ?selfishness? and ?selflessness? in the context of this moral dilemma.

Gilligan?s book references three research studies she published between 1979 and 1981. The college study (Chickering, 1981) included 25 co-ed college students who had taken a course on moral and political choice as sophomores. They were interviewed as seniors and then five years later on topics of moral choice and self-definition. The abortion decision study (Gilligan & Belenky, 1980) focused on twenty-nine women, ages fifteen to thirty-three from diverse backgrounds who were interviewed during the first trimester of pregnancy while they decided to or not have an abortion. These women were interviewed a year following their choice. The questions again centered on definitions of morality and self. The rights and responsibilities study (Gilligan & Murphy, 1979) involved a cohort analysis of 144 males and females from nine points in time across their life cycle. In this study questions were asked about self, morality and judgments related to hypothetical dilemmas.

Gilligan claims that society equates masculinity with separation and femininity with connection. Gilligan describes three progressive stages of moral development in women; survival, goodness, and care. She ties these stages to Kohlberg?s three perspectives on moral conflict and choice; preconventional (morals based on individual needs), conventional (in alignment with social norms and values), and postconventional (a reflective view of societal values). She concludes that as women progress through these stages of moral maturity, they develop greater self-esteem, accept more responsibility and become more honest and reflective in their contextual understanding of moral issues. Essentially, they develop their "voice" as they mature to a moral developmental stage of care.

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