Gilligan’s Theory of Women’s Moral Development

Brief Overview

Gilligan, a former student of Lawrence Kohlberg, developed the theory of moral development for women.  Gilligan, felt that Kohlbergs original theory did not account for gender difference and childhood relationships between mother and daughter.

About the Author

Carol Gilligan published “In a Different Voice” in 1982.  Her work was writing about women’s moral development after spending 30 years researching girls and their relationships.

Printable Summary (PDF)




Information submitted by Dan Marshall

Stages, Levels, Phases, and Components of the Theory


Stages, Levels, Phases, and Components of the Theory:  

  • Background: Women were viewed as deviant and unable to develop into those main factors of development as men
  • Care orientation impacts relationships with others and must carry similar weight in reflection of moral decisions
  • Idea that the sequence focuses on progressive differentiations
  • Three Levels: Two Transitions
    • Level 1: Orientation to Individual Survival
      • Focused on self and trying to survive and struggles to define the difference between need and want
      • Tendency to be isolated, relationships do not meet expectations, wants and need only are needed to maintain the self
    • First Transition: From Selfishness to Responsibility
      • Connectivity and Relations with Others
      • Independence and Selfishness shifts to connection and responsibility
      • Individual comes to understand the right thing
      • Idea of responsibility and care are integrated
    • Level 2: Goodness as Self Sacrifice
      • Defining the self and care for others
      • Reflection of conventional values
      • Disequilibrium
    • Second Transition: From Goodness to Truth
      • Others before self
      • Needs in relations to responsibility
      • Struggle to compromise the significance between care and hurt
      • More elements play into the decision making process (others and own needs)
      • Needs as truth and responsibility for decisions
    • Level 3: Morality of Nonviolence
      • Nonviolence as the main focus to determine moral action and decisions
      • Reformed idea of self and correlates with understanding of morality
        • Respect for self
        • Dissolve of selfishness and responsibility
        • Reconciliation becomes apparent
Application of Theory to Practice

The program that was examined in particular is the Women in Math, Science, and Engineering (WiMSE) Living-Learning Community (35-36). The program is one of many LLC program within Florida State University Housing, but focuses on women in STEM fields. Through the structure of the program, the participants are enrolled in a semester colloquium class which provides opportunities for research, mentorship, and academic exploration. While the program does not directly cite theory in its creation, there is a strong connection to Belenky et al.’s work on Women’s Ways of Knowing. Belenky et al.’s (1986) theory cites “connected teaching” as a means for women to nurture their own voices. One of the largest program experiences is the annual research exhibition, which showcases the projects examined by women in the program. The research experiences are mentored by a faculty member on campus, as well as connected to the student’s own interests within the STEM field. As mentioned in Belenky et al.’s theory, this form of connected teaching uses first-hand experience as knowledge, while encouraging student-initiated work patterns. The students take ownership of their own research to connect the classroom to their professional goals, all while being self-driven rather than provided by the instructor. Additionally, the program enforces connection with others through the WiMSE-to-WiMSE mentorship program, connecting new members and alumni of the program, along with the Student Activities Council, providing leadership opportunities. Combine this with the residential setting, where all the women are living on the same community floor, and you are following many of the ideas laid out within Belenky et al.’s work. As a noted Student Affairs application this program reinforces the extended work of Forrest (1988) and Fried (1988) of Belenky et al.’s work by emphasizing experiences where the women are connecting with others of similar social and professional interests.


Florida State University Housing. (2016). Living-Learning Communities Annual Report 2015-2016. Retrieved from


Submitted by Michael Rockford

Annotations of Associated Literature

Information submitted by Rod Kelley
Original Citation

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Additional Resources

This page was written and created by Stephen Dominy. The webpage is maintained by Amanda Peerce and Jesse Ford.  For information on the page, please contact Amanda Peerce at or Jesse Ford at