Emotional Health

Sex, Lies and Gender: Are Women Judged by Different Moral Standards?

Even outside the realm of sexuality, however, women are held to a higher standard. Historically, the most prized attribute a woman could aspire to be was “virtuous.” Until relatively recently, words like brave, bold, or even intelligent, when applied to men, were high praise, but seen almost as negatives when describing a woman. College was seen by some as something that could actually pervert and distort a woman’s development (or at least her virtue). Men were encouraged to make the most of themselves, and admired for “pluck.” If a few mishaps occurred along the way, boyish enthusiasm could be blamed. A blot on a woman’s record, meanwhile, could never be erased.

Men were judged by some to be actually morally superior to women. Freud, who attributed this to the more complex tasks that women faced during the Oedipal period, when they have to switch their primary love from their mothers to their fathers, saw a difference. Women tended to be loyal to their families and loved ones above all, he said, whereas men could pledge themselves to an ideal such as “love of country.” In hindsight this may have been a cultural byproduct, due to the fact that women were not allowed to involve themselves in affairs beyond the family in Freud’s day.

According to Lawrence Kohlberg, a pioneer in the research of moral development, measures showed women are inferior because they are “stuck” by their wishes to care for and please others. A professor at Harvard, he came up with a scale to judge levels of moral development, beginning with the most basic childhood “principles,” (“If I do a bad thing I’ll get in trouble.”) As you can see on this chart, a young child’s “morality” is primitive; Kohlberg called it the “pre-conventional stage.”

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Pre-conventional Stage

  1. Obedience and Punishment                        
  2. Individualism, Instrumentalism, and Exchange     

Conventional Stage      

  1. “Good boy/girl”                       
  2. Law and Order   

Post-conventional Stage

  1. Social Contract
  2. Principled Conscience


Of most interest here is the Post-conventional stage, in which people have progressed to a level of internalized ideals that they adhere to as a matter of conscience. Obeying the law, even when you can get away with not doing so, is an example. Level 6 refers to a stage that sometimes is seen “above” or “beyond” the law. The common example Kohlberg gave is that of a man who breaks into a closed pharmacy to get medicine for his wife who will die in the night without it. Another, real, example is the people who defied legal authority to save persecuted Jews during the Holocaust.

By this standard, women’s greater adherence to loved ones than the “rules” of law can be seen as a higher form of morality. What is crucial is the level of internalization of standards. People who don’t break laws because they might get caught have not incorporated standards in the same way as someone has who is honest because it’s “the right thing to do.” But even honesty, as we see in the above examples, is relative depending on the situation.

More recently, psychologist Carol Gilligan refuted both Freud and Kohlberg in her book In a Different Voice. She “explores the paradox that the very traits that have been traditionally associated with women’s goodness, their concern for and sensitivity to the needs of others, are the very qualities that have led psychologists to describe them as morally inferior to men. Gilligan argues that the issue is not one of moral superiority or inferiority, but rather that men and women have ‘two disparate modes of experience’ that affect their values and views of the world.”

Read More »

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Arlene McCarthy October 29, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    What happened in our society that men on campus think it’s ok to rape? What happened in homes where males were taught to be gentlemen? To respect women, love them and care for them. Why are there crude words men use to describe a women who has a career and gives her opinion . I would think men would be pleased that their daughters could now be breadwinners. To help raise a family together instead of the woman in the kitchen, the man earning all the money. I’m a senior citizen I was a single parent for three children, the main breadwinner and I shutter to think what would have happened to us if I could not have earned a good living.