Women in Psychology

Today's podcast is a special episode and will be a little different in that I am going to be the lone voice you hear. This is Women's History Month as celebrated in the United States. I thought it would be fun to do a little research on women in the field of mental health who have made a significant impact. 

If one were to walk the halls of a museum of psychology, there would hang the pictures of many familiar names—Freud, Erickson, Adler, Rogers, Skinner, Piaget, Bandura, Maslow, and on and on. Perhaps the only difference that one would notice in these photos is whether or not the person wore glass or  had a gray beard! Psychology has definitely been built with a white, male voice. 

Omission of women from history is not unique to psychology, of course. As Gerda Lerner (1979), an American historian well known for her work in women's history, pointed out, "Traditional history has been written and interpreted by men in an androcentric frame of reference; it might quite properly be described as the history of men. The very term "Women's History" calls attention to the fact that something is missing from historical scholarship." (p. xiv) 

The reality is that women have been contributing to psychology since its earliest days. Estimates suggest that in the early 1900s, roughly 12% of psychologists in the United States were women. However, many of these pioneering women in psychology faced considerable discrimination, obstacles, and difficulties. Many were not allowed to study with men, were denied degrees they had rightfully earned, or found it difficult to secure academic positions that would allow them to research and publish.

One of the pictures you would find in that hall of psychology fame is James McKeen Cattell. He was a highly visible and influential member of the psychological establishment, centrally involved in founding and controlling the early direction of the American Psychological Association (APA). In 1906, Cattell published the first edition of American Men of Science, a biographical directory containing more than 4,000 individuals in North America who had contributed to the scientific sciences. In order to be included in this important directory, an individual had to have contributed to the advancement of science or be a member of certain national societies. Because of Cattell's connections, it is not surprising that one of his primary resources was the APA, which in 1906 was 14 years old and had about 175 members.  

Mary Whiton Calkins

Although the name of this publication was American Men of Science, there were a handful of women included. Three women received stars in the first edition of AMS, placing them among the scientists whom Cattell had identified in 1903 as the most meritorious in the country. They were Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930), Christine Ladd Franklin (1847-1930), and Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939), who ranked 12th, 19th, and 42nd among 50 starred psychologists.

Being allowed to study was the first of a host of educational battles these women would face. Ladd-Franklin wrote in her journal at age 19:

I have gained an important point with my grandmother. She says she thinks Auntie ought to send me to Vassar. She objected that at the end of four years I should be too old to get married. I assured her that it would afford me great pleasure to entangle a husband but there was no one [in] the place who would have me or whom I would have and out of this place I was destined never to go, gave her statistics of the great excess of females in New England and proved that as I was decidedly not handsome my chances were very small. Therefore since I could not find a husband to support me I must support myself and to do so I needed an education. Grandma succumbed.

These women began their graduate studies as "special students" at their colleges, designated with the "special" status as a reflection of the female-exclusionary policies of these institutions, policies that were waived only partially for them. Though both Ladd-Franklin and Calkins completed all requirements, each was denied the doctorate. Washburn transferred from Columbia to Cornell where she was eligible for both a degree and a fellowship. There she studied under E. B. Titchener and in 1894 became the first woman to receive a PhD in psychology.

Employment for women in psychology was almost totally limited to the women's colleges. Exclusion from the research universities, then the centers of professional activity, limited the women's research activities as well as their interaction with the leading figures in the emerging field of psychology. In describing some of the advantages of being at the women's colleges, Patricia Palmieri wrote, "These academic women did not shift their life-courses away from the communal mentality as did many male professionals; nor did they single mindedly adhere to scientific rationalism, specialization, social science objectivity, or hierarchical association in which vertical mobility took precedence over sisterhood." 

At Wellesley, where Mary Calkins taught, women had to forego marriage and motherhood, because like other institutions of higher education in that era, it did not consider it acceptable to include married women on its faculty. An educated woman was faced with what was then termed the "cruel choice"—marriage or career. Unlike Calkins and Washburn, Ladd-Franklin did get married, rendering her ineligible for consideration as a candidate for an academic position. None of the married women at that time had regular or permanent academic affiliations. Their career patterns did not come with professional advancement. 

Despite the many obstacles, Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930) found a way to prominence, becoming the first woman to serve as President of the APA. She established one of the first psychological laboratories in the country at Wellesley College and published four books and over a hundred papers in psychology and philosophy.

Christine Ladd-Franklin

Christine Ladd-Franklin's role as a female leader in psychology began early in life, as both her mother and aunt were staunch supporters of women's rights. This early influence not only helped her succeed in her field despite considerable opposition, it also inspired her later work advocating for women's rights in academia. A brilliant mathematician, logician, astronomer and psychologist, Christine Ladd Franklin (1847-1930) is best known at this point for her study of color vision, rejecting the predominant theory established by the German Hermann von Helmholtz.

An avid journaler, her writing provides a lot of insight into the battles she faced as a professional woman. As someone who can not keep a journal, one of my favorite quotes from Ladd Franklin came when she seems to have become fed up with the practice. "There is nothing more foolish than to write a journal, except the very act and fact of being such a foolish, stupid person". Just kidding to all of you faithful journal writers.

Behind Calkins, Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939) was the second woman to serve as the president of the American Psychological Association. She published something like 127 articles over a span of 35 years, studying and writing on comparative psychology on her work with a wide variety of animals.

Tsuruko Haraguchi

On the far side of the globe around this same time, Tsuruko Haraguchi graduated two years ahead of her classmates from Takasaki Women’s High School in 1902. Women during this period were not permitted to attend Japanese universities for graduate studies and women’s private colleges were not officially recognized as universities or colleges for several more decades. So Haraguchi traveled alone to New York in 1907 to pursue a doctorate in psychology at Teacher’s College of Columbia University under supervisor E. L. Thorndike, another man pictured the hall of fame. Haraguchi’s dissertation at Columbia focused on mental fatigue. Her research on fatigue explored topics such as the influence of mental work on physiological processes and on the efficiency of mental functions. Her dissertation was translated into several languages, was cited by Thorndike in the journal Educational Psychology, and was replicated by other scientists. Haraguchi’s lesser known work includes research on female independence, international studies, and married couples. Haraguchi returned to Japan with her new husband and two small children. She extended and translated her doctoral thesis in Japanese under the title Studies on Mental Work and Fatigue, which was published in 1914, and she translated *Hereditary Genius *by Sir Francis Galton into Japanese. Sadly, Haraguchi contracted and died of tuberculosis at the young age of 29. Haraguchi’s legacy and inspiration lives on through her work and through several documentaries conducted on her life. It would have been amazing to see what she could have accomplished if Tsuruko Haraguchi had lived a long life.

Anna Freud

Back to our male-dominated hall of psychology fame, Sigmund Freud is probably the most recognized name in psychology, but it's his daughter Anna who we're going to focus on today. I have often wondered about Anna's life… Can you imagine having Sigmund Freud as your dad? "Really, dad? The Oedipus Complex? Penis envy??" 

Anna was born the youngest of Freud's six children. Anna was described as unruly and  restless; she grew up struggling with depression and possibly an eating disorder. She had a contentious relationship with her older sister, Sofia; she once said to her dad, "I am glad that Sophie is getting married, because the unending quarrel between us was horrible for me." More than anything she sought the admiration of her father. Unfortunately it seems he often treated her more as a patient than a daughter, using her in his studies on psychoanalysis. She once said that she learned more from listening to her father and his conversations with their frequent guests than she did at school; at age 15, she began reading Sigmund’s books, and was sitting in on meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. 

Anna Freud built on her father’s work by identifying different defense mechanisms in her 1936 book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. Defense mechanisms like denial, repression, and suppression have made their way into our everyday language. But what I have always appreciated about Anna is her work with children. She is not the first to do psychoanalysis with children, but it was Anna who first systematised and refined child psychoanalysis into a distinct form of therapy. This is despite her father's disbelief that children could be psychoanalyzed. In 1941, Anna Freud opened a kindergarten and several homes for children in London. She had studied Maria Montessori and she was moved by all those little ones she saw traumatized by war. So she devoted herself to working with children.

She based the development of her theories on her father’s approach. But when Anna began her psychotherapy sessions, she avoided assuming the “paternal” figure that was so typical of psychoanalysis. She knew children needed a warm, friendly, and relaxed environment in order to communicate comfortably. She was the first to make use of games as a mechanism to enter the emotional world of the child, thus being the first to provide play therapy. She aimed to interact with children using intimacy and their own language. So the classic therapist’s couch was replaced with a playroom.

Mamie Phipps Clark

Our next highlighted woman does not have the name recognition of a Freud. If you have heard about Mamie Phipps Clark it was likely only in passing. This woman made many important contributions to psychology, but her gender and the color of her skin have kept her from receiving the prominence she deserves. In 1917, Mamie Phipps Clark was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the daughter of a doctor and his wife who actively participated in his practice. Mamie was encouraged to pursue education and at Howard University she met her husband and found her passion in the field of psychology. She graduated magna cum laude and went on to graduate school, birthing two children in the process. Her master's thesis work was centered on the formation of racial identity and self-esteem in black children. She concluded that children became aware of their "blackness" very early in their childhood (likely by age 4 or 5), and it was precisely this conclusion that became the foundation for the Clark's famous doll studies that I'll explain in a minute. ​​In 1943, she earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University. Not only was she the first and only Black woman in the entire program, but she also became the second African-American to earn a doctorate from Columbia, the first being her husband. Power couple.

It is unfortunately not a surprise that Clark struggled to find work due to considerable prejudice based on both her race and her sex. She explained, "Although my husband had earlier secured a teaching position at the City College of New York, following my graduation it soon became apparent to me that a Black female with a Ph.D. in psychology was an unwanted anomaly in New York City in the early 1940s."

In 1946, Clark and her husband founded the Northside Center for Child Development, which was the first agency to offer psychological services to children and families living in the Harlem area of New York City. 

Working together, the Clarks developed a new method of assessing racial identification and preferences: the Dolls Test. In this test, children ages 3 through 7 were presented with four dolls that were identical except for skin and hair color. To assess racial preference, the children responded to the following requests by picking one of the dolls and handing it to the experimenter: “1) Give me the doll that you like to play with or like best; 2) Give me the doll that is a nice doll; 3) Give me the doll that looks bad; and 4) Give me the doll that is a nice color.” The children were then asked to make racial identifications (e.g., “Give me the doll that looks like a colored child”) and self-identification (“Give me the doll that looks like you”). They tested kids in segregated schools in the south and in integrated schools in the north. The Clarks discovered that many of the southern children appeared to have internalized a passive, resigned acceptance of their inferior racial status, while children in the racially mixed schools seemed more aware of the injustice of racial discrimination and were more actively upset by it. They concluded that integration was a key to helping children, both black and white, achieve healthy racial self-identification and to improve race relations.

Mamie Phipps Clark played an important role in the civil rights movement, as her work with her husband demonstrated that the concept of "separate but equal" provided a far from equal education for Black youth. It was the Clark's work and her expertise in black children's self-perception - that provided social scientific evidence that was highly influential in the Supreme Court's decision in the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education case.

Clark served as the Director of the Northside Center in Harlem from 1946 - the year of its inception - until her retirement in 1979. She died on August 11, 1983.

Dr. Martha Bernal

Another important woman in psychology has a name you likely do not recognize. Her parents having immigrated from Mexico, Dr. Martha Bernal was born in San Antonio in 1931. Bernal remembered being treated differently because of her skin color and her accent from as early as elementary school. Her schools in El Paso, Texas were segregated, and she and her Spanish-speaking peers were forbidden to speak Spanish at school. Bernal described this instilling a sense of shame about her heritage. At the same time, however, she recalls a strong connection with her identity as a person of color. Later in her career, this identity would become the focus of her work.

Bernal wanted to study psychology, but her father was highly opposed as he felt that higher education for women was not necessary as she really just needed to find a husband and have children. The women in the family finally wore him down and she was given permission to pursue her master's degree at Syracuse. In 1962, Bernal achieved the distinction of becoming the first Latina to earn a PhD in psychology in the United States.

Bernal studied learning theory and methods to the treatment and assessment of children with behavior problems. Through both her scholarship and professional activities, she helped to advance a multicultural psychology - one that recognizes the importance of diversity in training, recruitment, and research. One of her highest priorities became the promotion, recruitment, and training for other Hispanic psychologists, and she became a pioneer in the study of ethnic identity.

Few women will ever know the kind of discrimination that Martha Bernal experienced in her lifetime, and few will ever achieve as much as she did despite it. As a lesbian woman of color from a working class background, Bernal could have been roadblocked by the prejudice and obstacles around her, but instead she used the support she got from her family and friends to inspire her and motivate her to achieve spectacular success in her chosen field.

Part of her obituary stated that Dr. Bernal was,  “… passionate about her ideas, she spoke out effectively against injustice, she maintained high standards of scholarship and professionalism, she demonstrated much compassion for fellow human beings, and she had considerable energy.”

Other "hidden figures" in Psychology

I have so much appreciation and honor that I want to extend to Mary Whiton Calkins, Christine Ladd Franklin, Margaret Floy Washburn, Tsuruko Haraguchi, Anna Freud, Mamie Phipps Clark, and Martha Bernal for being strong, ambitious, pioneering women in those early days of psychology. As I was researching for this podcast, I struggled with who I could include because there are so many inspiring women in the history of this field. I wanted to tell the stories of:

  • Karen Horney who went up against Sigmund Freud's misogynistic theories. 
  • Inez Prosser, the first Black woman who earned a PhD in psychology.
  • Marigold Linton, the first American Indian to receive a doctorate in psychology, whose research on long-term memory continues to be widely cited.
  • Mary Ainsworth and her amazing work on attachment theory.
  • Melanie Klein, an innovator in play therapy.
  • Eleonor Maccoby, the first woman to chair the psychology department at Stanford University, and, by her own description, the first woman to ever deliver a lecture at Stanford wearing a pantsuit. 

And then there's the ladies in my own psychology history. Those who have encouraged, taught, and inspired me in a personal way:

  • Dr. June Breninger — my first mentor in the field who demonstrated deep and abiding care for every person she encountered.
  • Dr. Wendy Miller — the supervisor who always seemed to have the right words at the right moments.
  • Dr. Terry Kottman — whose book on Adlerian play therapy changed the course of my life.
  • and Dr. Adrienne Baggs — an educator whose kindness and use of mindfulness has smoothed the way in my PhD studies.

If you are interested in more information on the women I discussed today, I got a lot of great information from a number of helpful sources:

  • The women in psychology timeline at apa.com
  • 10 women who helped change psychology at verywellmind.com
  • feministvoices.com
  • a 1986 article in American Psychologist titled, "Placing Women in the History of Psychology" by Laurel Furumoto & Elizabeth Scarborough 
  • and individual biography pages of the various women.

In this Women's History Month, I hope you will take some time to reflect on or research women who have been overlooked in their contributions to making this world a better place. To my fellow contemporary women in mental health, I see you and I appreciate and value you. You are making your mark on the world in big ways and small ways. I would love to hear of the women who inspire you, so drop a comment or send me a note. 

Thanks for listening in. Oh, and "Are your notes finished yet?"

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