Making History More Inclusive // Vanessa Facemire, MA, LPC

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As a graduate assistant, I have been incredibly fortunate to get a placement at the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology. As home to the Archives of the History of American Psychology, the Cummings Center is not only an incredible resource to scholars worldwide, it also holds the distinction of being the most comprehensive research facility in the world, dedicated solely to the history of psychology. With its mission of preserving, organizing, and documenting the historical record of psychology, and with a special emphasis on making the historical record more complete by highlighting important underrepresented groups, my unyielding appetite and passion for social justice has been slaked.

Although the work that I get to do at the Cummings Center is incredibly gratifying, it can also be incredibly frustrating. One of the projects I have been privileged to be involved with includes doing research for the Center’s series of Five Minute History Lessons. I was tasked with doing research for a lesson about Ruth Winifred Howard, one of the first African American women to earn a Ph.D. in psychology in 1934. I was excited to delve into the history of Black women in psychology, but as I began to do research for the lesson, I quickly became dismayed by the lack of information that I could find on Dr. Howard. Other pioneers in psychology have rich and extensive historical records in various archives around the world, which are both easily searched and easily found. However, despite rising through the ranks of academia, during a time when women, much less African American women, were not readily pursuing college degrees, and despite her tireless effort to overcome rigid gender-role stereotyping in both academia and greater society, I was hard-pressed to find any primary source material to illustrate Dr. Howard’s incredible journey.

This illuminated how incredibly important the Center’s mission of making the historical record more complete is for both the history of psychology and its future. Where would we be without amazing female pioneers in the field!?

From trailblazers like Mary Whiton Calkins, who was denied acceptance to Harvard University, but persevered and completed her coursework, thesis, and examinations under William James. She went on to have a career of considerable accomplishment, becoming the first woman to establish a psychological laboratory and the first female president of the APA in 1905.

To Leta Stetter Hollingworth, who is arguably the most influential early pioneer in the field of the psychology of women. She despised the boundaries society placed on women and through a series of studies in the 1910s demonstrated that the purported variability differences between men and women did not exist. This work and other studies earned her the title of “the scientific pillar” of the women’s suffrage movement culminating in women gaining the right to vote and the subsequent passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

To pioneers like Inez Beverly Prosser and Ruth Winifred Howard, who became the first two African American women to earn Ph.D.’s in psychology, overcoming insurmountable odds (the intersection of their sex and race) through their tenacity and determination. Prosser’s dissertation provided a foundation for how to best educate black students and laid groundwork for issues relating to education, reform, social development, racial identity, and other prominent topics related to segregation. Whereas Howard, whose humanitarianism shown throughout her esteemed career and clinical practice, sought to assist the unemployed and undereducated, and troubled youth.

These women have paved a path that many generations of women have since followed; yet their stories are often overlooked and unheard.

The past 50 years represents a profound shift in psychology. Whereas women once represented a minority of doctorates, they now represent the majority. Feminist pioneers in the field, such as the aforementioned few, were instrumental to this shift. It is essential for current and future feminists to be able to explore the roots of their feminist ancestry and to appreciate the foundation that these women created in their fight against the status quo. For me, exploring the historical roots of the field of psychology of women is incredibly inspiring. I have found myself blown away by the tenacity, strength, and confidence of these women to go against the grain and fight for what they believed in. This has made my experience working at the Cummings Center very special and meaningful. 

Elizabeth Scarborough stated, “If we are to construct a fully-fledged women’s history of psychology, we need more than a record of women’s life experiences.  We need now to determine women’s effect on the field.” Making history more inclusive is certainly part of the mission of the Center, and I would argue, should be part of the mission of the new wave of feminist psychology. The number of collections representing female psychologists in archives is small and the number for female women of color is even lesser.  We need to advocate for the expansion of history to include the important contributions of women and women of color and encourage the donation of materials documenting the psychology of women to archives like those housed at the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology.

Written by//
Vanessa Facemire, MA, LPC

Selected references and resources for further inquiry//
Benjamin, L. T. (2014) A brief history of modern psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Benjamin, L. T. (2009). A history of psychology: Original sources and contemporary research. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Scarborough, E. & Furumoto, L. (1987). Untold lives: The first generation of American women psychologists. New York: Columbia University Press.

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