Looking Back: A Very Brief and Woefully Incomplete History of Women in Psychology // Stephanie E.V. Brown

March. Also known as National Celery Month, National Caffeine Awareness Month, and National Cheerleading Safety Month. Most importantly, (although you may think caffeine awareness is the most important thing ever as a student), March is Women’s History Month! As we enter the middle of the month, I propose we look back at some of the women who overcame a variety of hardships and prejudice to promote psychological science, paving the way for future generations of women in psychology.

Margaret Floy Washburn – Dr. Washburn was the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Psychology. She graduated from Cornell University in 1894, and dedicated her career to studying animal cognition and physiological processes. She pursued an academic career, teaching and conducting research at Wells College, Cornell University, the University of Cincinnati, and Vassar College. She was the only female faculty member at the University of Cincinnati.

Inez Beverly Prosser – Dr. Prosser was the first black woman to earn a doctoral degree in psychology, graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1933. While her life was cut tragically short by a car accident, she was instrumental in the study of segregation in schools. She noted that black students were negatively affected by feelings of injustice, racism, and isolation. She believed that while some students would do well in integrated schools, others might thrive in segregated schools.

Mamie Phipps Clark – Dr. Clark was the first black woman to earn a degree from Columbia University. Graduating in 1943, she is most known for the Clark Doll Test. Her landmark study and master’s thesis using this test was cited in the infamous Brown v. Board of Education case of 1951 as proof that segregation caused psychological harm to the children involved. This study looked at self-identification of young children. At the time, black and white children attributed positive characteristics to the white skinned dolls and negative characteristics to the black-skinned dolls. Prejudice and segregation were noted to cause feeling of inferiority and self-loathing in black children. She later founded the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem to provide therapy for local children.

Leta Hollingworth – While Dr. Hollingworth studied exceptional children later in her career, she started by challenging the idea that women were less naturally gifted or talented than men. She conducted a study measuring variability amongst 2000 male and female babies, finding that there were no differences between the sexes other than males being slightly larger. She used these findings to argue that there were no innate differences to account for the fact that men take on a variety of jobs at a variety of intellectual levels – it was simply a matter of social influence that lead most women into the position of mother and homemaker. She also challenged the notion that women were psychologically impaired during their menstrual cycles. She went on to teach at Columbia Teacher’s College.

Karen Horney – Dr. Horney graduated from medical school in Berlin, and came to the United States to escape Nazi control in Germany.  She treated neuroses in patients using psychotherapy, a method of treatment she was experienced having suffered from depression her whole life. However, she began to drift away from psychotherapy, actively challenging Sigmund Freud’s overemphasis on male sexuality and arguing that a person’s environment and social sphere shapes individual personality and personality disorders more so than biology. She also countered “penis envy” with “womb envy,” which describes the idea that men are forever overcompensating for their inability to carry and bear children. She’s often thought of as the originator of feminist psychology, stating that people of all sexes have the drive and desire to be busy and productive.

Mary Whiton Calkins – Calkins was the first female president of the American Psychological Association (APA), which was notable not only because of her gender, but because of her lack of a PhD. Although she completed all the requisite coursework, she was refused a PhD from Harvard because they would not confer a doctorate degree to a woman. Despite of her lack of formal credentials, she remained active in the field, contributing to the area of self-psychology. She set up the first psychology lab for women at Wellesley College.

Martha Bernal – Dr. Bernal was the first Latina PhD recipient in psychology. Her work as a clinical psychologist focused on treating children with behavioral problems. However, she was also very active in promoting diversity in the field of psychology. She emphasized multicultural psychology with the goal of providing better mental health services for ethnic minorities. She also focused on minority recruitment, and taught at the Arizona State University.

Carolyn Attneave – Dr. Attneave is a Native psychologist most famous for her work on network therapy, or therapy that focuses on the relationships between a patient and their family and community. She focused on diversity in family psychology and the need to understand the contexts in which people live before attempting to treat them. Dr. Attneave moved to Oklahoma where she worked with seven Native American tribes in the region. She later moved to Boston and founded the Boston Indian Council, focusing on retribalization and network therapy as applied to children. She formed the Society of Indian Psychologists in 1970, with the goal of supporting both Native psychologists and American Indian patients in a culturally competent way.    

Clara Mayo – After coming to America as a refugee as a child with her family to escape the horror of the Nazis in Austria, Dr. Mayo studied Social Psychology at Clark University. Much of her work and development was directed towards applying psychological research to advance women and people of color. She studied stereotypes and discrimination, especially those relating to African Americans in schools and the court systems.

Dr. Carolyn Robinson Payton – Dr. Payton was the first black woman psychologist to be nominated to the position of U.S. Peace Corps Director. Most of her research up until that point focused on perception, especially racial perception in young children. She was recommended by Howard University to design selection procedures for the Peace Corps, and eventually was appointed to be the director for the Caribbean region. She was also a mentor and counselor for underachieving university students and encouraged mental health counseling alongside career and academic counseling. After her work as Peace Corps Director, she remained active in the field of psychology, urging psychologists to pay attention to the social implications of research and the responsibilities researchers have to promote sound research for social justice policies.

These are only a few of the women who have promoted positive social change and made it possible for women like me to study psychology today. For more information on the many other wonderful women of psychology, visit Psychology’s Feminist Voices online.

Information from Psychology’s Feminist Voices Project (http://www.feministvoices.com/past-profiles)

Written by: Stephanie E.V. Brown

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