Women's History Month: Recognizing the women who revolutionized the psychology field

In college, I minored in psychology, and, in my classes, we learned all about the "founding fathers" of psychology — Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, William James, Ivan Pavlov and Alfred Adler. But, just like in most of history, women are often left out — even though, today, psychology is a much more female-dominated field. 

So, for Women's History Month, I wanted to highlight some of the women who revolutionized the field and helped the world, slowly but surely, realize that mental health is just as important as physical health. 

Mary Whiton Calkins

Calkins was the second woman in history to complete the work necessary for a PhD in psychology. But the Harvard Corporation only recognized her as a "guest" instead of a student because they did not officially admit women and refused to award her the degree she deserved — even posthumously. 

The research she did on memory while studying at Harvard was crucial to the cognitive revolution — yet, at the time, male psychologists took credit for her work. Today, we know that Calkins was the one to invent the test where participants are shown a series of colors and numbers and are asked to recollect what number is paired with each color. She was also the first female president of the American Psychological Association in 1905 and the American Philosophical Association in 1918. 

Mamie Phipps Clark

Clark, the first Black woman to earn a degree from Columbia University, is known for studying the psychological effects of segregation on African American children. She conducted a series of experiments in the 1940s — known as the "doll tests" — with her husband Kenneth. They used four baby dolls, two black and two white, and asked Black children between the ages of three and seven to identify the color and which doll they preferred. A majority of the children said they preferred the white doll and called the black doll "bad." 

With these findings, the couple theorized that segregation at schools made African American children feel inferior and that these feeling would affect them for the rest of their lives. The results of these tests led the Supreme Court to rule that separating children in public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional.

Leta Stetter Hollingworth

When Hollingworth was alive, the prevailing opinion, which we all know now is grossly incorrect, was that women were "inferior" to men. She pioneered the psychological study of women and helped dispel the myths that were used in the argument against women's rights. 

Hollingworth, New York City’s very first civil service psychologist, is credited with tackling the variability hypothesis, which was traced back to Charles Darwin and stated that men exhibited a greater range of variation when it came to physical and psychological traits. Based on her studies, she found, if there is any difference, it favors women, according to the Psychology Museum of the University of Wisconsin Green Bay

She then decided to write her dissertation on the belief that, during menstruation, women couldn't be as productive as men. For three months, she tested men and women's performance on various tasks and found zero evidence that menstruation was related at all to poor performance. 

Anna Freud 

Move over Sigmund Freud. There's another Freud who deserves recognition — Sigmund's sixth and youngest daughter Anna. She expanded on her famous father's ideas — helping develop the field of child psychology and introducing the concept of "defense mechanisms." After fleeing Austria due to the arrival of Nazis, she founded the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and clinic. According to the Institute of Psychoanalysis, her work was instrumental in refining the insight into a child’s normal and pathological development.

Mary Ainsworth 

After studying mother-child interactions in Uganda, Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation assessment to study children's attachment to their caregiver. Researchers would observe children's reactions when their mother briefly left them in an unfamiliar room. Based on her research, Ainsworth concluded that there are three types of attachment: secure, anxious-avoidant and anxious-resistant. Her research inspired countless more studies on early childhood attachment and played an important role in our understanding of attachment today. 

Karen Horney

Horney developed a theory of neurosis that is still prominent today. She viewed neuroses as coping mechanisms that are part of normal life, and she identified 10 neurotic needs —for affection and approval, for a partner, for power, for exploitation of others, for social recognition, for personal admiration, for achievement, for self-sufficiency and independence, for perfection, and for restriction of one’s life.

Horney is also credited with generating more interest in women's psychology because of her critique of Sigmund Freud's theories. She refuted Freud's famous "penis envy" theory — countering it with her own "womb envy" theory. She said, "Is not the tremendous strength in men of the impulse to creative work in every field precisely due to their feeling of playing a relatively small part in the creation of living beings, which constantly impels them to an overcompensation in achievement?" 

Melanie Klein

Klein made major contributions in the field of play therapy and concluded that young children use play as a way to communicate. According to the Institute of Psychoanalysis, she found that children's play and the toys they use carry important symbolic meaning for them, and that this could be analyzed much in the same way as dreams could be analyzed in adults. While children may not be able to find the words to talk about their emotions in regular counseling sessions, Klein found that they can be psychoanalyzed by using play therapy to investigate their unconscious feelings, anxieties, and experiences. 

Eleanor Maccoby

Maccoby was the first woman to chair the psychology department at Stanford University and was also, reportedly, the first woman to deliver a lecture at Stanford while wearing a pantsuit. Other than rocking that power suit, she also wrote The Psychology of Sex Differences, the first large-scale review of the literature on gender differences, with developmental psychologist Carolyn Jacklin.

"I read something by a Freudian clinic psychologist who published that the essential difference between men and women is that males are active and females are passive. ... And I would talk about how outrageous it was to talk about women as 'passive,'" Maccoby said. "We finally said, 'Let's see if we can put together the evidence for what sex difference there are.' And we began to comb literature. ... The book's basic message is that most of what we think about as essential differences between the sexes are myths. ... Men and women are alike; let's stop stereotyping them with these labels that are not true." 

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