Forgotten Contributions – Women in Psychology

In studying the history of psychology, one might wonder, where the women are? Have they been left out of psychology’s history because they did not contribute to it, or for other reasons? However, the scarcity of women in psychology’s textbooks does not accurately represent women’s contributions to the field. Bohan (1995) states, “Women have in fact been present and active in psychology since its beginnings, but for a variety of reasons they and their work have been largely invisible to psychology as a whole” (p. 1). Nevertheless, women have faced more than their share of trials in order to be a part of the profession. Social forces generated by the Zeitgeist, or the current point of view held by the society as a whole, attempted first to prevent women from educating themselves, then to push them into specific areas of the professional field, approved as women’s work, and finally to bury them in obscurity. However, as important figures like Mary Whiton Calkins, Helen Bradford Thompson Wooley, and Leta Setter Hollingworth prove, many women prevailed against the opposition, making significant and lasting contributions to psychology.

The Influence of the Zeitgeist on Education and Career

Around the turn of the century, when psychology was still on its way to becoming a major force in America, women who desired to join the growing ranks of psychologists faced strong social opposition. The Zeitgeist had established the domestic sphere as the only occupation in which women belonged – indeed, the only occupation women were thought capable of managing. Higher education was thought to render them incapable of fulfilling their domestic obligations (Furumoto & Scarborough, 1986/1995). Those women who challenged the “women’s sphere” and pursued higher education and a career were forced to choose between their career and marriage; those women who chose not to marry still felt the pressures of the domestic sphere, as they were expected to put family above career (Furumoto, 1988/1995). The careers of two female psychologists, Mary Whiton Calkins and Ethel Puffer, demonstrate the limitations of both choices. Both women’s lives and careers ran relatively parallel to each other until 1908, when Puffer married, subsequently disappearing from professional academia; even before she married, she was turned down for an academic position due to her engagement (Furumoto, 1987). This demonstrates Furumoto’s statement (1988/1995) regarding the choice women were forced to make: “A woman who chose to marry in that era sabotaged her career in academic psychology” (p. 24). However, Calkins experiences reveal the absurdity of thinking there was a real choice at all. Despite her decision to remain unmarried, Calkins turned down several academic positions offered to her, citing her obligation to care for her aging parents as justification (Furumoto, 1988/1995). Regardless of a woman’s marital status, domestic obligations maintained influence over her career.

Despite the incredible nature of the restrictions and expectations impressed upon women, society used a number of scientific findings to justify a subordination of women that they truly believed necessary. The smaller skulls, and therefore smaller brains, of women were believed to indicate an inferior intellect, even though observations of female and male brains were made with the scientists aware which belonged to which sex, leading to “discoveries” which supported the beliefs society already held (Shields, 1975/1995). Even more indicative of the pseudo-scientific nature of the findings, the observation that women’s brains were larger in proportion to their body size than were men’s was virtually ignored, and the belief in female inferiority prevailed (Shields, 1975/1995). The variability hypothesis was also used to justify the inferiority of women: it was found that men’s intellectual abilities varied more than women’s, meaning more men who were idiots but also more men who were geniuses. Society cited the female population’s tendency to fall closer to the average as evidence that women were less likely to excel than men (Shields, 1975/1995). It was believed that women were intended solely to complement men; these findings acted as support of the notion that female imperfections merely made woman a proper counterpart for man (Shields, 1975/1995).

Redirecting Women’s Careers

Despite the pressures women experienced as they pursued higher education and professional careers, the ranks of female psychologists were growing. Access to higher education was granted more freely; however, women quickly found that even though their education was comparable to men’s, they were effectively locked out of academic positions, except at the undergraduate level in women’s colleges (Furumoto, 1987; Furumoto & Scarborough, 1986/1995).

The rise of applied psychology offered more career opportunities for women psychologists. Applied psychology is rooted in World War I, when the need for the testing of individuals first arose. After the war, testing was developed for children with the goal of improving the education system (Schultz & Schultz, 2004). As the field of applied psychology grew, it attracted predominately women psychologists (Bohan, 1990/1995; Furumoto, 1987). Bohan (1990/1995) states, “Women’s work in psychology has been shaped by the social construction of their proper role in society and by psychology’s translation of that role to the field’s own activities” (pg. 36). Indeed, of the three types of applied psychology – industrial, school, and clinical psychology – women dominated school psychology and made up about half of the psychologists working in clinical psychology, while the more academic industrial psychology remained a man’s domain (Furumoto, 1987). Evidently, the field of psychology ushered women into positions befitting the expectations of feminine nurturing placed on them by society.

Buried in Obscurity

Although the powerful pressures of the Zeitgeist attempted to keep women in the domestic sphere and out of the professional, many women pursued education and career anyway. So, where are they? Despite the absence of women in many histories of psychology, they were not absent during its development (Bohan, 1995). Much as society pressured women to stay out of the professional world, it tended to ignore their contributions once they made it in. Many factors combined to render women’s work in psychology invisible (Bohan, 1995). For example, the custom of a woman taking her husband’s name when she marries makes it difficult to follow her career (Bohan, 1990/1995). If a married couple publish cooperative work, the work is likely to be attributed to the man (Bohan, 1990/1995). Additionally, when psychologist’s names are cited as the last name and first initial only, gender identity becomes anonymous, which usually means the scholars are assumed to be male (Bohan, 1990/1995). Finally, due to societal forces women tend to end up in low-end areas of the field where research is not considered important enough to publish – and even if they could publish and gain recognition, they generally do not have the resources and social supports necessary to do so (Bohan, 1990/1995).

The absence of women in psychology can, itself, be a major cause of the lack of further evidence of contributions by women. Bohan (1995) notes,

This exclusion of women and their work has been self-maintaining: the belief that women have not contributed significantly to psychology has led us to disregard their actual participation, thus reinforcing the initial belief that they have played no important role in psychology. (p. 1)

In this manner the assumption that women have not contributed to psychology becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Alfred Alder explains that girls in our society can hardly grow up to be superior women when they are taught early on that women are inferior (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1978, as cited in Chandler, 1991). This self-fulfilling prophecy in psychology is based on the “myth of meritocracy” (Bohan, 1995, pg. 3) – the idea that if women deserved their place in the history of psychology, they would not have been left out. Even the textbooks themselves perpetuate this myth: Schultz & Schultz (2004) claim that in discussing mainly male psychologists, they are merely presenting a sample representative of the field as a whole. If this were true, women psychologists would be considered virtually extinct, as there are only a handful of women whose contributions are discussed in the pages of the text, and those women that are mentioned are given a page at the very most – a fraction of the pages dedicated to male psychologists.

The problem inherent in the history of psychology is that for a woman’s contributions to be recognized, they have to be accepted as knowledge, when the conditions of what will be interpreted as knowledge are determined by the male-driven Zeitgeist. The notion that knowledge is actually constructed and then accepted as true by the society is known as “social constructionism” (Bohan, 1995, p. 7). The fact that men are largely in control of what is accepted by society is illustrated through examples of several psychological stage theorists – Freud, Erikson, Piaget, and Kohlberg – all of whom held men to be the norm and women as something less than normal (Chandler, 1991). In order to move away from this male-based, male-driven idea of psychology, certain assumptions must be challenged (Bohan, 1990/1995). Psychology must seek truth without depending solely on observation, as positivism limits psychology to the study of only what can be observed and experimented on (Bohan, 1990/1995). Also, as Bohan (1990/1995) points out, “The human sciences cannot be objective” (p. 33). Values are implied simply by choosing what to investigate, and no scientist (as much as they might want to) can study human beings without their own identity coloring their observations (Bohan, 1990/1995). However, the inclusion of women in the history of psychology presents an interesting problem, as the history – as well as the theories that are considered significant – is written by men (Furumoto, 1988/1995). Furumoto describes Lerner’s stages of including women in psychology’s history. The first stage, “compensatory history,” consists of merely using women to fill in around the male-dominated history, while the second stage, “contribution history,” places women’s importance solely on their contributions to history (Lerner, 1979, as cited in Furumoto, 1988/1995, p. 19). The third and final stage – what Lerner believes should be our goal – is a history “seen through the eyes of women and ordered by values they define” (Lerner, 1979, p. 178, as cited in Furumoto, 1988/1995, p. 20). While Lerner’s third stage of history restores full respect to the women who have contributed to history, critics complain that it also perpetuates the isolation of women, only in a separate history rather than in obscurity (Furumoto, 1988/1995).

Survivors: The Women of Psychology

Despite the Zeitgeist’s attempts to obliterate female contributions to psychology from its history, the contributions of many have survived in psychology’s documented history. Women like Mary Whiton Calkins, Helen Bradford Thompson Wooley, and Leta Setter Hollingworth represent pioneers not only of the science, but also of the education they insisted on acquiring (Furumoto & Scarborough, 1986/1995). Calkins is a noteworthy psychologist, not just because she was the first female president of the APA, but also because she challenged the accepted notions of what education was appropriate for a woman. Harvard refused to grant Calkins her PhD, even though she had completed the program, but offered her the degree from Radcliffe College, the women’s college. Calkins refused to accept the lesser degree (Schultz & Schultz, 2004). Calkins’ contributions to the science included the invention of the paired-associate technique, used for the study of memory, and the emphasis on self-psychology, despite the prevailing behaviorism (Furumoto, 1988/1995). For her doctoral research, Helen Bradford Thompson Wooley investigated the differences between the sexes in emotional and intellectual functioning – finding none (Schultz & Schultz, 2004). Leta Setter Hollingworth also worked to counter the current prejudices against women. Her work disproved the variability hypothesis and other notions of female inferiority (Schultz & Schultz, 2004). Hollingworth argued that the lack of eminence among women was due to the impossibility of truly excelling at anything allowed to women in the female sphere (Shields, 1975/1995). Hollingworth also worked in educational and school psychology, coining the term “gifted” children, and recognizing their unique needs – contributions which we continue to incorporate into our school systems today (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).


Despite their apparent obscurity, the contributions of women in psychology are important. Bohan (1993) argues that “women’s relative invisibility in the discipline deprives students of role models who demonstrate women’s contributions to and place within psychology, thereby limiting the hopes of women and distorting the expectations of men” (p. 75). However, she adds, “Women’s relative invisibility as well as the impact of their recognition are understandable if we look to principles of social constructionism as tools for that understanding” (1993, p. 75). The social context from which the earliest women psychologists emerge worked to keep women uneducated and at home, operating under the belief that women were inferior to men. When women challenged the Zeitgeist and chose careers as psychologists, society responded by pushing them into low-end careers, usually doing jobs that were similar to the domestic activities accepted as the woman’s sphere, and often jobs that resisted any notoriety. Despite these social forces, however, women did pursue their careers as psychologists – and they often succeeded, making significant contributions to the field.


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