Women in Psychology

In the course of history, women have long been considered as the underdog when it comes to their participation in the academic and scientific field. As feminism began to flourish in society, this allowed them access to opportunities such as education and professional work and one of the notable fields is in Psychology.

Just like any other area of discipline, Psychology has been dominated by the males. Women psychologists faced challenges that are not only posed by the society but by their field of interest as well. As time has become modern, the number of women psychologists increased and their contributions made significant impact to the growth of Psychology. Their works are also getting recognition and considered as an equal to their male counterpart.

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Women have progressively attained a wide venue of participation in the society. One important aspect of this participation is in the academic and scientific field. In the course of history as many women are able to attain education, they used their learning to contribute in the development of different disciplines. A notable field in science and academics is Psychology. Though not widely discussed and publicized, there are a number of women psychologists who made significant impact and contribution in this field. Women help us to understand the impact of societal and historical context on the evolution of psychology and on the changing demographic trends in the discipline (O’Connell & Russo, 1990, p. 9).The likes of Sigmund Freud and B.

F. Skinner have overshadowed the contribution of women psychologists due to the male domination in this discipline. These women who excelled in Psychology crafted their expertise within the different subfields of the study.

In the following pages, it will be discussed how women were able to penetrate the field of Psychology by providing a historical background of the discipline itself, as well as the social context of that time. It will be followed by determining the women who made significant contributions in Psychology. By providing this information, it will be seen how the participation of women has shaped modern Psychology and what changes did Psychology experience by the time women participated in this field. These women who have made notable inputs in Psychology provide a more diverse area of study for this discipline.  As Psychology gave way for their participation, this field of science has prospered and has been cultivated due to new wisdom brought about by women psychologists. They are slowly being recognized for their works and by this recognition; the escalation of their participation will widen and will provide more growth not just in the field of Psychology but in all aspects of Science.Historical Background of PsychologyPsychology has been defined as the study of behavior, humans and animals alike.

In a more detailed description,Psychology is the scienti?c study of behaviour and mental processes. Behaviour includes all of our outward or overt actions and reactions, such as talking, facial expressions and movements. Mental processes refer to all the internal, covert activity of our minds, such as thinking, feeling and remembering. (Ciccarelli & Meyer, 2006, p.4)It is believed to have started as early as the time of Aristotle during the 4th century BC upon the discovery of his studies regarding behaviors in animals (Robinson, 1995, p. 4). His collection of observation on animal attitudes, emotions, and perceptions is considered as one of the first creations of research work that is essential in conducting experiments in Psychology. However, its development started prospering around the middle ages.

This is because Psychology is only considered as a branch of Philosophy and not as a separate discipline. It began to be as an independent field of science when the first psychological laboratory is established by Wilhelm Wundt in 1879 (Robinson, 1995, p.4).This laboratory in Leipzig Germany focused on conducting experimental studies as part of psychological research. It can be said that Psychology stood on its own because it does not only theorize but also puts it into practice as well by means of research. With the thriving of research within Psychology, experiments resulted in to different breakthroughs of the study. Upon the establishment of the laboratory, Wundt developed his study of structuralism and began to spread in other parts of Europe and into the United States (Abrams & Ellis, 2008, p.31).

From structuralism, many psychologists have formed other subfields that specialized within specific human psychological issues.  Such example was functionalism which focused on a wider view of psychology touching on various subjects like children and animals. Then, behaviorism was developed by John Watson which delved into anatomical responses such as muscle movements (Wittig, 2001, p.4).  One of the most famous psychologists in this discipline, Sigmund Freud, was the first one to perform psychoanalysis. This became an established system in Psychology in which extensive investigation was conducted to be able to determine a development of a personality derived from “childhood experiences and unconscious sources of motivation” (Wittig, 2001, p.

5). This system was eventually called as Psychodynamic Psychology.This development in the 18th up to the 19th century progressed and expanded into more subfields as modern psychologists continue with the scientific methods that were developed by the founders of this discipline. From the brief history that was provided, it can be noticed how the males became the predominant forefront of Psychology. Starting from Aristotle to Wundt then to Freud, women were obviously not part of any initiating process for this field of study. However, women psychologists have contributed significantly to the development of Psychology. By looking at the social context of women’s place in the society it will be determined how and what spurred these women to participate in this disciplineWomen in SocietyIt is a much known fact that women were not granted education and theorized to the public in historical times. Psychology, just like any academic and scientific field, has been dominated by men.

An American historian namely Gerda Lerner stated that: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. (cited in Denmark, Paludi, & Lott, 2008, p.

3)This particular aspect has isolated women for many years with regards to the opportunities of having the same venue of learning with men. In the field of Psychology, male psychologists studied women. Mostly, these studies were conducted to determine not just the biological difference of women from men but their personality and individual differences. In history, the outcomes of these studies often project the inferiority of women as against with men. Taking into account the study done by Sir Francis Galton, with a weak theoretical framework, he concluded women’s inferiority after finding out huge psychological deficiencies (Unger, 2001, p.4). With these kinds of studies, it widened the gap between the two genders, making it harder for women to penetrate the Psychology field.Although there were already a small number of women studying in the universities to become psychologists, significant contributions were not exactly developed because of the reigning sexist thought within the academic walls.

These female students were under the supervision and guidance of mentors who were somewhat heavily influenced by the male monopoly of early Psychology. The outright sexism that were derived from early Psychological studies became instilled into society, and gave rise for the women to fight for their rights. This movement emerged from the criticisms in early 20th century to the studies and theories regarding the inferiority of women (Unger, 2001, p.4).

This particular era became the starting point of the rising feminism thought and as this faction began to prosper, so does the participation the women in the sectors of society.The term Psychology of Women pertains to the study of and by women in the field of Psychology (Denmark et al, 2008, p. 5). It can be traced that early participation of women in Psychology became active at the height of promoting women suffrage and equal rights. The right to vote opened an entrance for women to argue that their role in society centers on the maternal characteristic of a woman that can uphold the welfare of a community.

The increased emphasis on child welfare (in connection with women’s inherent maternal characteristic) was accompanied by a societal trend toward professionalism in the 20th century. A belief in a “professional approach to child care” emerged, and science was used to argue for women’s greater access to higher education. The goal of melding science and motherhood in the service of child welfare provided a rationale for women’s higher education and legitimized women’s participation in the world of work.

(O’ Connell & Russo, 1988, pp. 9-10)Since Psychology concentrates on studying human and animal behaviors, a motherly approach may have been well effective in studying Psychology in a holistic perspective.It maybe said that women became legitimate participants of Psychology when they became members of organizations focusing on Psychology. One notable organization of professional psychologists is the APA (American Psychological Association). According to Rhoda K. Unger (2001); “the study of Psychology of women has been an established subdiscipline within Psychology for only 27 years (dating from the establishment of a division of the American Psychological Association devoted to this area in 1973)” (p.

3). It is clear that though women have entered the professional world of Psychology, they weren’t given enough significance within an organization of professionals. The earlier years of APA gave rise to only 18% of female members by 1923 and often restricted women to have positions within the organization or in academic institutions (Unger, 2001, p. 5). As feminism spread widely into society, organizations like the APA have also adjusted its programs and structures by giving women a space for participation and leadership. APA held conventions and symposia which centered on women issues. Female members of the APA are active participants of different feminist movements and as they continue to establish their role not only in Psychology but in society as well, they started forming separate organizations to focus on women psychologists such as the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP).Given the struggles that women have endured to be able to practice Psychology, it can be said that they have achieved their place in this field of science.

It is noteworthy to discuss the significant contributions that women are able to give to Psychology and how their participation changed the development of this discipline. There are many female Psychologists who thrived in their own subfields. In the following pages the works, expertise, and impact to modern Psychology of some of these notable women will be discussed.Women in Psychology and Their ContributionsMary Whiton CalkinsShe was one of the most notable female psychologists in history. Born in 1863 at Hartford, Connecticut, she has a very close relationship with her family.

Higher education has not been fully accepted in her era. However, Calkins pursued undergraduate studies to Smith College in 1882 where she specialized in philosophy and the classics (O’Connell & Russo, 1990, p.58). After spending time studying foreign languages in Europe, she and her family went to the United States and accepted the offer to teach at a women’s college near her home. For the number of years that she taught Philosophy at Wellesley, a new subject in scientific psychology opened a position for teaching (O’Connell & Russo, 1990, p. 58). Calkins became interested and took up unofficial tutorials from Harvard professor William James.

It was unofficial because despite of James’ efforts to enroll Calkins inside Harvard, the institution declined because of her gender (Benjamin, 2007, p.62). The same thing happened when after she passed her thesis and exams plus a commendation from James that she was one of his best students, Calkins was denied of a PhD because she was a woman (Benjamin, 2007, pp.61-62). After not achieving her PhD, she returned to Wellesley College and established a psychological laboratory. She devoted her entire career at the college teaching and writing.

Excelling in both fields of Psychology and Philosophy, Calkins became the first woman who was elected as the president of American Psychological Association (1905) and the American Philosophical Association (1918) (O’Connell & Russo, 1990, p. 58). By her establishment of psychological laboratory in Wellesley, she was able to share methods for experimental psychology mostly on dissecting sheep’s brain to examine on “sensation, association, attention, space perception, memory, and reaction time” (O’Connell & Russo, 1990, p.59) to her female students. In her career as a psychologist, her most notable work was her dream research and the paired-associated technique. Her dream research made her conclude that dreams and reality have close relationship (O’Connell & Russo, 1990, p.59) while the paired-associated technique is a research method that she has developed for memorization and learning by pairing colors with numbers (O’Connell & Russo, 1990, p. 60).

Her works became the basis for the development of modern studies in dreams and learning. Her observations of dreams and the method of paired-association became significant in the extensive study of conscious and the unconscious mind.Christine Ladd-FranklinLadd was the first female American psychologist. Just like Calkins, she was born in Connecticut and in the city of Windsor; she was raised by her relative after her mother died. Her education focused on Greek and Mathematics when she studied at Wesleyan Academy and published some of her mathematic papers which was recognized by an English mathematician namely James Sylvester (Waithe, 1987, p. 261).

It was Sylvester who apparently pursued Ladd’s enrollment in John Hopkins University. Ladd was successfully enrolled in Sylvester’s classes and worked her way up to meet the requirements for her PhD. Despite passing the entire test with outstanding grades, her PhD was not granted after 44 years because the university does not grant the title for women (O’Connell & Russo, 1990, p.

222).She mainly focused on Mathematics and logic before embarking an interest in Psychology. Ladd made significant contributions in logic notation and developed some of her own forms of principle “for recognizing valid forms of syllogism” (Waithe, 1987, p.

261). After extensively devoting herself to Mathematics, her shift of interest was sparked by the theories of physiologists Muller, Hering, and Helmholtz (Waithe, 1987, p. 262). By using their theories as basis, Ladd was able to create her own theory focusing on vision and color perception, her observations were later on compiled in Colour and Colour Theories which became useful for modern studies in visual development. She was the first woman in the United States who practically excelled in a wide variety of studies in science and mathematics. Through her success and notable works, she paved the way for American women to pursue excellence not just in Psychology but in the academic field as a whole.

Margaret Floy WashburnWashburn was born in Harlem, New York on July 1871. Being an only child, her parents fully supported her in all academic endeavors. After finishing college at Vassar and having enjoyed science and philosophy there, she tried to enroll to Columbia University for her graduate studies. Just like Calkins, she received unofficial classes under the supervision of James McKeen Cattell because of the university’s restrictions for accepting women (Munger, 2003, p.

203). Washburn considered Cattell as her first mentor who guided her in experimental and research psychology and he was supportive of her capabilities and intelligence. He advised her to transfer to Cornell University where women were freely accepted for degree candidacy (Munger, 2003, p. 203). Thus, following her mentor’s advice, Washburn became the first woman to receive a PhD in Psychology.She eventually delved heavily into teaching Psychology for different school and after her long years spent on teaching, Washburn became worn out and wanted to explore and hone new ideas of Psychology. She took the advantage of conducting laboratory works while she was a Warden of Sage College, her main focus were social and animal psychology (O’Connell & Russo, 1990, pp. 343-344).

From these research and experiments, she was able to create one of her major contributions in the field of Psychology, the Animal Mind (1908). This work was said to be the “first textbook in comparative psychology, a pioneering effort to compile, analyze, and interpret the burgeoning literature dealing with experimental studies of animal behavior and mentality” (O’Connell & Russo, 1990, p. 344). She made strong convictions regarding mental phenomena and this literature was considered as highly experimental. She took Psychology into a whole new level by reframing the discipline as a study to “obtain and to interpret facts” (O’Connell & Russo, 1990, p. 345).

By this, Washburn posed a clear antagonism for most part of structural psychology. She became the first woman to be an experimentalist.Mammi Phipps ClarkHaving born to physician parents in 1917 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Clark initially desired to study mathematics and physics when she was offered a scholarship in Howard University. As an African-American, she attended segregated schools and experienced the racist government policies at that time (Warren, 1999, p. 30). By the time she was starting her first year in college, she became disinterested with mathematics and eventually met her husband Kenneth Clark who was a major influence of her shift of interest to Psychology.

Her interests towards children became her main drive and focus of her studies and research in psychology.After graduating college with honors, she immediately pursued graduate studies in the same school while working at the same time with different notable psychologists with the likes of Ruth and Gene Hartley who specialized in children. Clark worked on her thesis focusing on the self-image of Black nursery children. This a ground-breaking research where she concluded that Black children has negative self-image because of the segregation within the school (Warren, 1999, p.

29). Upon finishing this research, it was used as a basis to change government policies and social thought. She became the first African-American female Psychologist by the time she received her doctorate degree in 1994. Her works aimed to utilize Psychology and science as a whole, to not just as a venue of discoveries and research but as well as to have a specific role in the society and its citizens.

Clark’s research studies were continuously used as a basis for legal justification and reformation to be able to make the positive changes for society. Clark, Washburn, Ladd, and Calkins made up only of a huge percentage of women who influenced and change the world of Psychology and the increasing number of women Psychologist still continues to thrive and be recognized in this discipline. 

Author: Daryl Harrison


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