Women and Minorities in Psychology

History of Psychology

In July 1892 well-known Clark University psycho­logist G. Stanley Hall met with a small group of his peers and founded the American Psychological Association (APA). At their first official meeting the following December, 31 additional members were voted in; all were white, and all were male (see Fernberger, 1932). However, as psychology grew throughout the first half of the 20th century, the proportion of women in the field increased. In 1946, psychologist Alice Bryan and her colleague Edwin Boring conducted a survey of American psychology and found that of the 2,672 doctoral-level psychologists who responded to their survey, 24 percent were women (Bryan & Boring, 1946). At this point in history, very little attention was paid to the representation of non-white psychologists in the field.

The proportion of women remained relatively stable until the late 1960s. The greatest growth in the numbers of women in psychology began in the early 1970s, largely due to the impact of the second wave of the women’s movement, and has continued steadily since that time. Whereas in 1960, 17.5 percent of all doctoral degrees in psychology in the United States were awarded to women, by the year 2000 the proportion of women receiving doctorates in the field had risen to 66.6 percent (Women’s Programs Office, 2006). Psychology, especially its applied branches, is quickly becoming a female-dominated profession.

The 1960s also saw important cultural and political shifts that affected the number and representation of minority psychologists. The civil rights movement and the development of black nationalism provided the cultural and political foundations for the institutional and theoretical challenges of black psychologists. Their activism paved the way for other minority groups such as Latino/Latina psychologists and Asian American psychologists to demand greater receptivity to and support for their concerns and agendas within a largely white, Eurocentric psychological establishment. Although growth in numbers has been slow relative to the influx of women psychologists, ethnic minority men and women psychologists steadily continue to challenge and change the institutional, theoretical, and practical bases of the field.


In the first half of this section, we focus on the history of women and feminism in American psychology. First, we briefly survey selected works by early women psychologists intent on using the tools of the new science of psy­chology to challenge prevailing stereotypes of and biases towards women. Then we describe the status of women in the profession during the middle of the century, with a focus on activities around World War II. We conclude by examining the profound effects of second-wave feminism on both psychological theory and practice, and the institu­tional structure of psychology.

In the second half of the section we turn to the history of ethnic minority psychologists. The lives and contribu­tions of select early African American pioneers are highlighted, but we note that American psychology attracted few minority psychologists and remained oblivious to their concerns and critiques until fairly recently. It took strong advocacy from individuals and groups, starting in the late 1960s, to make psychology more receptive to ethnic minority issues. The events in American psychology that led to these changes and the impact of ethnic minority psychologists on the processes and products of psychology are then discussed.

It should be noted that this research paper is limited to developments in the American context. Students interested in the history and status of psychologies developed in other countries and efforts by psychologists throughout the world to develop theory and praxis that are relevant to their local contexts can consult a growing body of literature, including Brock (2006), Kim and Berry (1993), and Paranjpe (2002). We again emphasize that who psychologists are impacts what we know in psychology. Accordingly, as indigenous psychologies develop around the world, and as American psychologists become more diverse, the potential for generating psychological knowledge that relates to and illuminates the diversity of the entire human experience becomes realizable.

Women in Psychology

Minorities in Psychology

In this section, we focus on the history of the involvement of racial and ethnic minorities in the field of psychology in the United States. Histories of minorities in other countries and cultures, though few in number, would provide a use­ful comparison with our work here (e.g., see the chapters in Bond, 1997; Louw, 2002; Richards, 1997). As with all histories, this is a transitional document. Given the chang­ing demographics of the United States, which indicate that Americans of European descent will be in the numerical minority by the year 2050, our writing here is very provisional. A history of the field written one hundred years from now may well have a very different focus from the one discussed here.

When G. Stanley Hall founded the American Psychological Association in 1892, those included in the initial membership represented a range of scientific and scholarly fields: psychology, philosophy, physiology, med­icine, and so forth. Yet, not one of the original members, or any of the members for many years to come, was from a racial or ethnic minority. This is not surprising, as there were very few scientists or scholars at this time who were minorities. The reasons for this scarcity are both complex in detail yet, in some ways, simple. The United States was a society built on a foundation of white elitism.

Educational systems favored whites of Anglo-Saxon or northern European descent. However, as schooling became compulsory, opportunities for education for most of the population increased. For children of minorities, those opportunities were different in kind and quality, with fewer resources devoted to the education of African American, Native American, Latino/a, or Asian American children. Nevertheless, with the dawn of the 20th century, the issue of race and ethnicity loomed larger. As the noted black scholar and sociologist W. E. B. DuBois so famously wrote in 1903, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” (p. 1). The history of that color line in psychology centers on the determination of people of color to find a place in the new field and to shape a body of knowledge and practice that is true to their values and heritage.

The authoritative history of the early years of this struggle has been written by the African American psychologist-historian, Robert V. Guthrie (1998). As Guthrie points out, blacks simply did not appear in standard histories of psychology such as those by Boring or Murphy. Within the field, racial minorities did appear as subjects, typically in research reports about racial differences. Such research typically produced results that were interpreted as indicating the inferiority of African Americans or Chicanos (Americans of Mexican descent) or some other minority (Richards, 1997).

Despite the lack of inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities in the histories of the field, there were, of course, individuals who were ethnic minorities who were involved in applied psychology. Few opportunities existed for higher education for minorities at the beginning of the 20th century, and fewer still for work beyond the bachelor’s degree. Still, psychology became one of the more popular degrees at historically black colleges and universities. For example, at Wilberforce College in Ohio, there was an honors psychology club with more than 40 members in 1914 (Guthrie, 1998).

Unlike the white institutions, black colleges and universities stressed the applied aspects of psychology. Consequently, applied fields like education and guidance counseling were more commonly taught. Students could use their training to return to their communities and offer practical services through the (separate) school systems and churches. In the first two generations after the discipline of psychology was begun (ca. 1879-1920), then, psychology was being taught and used by minority, primarily African American, communities. It is important to keep in mind that because the opportunities for higher education for minorities were very limited, many African American communi­ties focused on sending a few bright students, what DuBois (1903) called the “talented tenth,” to college to be trained as teachers, ministers, lawyers, dentists, and doctors.

Toward Inclusiveness in 21st-Century Psychology

As we can see, progress has been made in U.S. psychol­ogy in terms of making diversity a part of the agenda. Still, the membership of ethnic minorities in APA and other general psychological organizations lags well behind the proportions in the U.S. population. And, still, there is significant resistance to making training programs in the professional fields of psychology—clinical, counseling, and school—truly committed to the necessity of training all the students to be culturally competent in the provision of mental health services.

Where can we look for a model of how to do this best? Surprisingly, it is in many of the professional training schools, many offering the Doctor of Psychology degree, that we can find successful models of training for diversity. At the best programs, the administration and faculty are characterized by the following:

  • Commitment from all concerned parties
  • Sufficient financial support: grants, fellowships, and so forth
  • Flexible admission criteria: for example, life experiences
  • Presence of one or more minority faculty members
  • Nurturing and supportive environment
  • Incorporation of cultural diversity into all aspects of program

Although these characteristics are critically important, they cannot be implemented in a cookie-cutter fashion. Rather, each program has to find a way to create a program that is sensitive and welcoming of diversity. Given the chang­ing demographics of U.S. society, doing so is no longer an option if psychology is to remain a relevant discipline and profession. With successful implementation of these pro­grams creating a vibrant pipeline for minority psychologists, we might optimistically predict ever-increasing diversity in the discipline itself. As who psychologists are changes, the psychological knowledge produced by the discipline will become increasingly relevant to all of its consumers.


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