Women In Psychology At Mid-Century

Woolley, Hollingworth, and Ladd-Franklin lived and worked during a period when women were making important strides in American society. The suffrage movement had secured women the right to vote in the United States by 1919. Thus, their work in psychology was buttressed by what is now called “first-wave feminism.” The middle of the 20th century, especially the period leading up to and just after World War II, saw much less attention paid to the rights of women and the status of women in society. Accordingly, this was a period in psychology when women continued to face many of the same obstacles as their first-generation counterparts, but without the support of a cultural milieu that was sympathetic to these challenges. Here we discuss the status of women in psychology in this period and present brief accounts of two attempts to draw attention to the problem of women’s exclusion: the forma­tion of the National Council of Women Psychologists, and the collaboration of Alice Bryan and Edwin Boring on “the woman problem.”

National Council of Women Psychologists

In times of war and other national and international emergencies, most professional groups organize to offer their services. Psychology has been no exception. In World War I, for example, psychologists helped the United States Army make personnel decisions by developing and administering group intelligence tests designed to sort thousands of recruits into appropriate positions within the military. With the outbreak of World War II, psychologists once again organized to offer their services. In 1940, the Emergency Committee in Psychology (ECP) was formed to oversee the mobilization of psychologists in the war effort. A problem soon arose: the all-male ECP chose to mobilize only male psychologists.

When it became apparent that the expertise of women psychologists was not being called upon, about 30 women psychologists, all members of the American Association of Applied Psychology (AAAP), confronted the AAAP representative to the ECP, Robert Brotemarkle, with their concerns. Although sympathetic, Brotemarkle admonished the group to be “good girls”—to be patient and to wait quietly until plans could be made that would include them (Schwesinger, 1943). When, almost two years later, noth­ing had been done to include women, a group of about 50 New York women psychologists began meeting to discuss how they could use their professional skills in the national emergency.

In November, a subgroup of these women met in the Manhattan apartment of psychologist Alice Bryan to draw up a charter for a national organization of women psychologists. On December 8, 1941, just a day after news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the National Council of Women Psychologists (NCWP) was formed. Florence Goodenough, a respected psychological scientist, was selected as president. Although not particularly sympa­thetic to the plight of women as a group, Goodenough did support the goal of applying psychological expertise to needed areas. By the middle of 1942, 234 doctoral-level women psychologists had joined the NCWP (Capshew & Laszlo, 1986).

Although the impetus for the formation of the NCWP was the exclusion of women from the war effort, women psychologists were reluctant to make the NCWP solely a clearinghouse for charges of sex discrimination. As Alice Bryan (1986) remarked, in the devastating aftermath of Pearl Harbor, “Winning the war had to be given first priority” (p. 184). In addition, male psychologists and leaders in the ECP used subtle strategies to undermine the women’s feminist resolve (Capshew & Laszlo, 1986). Many male psychologists denied that sex discrimination existed in psychology and suggested that in drawing attention to gender issues at a time of national emergency women were being self-indulgent. Others suggested that professional success in science was completely meritocratic; therefore, women had no right to demand special consideration on the basis of sex. Nonetheless, the formation of the NCWP marked the first time women had come together with the explicit aim of professional advancement.

“The Woman Problem”

In 1951, prominent Harvard psychologist Edwin Boring published an article in the American Psychologist titled “The Woman Problem.” In this short, expository article, Boring noted that in terms of their positions in APA, “professional women acquire less prestige than professional men ‘in proportion to their numbers'” (p. 679). He then suggested that two of the primary reasons for women’s lower prestige were (a) a natural predisposition in women for “particularistic” tasks over the work of generalization and theory building that was the true calling of the scientist, and (b) job concentration difficulties; that is, women chose more often to fulfill family obligations over work obligations. He concluded that because programmatic scientific work and fanaticism were generally rewarded, it was not surprising that women would experience conflict between professional success and family orientation. Finally, he tackled the question of whether a woman could become such a fanatic and still remain marriageable. He concluded that indeed she could, but that she must be “abnormally bright to combine charm with sophistication” (p. 681).

Boring’s single-authored article was actually the cul­mination of a somewhat complex collaboration with his colleague, Columbia University psychologist Alice Bryan, on the so-called woman problem. Bryan met Boring in 1942, when she was the only woman member appointed to a committee charged with reorganizing the APA. Boring was provoked by Bryan’s repeated assertions that women did not hold representation in APA offices proportionate to their numbers in psychology and suggested that they collaborate on a study of the problem. Their study resulted in three articles published in the Psychological Bulletin and the American Psychologist between 1944 and 1947 (Bryan & Boring, 1944, 1946, 1947).

In his autobiography, Boring (1961) described his motive behind the collaboration. He hoped that Bryan, with her feminist convictions, and he, with his convic­tion that for both biological and cultural reasons women “determined most of the conditions about which she complained” (p. 72), might moderate each other’s ideologies and get closer to the facts. Ultimately, in an effort to work together amicably the pair sidestepped their ideological differences and presented results that vindicated Bryan’s suspicions that women were underrepresented, but avoided providing any interpretation of these findings. Boring’s 1951 article, however, clearly conveyed his own interpretation: while acknowledging that disparities did exist, Boring was unwilling to attribute the disparities to discrimination.

As many feminist scholars have noted, despite the work of Alice Bryan and the NCWP, the postwar period of the 1950s did not provide a hospitable environment in which to sustain feminist activism. When the war ended, the NCWP was renamed the International Council of Women Psychologists. The reorganized group adopted a distinctly apolitical mission statement, began to admit more men, and was renamed the International Council of Psychologists (see Walsh, 1985). Unfortunately, the economic prosperity of the postwar period did not necessarily benefit women psychologists. Men quickly filled both the academic positions they had previously dominated and the newly prestigious clinical positions that had been at least partially situated in the “women’s sphere” before the war. It was not until the second wave of the feminist movement in the late 1960s that organized psychology would again have to examine its professional treatment of women and confront issues of sex discrimination.