First-Wave “Feminist” Psychologists

Women have been participating in psychology since its inception as a formal scientific discipline in Europe and North America in the late 1800s. Although women were often excluded from men’s elite professional circles such as the founding of the APA and E. B. Titchener’s Society of Experimentalists, they nonetheless made important intellectual and institutional contributions despite their small numbers and the considerable obstacles they faced in a male-dominated profession. Although it is not possible here to discuss all of the first-generation American women psychologists, Scarborough and Furumoto (1987) have identified 25 women who were members of APA or who listed their field as psychology in American Men of Science by 1906. Two of these women, Mary Whiton Calkins and Margaret Floy Washburn, served as presidents of the APA in 1905 and 1921, respectively. Another 50 years would pass before another woman, Anne Anastasi (1908-2001), would be elected president.

In this section, we focus on three early psychologists who explicitly challenged social expectations and stereotypes about women. Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley and Leta Stetter Hollingworth used the tools of psycho­logical science to examine and refute commonly held beliefs about women’s inferiority. Christine Ladd-Franklin campaigned vigorously for egalitarianism in professional conduct and exchange among psychologists, and equal access to education and honors for women.

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Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley

Woolley (1874-1947) received her PhD in 1900 from the University of Chicago. For her dissertation research she conducted one of the first comprehensive empirical examinations of sex differences in intellectual, motor, sensory, and affective abilities (Thompson, 1903). In this work, she repeatedly found more similarities than differences between her male and female participants. When differences did emerge she interpreted them in light of the differential experiences and training of men and women, especially during early development. She was critical of the tendency to minimize environmental influences in favor of instincts and biology. In her conclusion to the work, she noted, “The psychological differences of sex seem to be largely due, not to difference of average capacity, nor to difference in type of mental activity, but to differences in the social influences brought to bear on the developing individual from early infancy to adult years” (Thompson, 1903, p. 182).

After earning her doctorate, Woolley went on to occupy a number of positions including director of the Bureau for the Investigation of Working Children in Cincinnati, where she formulated research and policy on child welfare reform (see Milar, 1999). When her husband moved to Detroit, Woolley gained a position there at the Merrill-Palmer School, where she initiated one of the first nursery schools for the study of child development. At Merrill-Palmer she continued her work on mental abilities by examining the mental abilities of young children. Finally, with a strong record of research and leadership in child development established, Woolley was offered an appointment as director of the new Institute of Child Welfare Research and professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Unfortunately, this appointment and her move to New York marked the beginning of a number of emotional and physical traumas, including isolation from her daughters and friends, permanent separation from her husband, and a hysterectomy. In combination, these events precipitated her premature retire­ment in 1930. She lived with one of her daughters for the remaining 17 years of her life.

Leta Stetter Hollingworth

Leta Stetter Hollingworth (1886-1939) also used her scientific training to challenge widespread beliefs and stereotypes about women (see Shields, 1975). In her dissertation research under the supervision of Edward Thorndike at Columbia University, she undertook an empirical investigation of functional periodicity, the commonly held belief that women became psychologically impaired during menstruation. Hollingworth’s study disconfirmed this belief, showing that women’s perceptual and motor skills did not vary as a function of their monthly cycles.

Later in her career she addressed another widely held theory about the sexes: that men exhibited greater variability than women across all psychological and physical traits. According to the variability hypothesis, the males of the species were presumed to drive evolutionary progress. Only men were deemed capable of the most impressive intellectual, social, and political achievements. In short, it held that because women as a class exhibited less variability and range in their abilities, they were doomed to mediocrity. Unsatisfied with the evidence for this view, Hollingworth conducted several studies to determine if the variability hypothesis would be supported. Needless to say, she did not find empirical support for greater male variability and criticized adherence to the belief on both empirical and interpretive grounds. She maintained that the true potential of women could only be known when women received complete social acceptance of their right to choose career, motherhood, or both.

Christine Ladd-Franklin

Christine Ladd-Franklin (1847-1930) was an eminent first-generation woman scientist and an outspoken advocate for the equal treatment and acknowledgment of women in professional spheres. Ladd-Franklin attended newly established Vassar College for women as an under­graduate, where she majored in science and mathematics. She then taught these subjects in secondary schools for over a decade while continuing to study mathematics and publish papers in this field. When Johns Hopkins University opened in Baltimore, Ladd-Franklin eagerly applied to do advanced work in mathematics. Johns Hopkins was the first university in the United States to focus on research and graduate training, but it would not allow women students. However, a mathematics professor who was familiar with her papers permitted her to attend his lectures in the 1878 to 1879 academic year. As her reputation grew, Ladd-Franklin was given access to fur­ther courses and completed all the requirements for a PhD in mathematics and logic by 1882. It was not until 1926, however, when she was almost 80 years old, that Johns Hopkins would award her the degree.

Soon after the completion of her doctoral work, Ladd-Franklin’s interests turned to psychology. When her hus­band traveled to Germany for a sabbatical, she arranged to spend six months studying color vision in G. E. Midler’s laboratory in Gottingen and the next six months in Hermann von Helmholtz’s laboratory with Arthur Konig, a physicist interested in color vision. As a result of this work, she produced her own theory of color vision and quickly established herself as a world authority on the topic (see Furumoto, 1992).

Throughout the rest of her career, in addition to promoting her theory, giving papers, and delivering lectures, she continued to advocate for women’s equal treatment in the professions. She criticized the American Academy of Arts and Letters for not admitting women. She also took up a cause much closer to home: E. B. Titchener’s exclusion of women from his invitation-only Society of Experimentalists. The Society, established by Titchener in 1904, was formed to promote discussion of experimental work among leaders in the field, junior faculty, and promis­ing graduate students. Titchener’s adamance that the group exclude women on the grounds that men would not feel free to engage in freewheeling critique—and smoke—in the presence of the “weaker sex” was met with incredulity by Ladd-Franklin. In a series of letters to Titchener, Ladd-Franklin expressed her view that this practice was both immoral and unscientific. Her attack was largely unsuc­cessful; it was not until after Titchener’s death in 1927 that women were invited to join the group.