Women earned 79% of the bachelor’s degrees in psychology awarded in the United States in 2018-2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). But a quick look at many lists of pioneers in psychology includes few — if any — women.
A closer examination of the history of psychology reveals that the important role of women in the field isn’t new, however. Women helped lead the way in work on such prominent psychological concepts as psychoanalysis, attachment theory, racial identity, and self-esteem.
The history of women in psychology dates back to at least the 1890s, when the first woman completed a doctoral program in psychology. Because of her gender, Mary Whiton Calkins didn’t receive a degree, but she became a critical figure in the discipline — and she helped set the stage for the important role that women would go on to play in the study and practice of psychology.
Women in Psychology: Overview
From child psychoanalysis to racial identity studies, women are responsible for some of the most influential work in psychology. Anna Freud built on the work of her father, Sigmund Freud, to focus his concept of psychoanalysis on children. Mamie Phipps Clark’s revelations about racial preferences and identity in Black children were key to arguments in the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.
And Anna Freud and Clark weren’t alone.
Women also are behind critical findings related to attachment theory, play therapy, feminist psychology, and experimental psychotherapy. But for much of the field’s history, the role of women in psychology received little recognition. Like Calkins before them, many female pioneers in psychology were denied degrees because they were women, and some faced obstacles in garnering positions in which they could study their psychological theories and publish the results.
The emergence of the 1960s and 1970s women’s movement gave rise to increased recognition of the importance of women in psychology, both as professionals and as research subjects. More than 50 years later, women continue to play a pivotal role in much of psychology’s most important work and represent the lion’s share of graduates in the field.
Mary Whiton Calkins held a degree in classics and philosophy in 1897 when she began teaching Greek in college. Three years later she accepted an offer to begin teaching psychology. There was a catch, however: The position required her to study this fledgling area of science for at least a year. She attended university classes, completed a doctoral program, and presented a thesis in psychology — but, because she was a woman, she was not formally admitted and did not receive the degree.
Calkins developed paired-associate learning to study memory, an accomplishment for which someone else claimed credit, and then went on to publish more than a hundred papers on psychology and philosophy. Calkins became the first woman to be president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1905.
Untold Stories of Women in Psychology
Mary Whiton Calkins’ story of achievement was one of the first in the history of women in psychology. Among the other early accomplishments of female psychologists are Anna Freud’s findings on defense mechanisms, Mary Ainsworth’s study of children’s mental health, and Karen Horney’s research on the role of culture on gender differences.
Psychology’s origins lie in the 17th century, with modern psychology emerging in the late 1800s. But the importance of women in the history of psychology wasn’t broadly acknowledged as the field grew through the first part of the 20th century — largely because women then were seen as less capable than their male counterparts, despite scientific research proving otherwise. Even in the face of these obstacles, about 1 of every 10 psychologists at that time was a woman.
In the early days of modern psychology, the dominance of white men also meant that research typically didn’t consider the differences between genders or minority populations.
Learn More About the Role of Women in Psychology
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Despite facing obstacles in the academic and scientific communities, women in psychology made key strides in the field’s first 100 years. These achievements, as reported by American Psychological Association and Annenberg Learner, include the following: 1905 — Mary Whiton Calkins becomes the first female APA president. 1937 — Karen Horney questions key theories of Sigmund Freud. 1946 — Anna Freud introduces child psychoanalysis theory and practice. 1954 — Mamie Phipps Clark informs Brown v. Board of Education.
From animal behavior to the “Zeigarnik effect,” women have had an impact on a broad range of psychology focus areas and concepts. Following are some of the most prominent influential women in psychology.
Mary Ainsworth is one of the best-known figures in 20th century psychology. She was a force behind groundbreaking research on child development, focusing on the relationships between children and their caregivers. Her work revealed the importance of healthy attachments in childhood and introduced the “strange situation” assessment to identify types of adult attachment.
Ursula Bellugi is a pioneering researcher in language and its effects on the nervous system. She was the first to show that American Sign Language (ASL) draws on many of the same areas of the brain as spoken language for processing. Bellugi was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2007.
Mary Whiton Calkins
Mary Whiton Calkins studied with some of the greatest thought leaders of her time, although she was denied a doctoral degree. Along with becoming the first woman to be president of the APA and developing the paired-associate learning technique, Calkins was a pioneer in self-help.
A founding member of the Association for Women in Psychology in 1969, Florence Denmark is a respected educator, author, and speaker on the psychology of women. Her research on violence, prejudice and stereotyping, ethnicity, and gender influenced the study of psychology globally, earning her a role as a leading representative to the United Nations for the International Council of Psychologists and the APA.
A renowned psychoanalyst like her father, Anna Freud was a founder of psychoanalytic child psychology and the concept of defense mechanisms. She studied the difficulties experienced by children who are emotionally deprived and facing disadvantages, and her findings influenced how medical and judicial systems treated children.
Mathilde Hertz helped establish the study of animal behavior as a field of psychological research. Until a series of challenges — including restrictions in Nazi Germany — cut her career short, she published more than 30 articles about the visual perception of animals, influencing the study of the problem-solving capacity of animals.
Another figure among the most influential women in psychology is Karen Horney. Her work in the first half of the 20th century helped shape many areas of the field. A noted psychoanalyst, Horney followed most of the theories of Sigmund Freud — except his views on the psychology of women, some of which she labeled as inaccurate and demeaning. She developed widely adopted views on personality and neuroses.
Social psychologist Marie Jahoda was a trailblazer in the study of racial prejudice, positive mental health, and authoritarian personalities. Among her most noteworthy work is her research on the psychological impact of unemployment, which helped earn her APA awards for contributions to psychology and the public interest.
Rosa Katz, a developmental psychologist, co-wrote Conversations with Children. The book chronicled more than 150 conversations with children that have served as the basis of many concepts in the psychology of learning.
Melanie Klein’s work in psychoanalysis early in the 20th century was groundbreaking, yielding the practice of using play therapy to help children express their feelings, anxieties, and unconscious experiences naturally. She was the researcher behind the child psychology concepts of the “paranoid-schizoid position” and the “depressive position.”
Child psychologist Elizabeth Koppitz wrote several books that influenced the psychoeducational assessment of children. The Bender Gestalt Test for Young Children and Psychological Evaluation of Children’s Human Figure Drawings are key works related to learning disabilities and exceptional education.
Eleanor Maccoby was a developmental psychologist. Her work studying sexual differences helped shape the current understanding of socialization, gender roles, and biological influences on gender differences. She is an author of The Psychology of Sex Differences and studied the effect that divorce has on children.
Margaret Floy Washburn
In 1894 Margaret Floy Washburn became the first woman to earn a doctoral degree in psychology. A preeminent voice on the subjects of animal cognition and basic psychological processes, she led work that influenced the study of psychology in animals. Washburn also believed that movements of the body could influence thought.
Naomi Weisstein’s seminal paper “Psychology Constructs the Female” helped to launch the meeting of feminism and academic psychology. A founder of the Association for Women in Psychology, she published several academic pieces on feminism and its implications for psychology.
According to Bluma Zeigarnik’s Zeigarnik effect, people have the tendency to remember information related to unfinished tasks, then erase them from memory once they’re complete. Zeigarnik also established experimental psychopathology as a separate research area dedicated to applying psychological theories to the workings of a disturbed mind.
Women are behind some of the most important findings and theories shaping psychology. According to Psychology Spot, their work led the way in areas such as attachment theory, child psychoanalysis, developmental psychology, family therapy, play therapy, and self-help.
Women of color face what the Association for Psychological Science (APS) describes as “intersecting inequalities,” or discrimination based not only on their gender but also on their race or ethnicity. Women of color have overcome these challenges to become leaders in the field of psychology, with much of their work focused on culture, diversity, and the needs of marginalized populations. Following are some trailblazing women of color in psychology.
In 1962 Martha Bernal became the first woman of Mexican descent to earn a doctoral degree in psychology. She was an important researcher on how the mind and body interact. After discovering that inaccurate assumptions about race and the treatment of marginalized groups informed some psychological studies, she championed efforts to study Latino psychology and mental health issues in minority populations.
E. Kitch Childs
Another founder of the Association for Women in Psychology, in 1969, E. Kitch Childs opened her own practice to provide therapy to the LGBTQIA+ community, people living with AIDS, and other marginalized populations. Her research focused on Black women and how incorporating feminism into therapy could empower them.
Jean Lau Chin
Jean Lau Chin identified a lack of support for students from different cultural backgrounds, leading to a career focused on exploring assumptions about gender and race. Her work in leadership styles, diversity, and women’s issues influenced governmental policies regarding cultural competency.
Mamie Phipps Clark
Another giant among women of color in psychology is Mamie Phipps Clark. A scholar of issues related to racial preferences and identity in Black children, she is best known for her work on the “doll study.” That research involved 200 Black children, who chose between dolls representing different races — with 65% selecting the white doll. The findings would play a key role in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case that ended school segregation.
Jennifer Eberhart, 2014 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, often called the “genius” grant, has studied how subliminal images trigger racial stereotypes and affect what people see. Her work on the ways people code and categorize others according to race has helped raise awareness about stereotypes in policing and schools.
The first Japanese woman to receive a doctoral degree in any subject area, Tsuruko Haraguchi pioneered research on mental fatigue. That work, conducted in the early 1900s, would go on to be replicated by many other scientists.
Ruth Howard was among the first Black women to earn a doctoral degree in psychology, conducting groundbreaking child development research in the early 1900s. Her research “A Study of the Development of Triplets” included 229 sets of triplets from many ethnic groups and paved the way for a career working with underserved communities.
The first Indigenous woman in the United States to receive a doctoral degree in psychology, Marigold Linton has dedicated her career to advancing the work of Indigenous populations in science. Her research in cognitive psychology focuses on how long the brain can retain information.
After leaving her native Texas in pursuit of a graduate school that would accept Black students, Inez Prosser became one of the first Black women to receive a doctoral degree in psychology. Prosser’s study “The Nonacademic Development of Negro Children in Mixed and Segregated Schools” helped initiate discussions about school desegregation in the 20th century.
Maria Root is a trailblazer in the study of multiracial individuals. She researches trauma, eating disorders, multiracial identities and psychology, and feminist therapy. Root created the Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage to affirm mixed-race identity.
In 1970 Reiko True created the first mental health program for a nonwhite population, a service for Asian Americans in California. True became the center’s leader — the first Asian American to hold such a position — and she worked to ensure staff there received training on Asian languages and cultures.
Alberta Turner was a leading voice in the study of mental disorders and juvenile delinquency. A civil rights activist, she dedicated her career to implementing reforms in the criminal justice system.
Importance of Women in Psychology
Hamstrung by viewpoints that women were mentally, physically, and emotionally weaker than men —based in misinterpretations of Charles Darwin’s biological theories — women in psychology’s early days nonetheless emerged to lead the field toward more inclusivity. The historical importance of women in psychology is evident in today’s high percentage of women who earn psychology degrees as well as the representation of a variety of populations in psychological research.
Women bring unique experiences to psychological studies, both as researchers and research subjects. Additionally, women have been the driving force behind research that has provided a deeper understanding of people of color, individuals from different parts of the world, and people in the LGBTQIA+ community.
Elsevier and Perspectives on Psychological Science report that elevating the voices of women and other marginalized groups in psychology is critical to effective practice for many reasons, including the following: 1. Different perspectives. 2. Accurate research. 3. Equitable treatment.
From building on earlier research to disputing established theories, women have changed the field of psychology in dramatic ways since its roots in the 1800s. Their research has shined a spotlight on concerns related to women, families, and minority populations. Their work has effected change in areas that range from learning with disabilities to policing.
Anna Freud, for example, built on her father’s work in psychoanalysis while also establishing methods for using the concept with children — even though Sigmund Freud had practiced mainly with adults. Karen Horney also was a psychoanalyst, but she countered Sigmund Freud’s notion of “penis envy” with the theory that men’s behavior compensates for their lack of ability to have children.
The ranks of today’s psychologists reflect the enormous influence of these predecessors. A 2020 report in Perspectives on Psychological Science notes that women increasingly hold positions of prominence in psychological laboratories, academic departments, and professional societies.
The Future of Women in Psychology
Despite their impressive achievements in psychology, women still face hurdles in progressing to the highest levels of the field. They face wage and opportunity gaps when compared with psychologists who are men. The Perspectives on Psychological Science report recommends steps such as the following to build on the influence and success of women in psychology:
Raising awareness of the issue by researching and documenting examples of disparities in opportunities between genders
Examining hiring practices to ensure that employers hire and promote women in psychology at a pace equivalent to their peers who are men
Enhancing women’s salary negotiation skills and helping them to take advantage of all opportunities to seek pay increases
Addressing women’s work and family conflicts through measures such as providing assistance with child care expenses and expanding parental leave opportunities
Women in the history of psychology established the foundation for the prominent role women play in the field today.
Psychoanalysis and racial identity are just two of the many areas in which the findings of women changed the way psychologists view individuals’ behavior. The groundbreaking work of women in psychology has helped influence society’s acceptance of people’s differences and effected change in areas such as women’s rights and school desegregation. Women, who today comprise the majority of people who study psychology, can take a page from these pioneers to continue progress in the field.