Updated: Mar 22
If you have ever studied psychology, you will have noticed that almost every textbook or other resource talks about the men in this field, their accomplishments, key discoveries, and how they have shaped the history of psychology. But what about the women in this field and their accomplishments and discoveries?
Unfortunately, there have been many attempts to erase these astounding women from the history books due to a fear of their success, societal standards, and sheer misogyny.
A Quick Look Into the Past
One of psychology's basic foundations has been the societal belief that women were intellectually inferior to men. The fear of women entering academia was so strong that men - including doctors - developed theories and penned inaccurate reports about the health of women who attempted to pursue higher education. One doctor even reported that the pursuit of education appeared to damage women's reproductive systems.
The American Civil War led to a shift in societal standards as women were needed to fill the roles vacated by men called away to war. Despite this steps towards allowing women to pursue careers and achieve higher-level education, being a mother and/or a wife was still believed to be a women's first and foremost responsibility. In addition, widespread fear of changing gender roles and a belief that women - and their ideas - were inferior resulted in women not being recognized for their important contributions to the field of psychology and they were left out of the history books (Graziano & Raulin, 2020).
Women who did great things in psychology did not always get credit for their work. An example of this was Mary Calkins' invention of the paired association technique in research. G.E Muller criticized her technique but later built upon it and while Titchener later took credit for her invention when he added it to his influential student manual for laboratory research.
Women in Psychology
Many of the pioneering women in psychology faced considerable discrimination, obstacles, and difficulties. Many were not allowed to study with men, denied degrees they had rightfully earned or found it difficult to secure academic positions that would allow them to research and publish their work (Verywell Mind, 2020).
The daughter of Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud expanded on her father's ideas, helped to develop the field of child psychotherapy, and influenced other notable psychologists such as Erik Erikson. Some of her accomplishments include introducing the concept of defense mechanisms and expanding the field of child psychology (Verywell Mind, 2020).
Mary Ainsworth pioneered the technique known as the “Strange Situation” assessment. Ainsworth would have a mother and a child sit in an unfamiliar room. Researchers would then observe the child's reactions to various situations including a stranger entering the room, being left alone with the stranger, and the mother's return to the room. She used this and other research to demonstrate the importance of healthy childhood attachments (Verywell Mind, 2020).
Karen Horney was an influential neo-Freudian psychologist known for her contribution to the development of feminine psychology. Horney countered Sigmund Freud’s famous proposal that women experience “penis envy” with the idea that men suffered from “womb envy” and that all men's actions were driven by the need to overcompensate for the fact that they cannot bear children. Her outspoken nature has been credited with bringing much needed attention to the psychology of women (Verywell Mind, 2020).
Christine Ladd-Franklin is known for challenging one of the leading male psychologists of her time, Edward Titchener, for not accepting women into his highly controversial group of “Experimentalists”. She studied at John Hopkins and completed her dissertation titled "The Algebra of Logic" at a time when the university did not permit women to receive a Ph.D. She spent time in Germany studying colour vision with Hermann von Helmholtz and Arthur Konig and came to reject Helmholtz's theory of colour vision in favour of her own. Finally - in 1926 - nearly 44 years after she finished her dissertation, John Hopkins awarded her the doctorate degree that she had rightfully earned. She is remembered for her work in psychology and her influence pioneering women in a field once dominated by men (Verywell Mind, 2020).
The four incredibly intelligent and talented women mentioned above are only a few of the many women that do not get the recognition they deserve. Hopefully this piece motivates readers to do more research and dive deeper into the history of women in psychology (and other disciplines). What else are our textbooks and what we choose to call history hiding from us? How many more pioneering women have gone unnoticed and unrecognized for their hard work and expertise in their respective fields?