Classics in the History of Psychology
Special Collections

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
ISSN 1492-3713

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An Historical View of Some Early Women Psychologists and the Psychology of Women

Edited by Katharine S. Milar
Earlham College

Introduction to Section Ia: Psychological Characteristics of Men and Women


1.  I am going to briefly introduce each of the papers in this section and offer a little biographical information about the authors.  For good brief biographies,  I suggest consulting American National Biography, Notable American Women, and for women psychologists, Elizabeth Scarborough and Laurel Furumoto=s Untold Lives (1987).  Full length biographies of Leta Hollingworth and G. Stanley Hall are also available. A very good history of the research on sex differences can be found in Rosenberg (1982). I have included a separate subsection within this section highlighting a particular controversy in psychology, the variability hypothesis. 


2.  Helen Bradford Thompson was the first individual to carry out a systematic experimental investigation of sex differences in psychological characteristics.  Born November 6, 1874 in Englewood, Illinois, Thompson received her Bachelor=s degree from the University of Chicago in 1897.   She was offered a fellowship for graduate work in psychology within the department of philosophy and studied with James R. Angell, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead as well as neurologist Henry H. Donaldson. Angell encouraged his students to study philosophy and neurology as well as psychology and Helen published papers in all three fields while still a student at Chicago.


3.  Thompson completed her Ph.D. in 1900, summa cum laude.  Chicago graduate John B. Watson  had a similar course of study at the university, but evidently was not as highly regarded as his predecessor. "I received my degree Magna Cum Laude and was told, almost immediately, by Dewey and Angell that my exam was much inferior to that of Miss Helen Thompson who graduated two years before me with a Summa Cum Laude.  I wondered then if anybody could ever equal her record. That jealousy existed for years"A (Watson, 1936, p. 274).  The first document in this collection is her dissertation, eventually published as The Mental Traits of Sex (1903) in which she compared the performance of 25 men and 25 women on motor, sensory and intellectual tests.  She found that men had the advantage in most of the tests of motor skills whereas women overall showed finer sensory discrimination. On the tests of  intellectual faculties, she found women slightly better at memory and association tasks and men better at tests of ingenuity. In her conclusions  Helen Thompson departs considerably from the accepted theories of the day. The theory espoused by Geddes and Thompson (1889) accounted for male female differences based on the characteristics of the sperm and the egg. The large inert ovum was naturally associated with passive, submissive behaviors; while the smaller, more agile sperm led to less conservative, more progressive and creative characteristics (see Shields, 1982  for further discussion).   With great restraint, Woolley pointed out the illogic in the biological analogies and suggested that other explanations were as logical as genetic ones -- namely environmental differences: "..the psychological differences of sex seem 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).


4.  Her work received mixed reviews. Two reviewers, while acknowledging the importance of such careful experimental work questioned whether the women in Thompson=s sample were representative of their sex. One wrote: "...the college woman is not exactly comparable with the college man. She is usually the cleverest girl of her family, urged by ambition or poverty or incompatibility of temper to leave her home; he goes to college as a matter of course" (Anonymous, 1903). Other reviewers, however, found her conclusion momentous. Thomas (1907) stated "Her findings are probably the most important contribution in this field and her general conclusion on differences of sex will, I think, hold also for differences of race..." (p. 435).


5.  After a year in Europe thanks to a fellowship from the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (later the AAUW), Thompson accepted a teaching position at Mount Holyoke College in 1901.  In 1905 she left Mount Holyoke to marry Paul Gerhardt Woolley, MD.  They eventually settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Woolley turned her attention to issues of vocational guidance (see Milar, 1999 for details).  She did, however write two reviews of the literature on sex differences.  The 1910 review is included in this collection; in it Woolley characterizes the nature of sex difference research in very emphatic language: "There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting a prejudice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel, have run riot to such an extent as here"  (Woolley, 1910b, p. 340).


6.  Woolley moved from Cincinnati to the Merrill-Palmer School in Detroit in 1921 and then to the Child Welfare Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University in 1926.  Due to a number of factors including divorce, stress from the new job, and ill health, she had a serious mental breakdown from which she never recovered.  She resigned her position at Teachers College in February, 1930 and never worked again.  Helen Thompson Woolley died at her daughter Eleanor Fowler=s home in Havertown Pennsylvania on December 24, 1947 of an aortic aneurysm (Zapoleon & Stolz, 1971; Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).


7.  Leta Stetter Hollingworth, like Woolley, was interested in sex differences in psychological characteristics and that became the focus of her dissertation research in 1913.   Born Leta Anna Stetter on May 25, 1886 in rural Nebraska, she attended the University of Nebraska from which she graduated first in her class in 1906.  She took a position as a high school teacher in DeWitt Nebraska beginning in the fall of 1906.  The next year she took at position at McCook High School in southeastern Nebraska and taught there until she resigned in December of 1908 to marry her University of Nebraska classmate Harry L. Hollingworth.  He finished his PhD at Columbia University in 1909 and took a position teaching at Barnard College.  Leta Hollingworth had hoped to find a high school teaching position in New York City  in order to save money for graduate study herself, but married women were not hired as teachers in New York.  The Hollingworths struggled financially until Harry was hired in 1911 by the Coca-Cola company to investigate the effects of caffeine on mental and motor tasks.  Coca-Cola was facing a trial on charges that they had violated the Pure Food and Drug Act. (See Benjamin, Rogers, & Rosenbaum, 1991 for details).  Leta was hired as assistant director of the research project and the income allowed her to attend graduate school.  She earned a M.A. in 1913 and a Ph.D in 1916 from Columbia University (Benjamin et al., 1991; Hollingworth, 1943/1990).


8.   During the caffeine research, the Hollingworths had asked women to record their menstrual periods in case that variable influenced performance. Leta Hollingworth in examining the records found no differences in the performance of women participants that could be attributed to the menstrual cycle.  Using the same testing procedures as employed in the caffeine study, Hollingworth examined the mental and motor performance of men and women and found no rhythmic variations that could be attributed to the occurrence of menses.  Functional Periodicity reported the results of her investigations and was her doctoral dissertation published in 1914, two years prior to satisfying all of the formal requirement for the PhD (Hollingworth, 1943/1990).

Her conclusion echoes the emphatic language of Helen Thompson Woolley: "It seems appropriate and desirable that women should investigate these matters experimentally, now that the opportunity for training and research is open to them. Thus, in time, may be written a psychology of woman based on truth, not on opinion; on precise, not on anecdotal evidence; on accurate data rather than on remnants of magic" (Hollingworth, 1914, p. 92).


9.  In spite of her untimely death in 1939 at the age of 53, Hollingworth made major contributions not only in the area of what is now known as psychology of women, but also in clinical and in educational psychology (see Benjamin & Shields, 1990).



Anonymous.  (1903, September 17).  The mental traits of sex.  Book review.  The Nation, 77, 235‑236


Benjamin, L.T., Rogers, A. M., & Rosenbaum, A. (1991).  Coca-Cola, caffeine, and mental deficiency: Harry Hollingworth and the Chattanooga trial of 1911. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 27, 42-55.


Benjamin, L. T. & Shields, S. (1990).  Foreword. In H. L. Hollingworth, Leta Stetter Hollingworth A biography (pp. ix-xviii).  Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing


Calkins, M. W. (1930).  Mary Whiton Calkins.  In Carl Murchison (Ed.), A history of psychology in autobiography, Vol. 1 (pp. 31-62).  Worchester, MA: Clark University Press.


Furumoto, L. (1979).  Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930) fourteenth president of the American Psychological Association.  Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 15, 346-356.


Furumoto, L. (1980).  Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930).  Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5, 55-67.


Geddes, P. & Thomson, A. (1889).  The evolution of sex.  London: W. Scott.


Hollingworth, H. L. (1943/1990). Leta Stetter Hollingworth A Biography.  Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company. (Reprint of 1943 edition published by University of Nebraska Press.).


Hollingworth, L. S. (1913).  The frequency of amentia as related to sex.  Medical Record,.84, 753-756.


Hollingworth, L. S.A(1914). Variability as related to sex differences in achievement.   American Journal of Sociology,19, 510-530.


Milar, K. S. (1999). AA coarse and clumsy tool:@ Helen Thompson Woolley and the Cincinnati Vocation Bureau.  History of Psychology, 2, 219-235.


Rosenberg R. (1982).  Beyond separate spheres : the intellectual roots of modern feminism.  New Haven: Yale University Press.


Scarborough, E. & Furumoto, L. (1987).  Untold Lives: The first generation of American women psychologists.  New York: Columbia University Press.


Shields, S. A. (1982).  The variability hypothesis: The history of a biological model of sex differences in intelligence.  Signs, 7, 769-797.


Shields, S. A. (1975).  Functionalism, Darwinism, and the psychology of women.  American Psychologist, 30. 739-754.


Thomas, W. I.  (1907).  The mind of woman and the lower races.  American Journal of Sociology, 12, 435‑469.


Watson, J. B. (1936).John Broadus Watson.  In C.   Murchison (Ed.), A History of Psychology in

Autobiography (Vol. 3, pp. 271‑281).  Worchester, MA: Clark University Press.


Zapoleon, M. W. & Stolz, L. M. (1971). Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley  In E. T. James, J. W. James, & P. S. Boyer (Eds.), Notable American Women 1607‑1950 (Vol. 3, pp. 657‑660).  Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.