in the History of Psychology
An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
(Return to Classics index)
An Historical View of Some Early
Women Psychologists and the Psychology of Women
Edited by Katharine S. Milar
to Section Ia: Psychological Characteristics of Men and Women
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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
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).
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).
(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
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
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
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
Scarborough, E. & Furumoto, L. (1987).
Untold Lives: The first generation
of American women psychologists. New York: Columbia University
Shields, S. A. (1982). The variability hypothesis: The history of a
biological model of sex differences in intelligence. Signs,
Shields, S. A. (1975). Functionalism, Darwinism, and the psychology
of women. American Psychologist, 30.
Thomas, W. I. (1907).
The mind of woman and the lower races.
American Journal of Sociology,
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.