Classics in the History of Psychology
Special Collections

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

(Return to Classics index)

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

Edited by Katharine S. Milar
Earlham College

Introduction to Section Ib: The Variability Hypothesis


1. One Aarmchair dogma@ that most irritated Leta Hollingworth was the Avariability hypothesis,@ the notion that while women were all very much the same, men showed a much greater range of both physical and mental abilities. Darwin had at first tentatively and then later less hesitantly asserted that the male of the species was more variable than the female.  Others then took this notion and used it to assert that evolutionary Aprogress@ was due to this male variability.   The fact that more men than women were to be found among the eminent and among the feeble-minded was used as evidence in support of this assertion (Hollingworth 1943/1990, pp. 86-87; Shields, 1982).


2.  The paper by Joseph Jastrow of the University of Wisconsin is an example of research reporting results consistent with the variability hypothesis.  In Jastrow=s study, when students were asked to produce a list of 100 words as rapidly as possible, women produced word lists with less variety than the lists produced by men; that is, they repeated more words and had fewer unique words than men.  Jastrow further suggested that women also produced more words about wearing apparel, furniture, and food than men; whereas men had many more animal words and more abstract words than women. 


3.  Jastrow=s results were challenged by Cordelia Nevers and Mary W. Calkins of Wellesley College and this (very enjoyable) exchange between Jastrow and Calkins continues in two successive articles; the last by Calkins has a final footnote by Jastrow.  Jastrow first criticizes methodological differences between the Wellesley study and his which account for the reason Wellesley women are more similar in their responses to the Wisconsin men than the Wisconsin women. In a follow-up study Calkins does find that some of the differences were apparently due to method, but still finds that the percentage of different words produced by Wisconsin men (55%) does not differ much from the percentage produced by Wellesley women (52%).  Wellesley women are still less interested in clothing than the Wisconsin women, but the number of words related to interior furnishings are very close to those produced by Wisconsin women.  Calkins acknowledges that the differences in the frequencies of words of particular categories reflect differences between men and women but declares that Jastrow=s attempts to characterize Aa masculine and feminine intellect ... [seem] futile and impossible because of our entire inability to eliminate the effect of environment@ (Calkins, 1896, p. 430).  She suggests that experiments of this type do not effectively address the question of a masculine versus a feminine mind.  Jastrow suggests that further research is necessary, but is unmoved by the Wellesley results.


4.  Mary Whiton Calkins was born in 1863 and grew up in Buffalo, NY where her father, Wolcott Calkins was a Presbyterian minister.  In 1880 he accepted a pastorate in Newton, Massachusetts.  Wolcott actively directed the education of Mary, her younger sister and three younger brothers and in 1882, she was accepted at Smith College with sophomore standing.   She graduated in 1884 having concentrated her studies in classics and philosophy. Calkins was hired to teach Greek at Wellesley College in 1887.  In 1890, the Department of Philosophy was interested in adding course work in psychology; Calkins was recognized as an effective teacher and was asked whether she would like the philosophy department position contingent upon getting some preparation in psychology.  Although this may sound unusual; it was not atypical for women=s colleges to recruit faculty in this way.  Further, at this time psychology was not considered a separate discipline from philosophy, but rather a sub-field. Calkins was interested and agreed to get some training in psychology (Furumoto, 1980).


5.  Finding graduate level training in psychology in 1890, particularly training that would include laboratory work was not easy, and especially not for a woman.  Harvard did have a laboratory; it was close to Calkins= home, and she would have the opportunity to study with William James and Josiah Royce, so she approached them for permission to attend their seminars. Both James and Royce were enthusiastic but President Charles Eliot of Harvard would not give his permission because women were not admitted to Harvard.  James lobbied on her behalf and, while willing to acknowledge that Eliot had gotten in some trouble a few years previously for Awinking at this thing;@ he nevertheless was incensed that Calkins was being  Akept out..Enough to make dynamiters of you and all women.@ (cited in Furumoto, 1979, p.350).


6.  Wolcott Calkins met with President Eliot on Mary=s behalf and following this meeting submitted a petition to the Harvard Corporation accompanied by a letter from Wellesley=s president making clear that one institution was requesting the other institution assist one of their faculty members and providing assurances that no precedents were being set by Harvard=s agreement.  The petition was granted and in October, 1890, Calkins began her work with James and Royce. In addition she did some laboratory work with Clark University professor, Edmund Sanford.  The next year, 1891, with his help and advice she established the laboratory at Wellesley and offered a course in physiological psychology. (see Green, 2000; Furumoto, 1979)


7.  In 1892, Calkins began looking for further training and study opportunities and received advice from James, Royce and Sanford.  Sanford suggested she go to Freiburg to study with Hugo Münsterberg.  His letter, like the earlier one from James, reflects a progressive attitude toward the admission of women for graduate study: A...I saw ... a picture of Münsterberg and his seminary -- among the rest a lady!  I infer that she was a student ...They are beginning to wake up over there, the more shame to Johns Hopkins and Clark -- an ineffable shame that you can=t get a fellowship in your own country in institutions given to advanced work@ (cited in Furumoto, 1979, p. 351).


8.  Conveniently, Münsterberg came to Harvard in the fall of 1892 and Calkins= petition to study in his laboratory was granted by Harvard with the careful specification that she was a guest not a registered student.  She worked for three years with Münsterberg and carried out research on memory using the paired associates technique which she invented.  In October, 1894, Münsterberg asked the president of Harvard whether she could be admitted as a candidate for the PhD but this request was refused.  In 1895 Calkins submitted her dissertation to the philosophy department; it was approved and subsequently Münsterberg, James, Royce and professors Palmer and Santayana  held an un-authorized oral examination and conveyed their unanimous decision that she had satisfied all the requirements for the PhD to the Harvard Corporation which acknowledged the communication without further comment in June, 1895 (Furumoto, 1979,1980; Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).


9.  In 1902 Calkins and three other women including Ethel Puffer, whose work appears in this Special Collection, were offered the opportunity to be awarded a PhD from Radcliffe College.  Radcliffe was solely an undergraduate college; women who did graduate work carried out that work at Harvard with Harvard professors.  Feeling strongly that awarding different degrees to men and women for completion of the same work was wrong, Calkins refused to accept the Radcliffe PhD (Furumoto, 1980).  A petition by a number of prominent Harvard alumni in 1927 to have a Harvard PhD awarded to Calkins was also denied.  Women were not awarded Harvard PhDs until 1963 (Furumoto, 1979; Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).


10.  In 1905 Mary Calkins became the first woman president of the American Psychological Association.  Her interests had always been more on the philosophical than experimental side of psychology and with younger colleagues willing and able to take over the laboratory courses, Calkins concentrated on the development of her Aself psychology@ (see Calkins, 1930, for example).  In 1918 she became the first woman president of the American Philosophical Association.  She retired from Wellesley in 1929 and died in 1930.


11.  One of Leta Hollingworth=s contributions to the variability hypothesis debate is her 1922 paper included in this collection.  In this paper she examines two samples consisting of more than 2000 males and females who underwent examination for mental deficiency and those who were institutionalized.  Approximately half of the data is drawn from an earlier study (Hollingworth, 1913), the remainder were collected in 1921.  She asks a number of questions of the sample to try to determine whether there are more feeble-minded men than women.  She concludes that, AA girl must be relatively more stupid than a boy in order to be presented for examination, in the first place, and she must be still more stupid, comparatively, in order that she may be actually segregated, as unfit for social and economic participation.@ (p.48).  By examining sex differences in admission statistics by age, she finds that while more males are admitted under the age of sixteen than females, after the age of sixteen those numbers are reversed.  This finding she attributes to the differences in the social demands placed on girls and women versus boys and men.  ASuch institutional statistics serve merely as an index of the extent to which it is comparatively easy and convenient for females who are extremely unintelligent to survive in the performance of their functions, in ordinary society .... Extremely stupid girls thus survive, and presumably reproduce their kind, more easily than do extremely stupid boys. The social order is such that survival for the former depends less upon intelligence than it does for the latter@(p. 57).  Therefore, she concludes that simply counting the number of feeble-minded males and using that as support for the variability hypothesis is invalid.


Calkins, Mary Whiton. (1896). Community of ideas of men and women. Psychological Review, 3, 426-430.


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.


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.


Jastrow, Joseph. (1891). A study in mental statistics. The New Review, 5, 559-568.


Jastrow, Joseph. (1896). Community of ideas of men and women. Psychological Review, 3, 68-71.


Nevers, Cordelia C. & Calkins, Mary W. (1895). Dr. Jastrow on community of ideas of men and women. Psychological Review, 2, 363-367.


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.