This March, the Women’s History Month theme is “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” The theme is a tribute to the work of caregivers and frontline workers throughout the ongoing pandemic, and a recognition of the ways that women provide healing and hope. It also serves as a nice reminder to take a moment to acknowledge the work that women psychologists have contributed to the field throughout history.
There are countless women—many of whom are still working today—who’ve made significant and important contributions to psychology and therapy. Here, we’ll focus on five who forged pathways, founded new subtypes of psychology, and persisted despite a stack of odds against them. Their work continues to influence the field today.
Margaret Floy Washburn
Born in 1871, Margaret Floy Washburn was the first woman to be granted a Ph.D. in psychology in 1894, and the second woman to serve as president of the American Psychological Association. Her best-known work and most significant contribution to psychology was a textbook that compiled research on experimental work in animal psychology. The work was radical for its inclusion of over 100 various species of animals, rather than just rats, and its suggestion that animal psyches contain mental structures similar to humans.
The sixth and youngest child of the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud made her own significant contributions to psychology and psychoanalysis. She’s considered to be one of the early founders of child psychology and published several influential books on child and adolescent development.
Mamie Phipps Clark
Born in 1917, Mamie Phipps Clark was the first Black woman to earn a degree in experimental psychology, which she earned at Columbia University in 1943. She prevailed—with many frustrations—in a field dominated by white men. Her research focused on segregation and how Black children’s attitudes toward race were affected by segregation. She’s perhaps best known for her doll study, formally titled “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children.” The study played a key role as evidence in the court challenge that led to the court case Brown v. Board of Education. It was the first time in the Supreme Court’s history that social science research was submitted as evidence.
Born in 1885, Karen Horney is perhaps best known for her psychoanalytic theories, which challenged some traditional Freudian views. Horney is credited with founding feminist psychology in response to Freud’s theory of “penis envy” (“penis envy,” Freud theorized, was a stage in which teenage girls experienced anxiety over not having a penis). Horney disagreed that there were inherent differences in the psychology of men and women, and said that “womb envy” occurs in men just as “penis envy” occurs in women. She released one of the first-ever self-help books, Are You Considering Psychoanalysis? in 1946, and stressed that self-awareness is part of becoming a better person.
Leta Stetter Hollingworth
Although she’s best known for her work with gifted children, Leta Stetter Hollingworth made significant contributions to women’s psychology. Her career started as a teacher in Nebraska, and when she and her husband moved to New York years later, she discovered the city had a rule against women being teachers. This discrimination led Stetter Hollingworth toward an interest in sociology and education. While studying psychology at Columbia, she wrote a dissertation addressing the myth that women have reduced mental capacity during their periods. She ultimately concluded that her data didn’t reveal a mental inefficiency in women, challenging a then-accepted notion.