Exploring Women's Contributions to the Field of Psychology
Happy Women’s History Month! As a woman-owned and woman-staffed practice, March is a particularly important month here at CBTC! We are deeply aware of both the unique challenges women face and the contributions that women make in all aspects of society. Through this post, I explore the history of Women’s History Month, important women in the field of psychology, contributions of women in the field, and where women can go from here to further advance the field.
What is Women’s History Month?
So, where did it all begin? Per history.com (2023), the UN has been sponsoring International Women’s Day since 1975. Later, in 1978 a school district in Sonoma, CA organized a weeklong celebration of the contributions that women have made to culture, history, and society. Furthering this endeavor, in 1980 President Jimmy Carter declared the week of March 8th as National Women’s History Week (History.com, 2023). By 1986, the National Women’s History Project had succeeded in petitioning Congress and expanded National Women’s History Week to Women’s History Month (History.com, 2023).
Notable Women in the Field:
When one reads through articles and books about the history of the field of psychology, women often seem to be missing from the narrative. However, it is estimated that approximately 1 in 10 psychologists were women in the early 1900s (Delgado, 2019). While their numbers were small, women were very much present and making major contributions to the field.
Notable women within the field of psychology include Anna Freud. Not only is Anna Freud the daughter of Sigmund Freud (Cherry, 2020), her work has influenced generations of psychologists (Delgado, 2019). She expanded the field’s understanding of child psychology. She is often best known for the development of the concept of defense mechanisms, including denial, repression, and suppression (Cherry, 2020; Weinberger, 2021).
Mary Whiton Calkins completed all of the requirements for her Doctoral degree, however, Harvard University refused to grant her the degree as she was a woman (Cherry, 2020). Despite this, she went on to serve as the first female president of the APA in 1905 (Cherry, 2020). She is recognized for her work on memory and the self and is credited with developing the self-help concept (Delgado, 2019; Weinberger, 2021).
Mary Ainsworth was a developmental psychologist whose work demonstrated the importance of developing healthy childhood attachments (Cherry, 2020). Research building on her work has further demonstrated the relationship between childhood attachment styles and mental health challenges (Weinberger, 2021).
Karen Horney is best known for her contributions to the field of feminine psychology (Cherry, 2020). She developed the concept of womb envy and argued that men are often motivated by a need to compensate for their inability to have children (Delgado, 2019). Additionally, she co-founded the American Institute for Psychoanalysis (Weinberger, 2021).
Mamie Phipps Clark was the first Black woman to receive a Doctoral degree from Columbia University (Cherry, 2020). Her work focused on racial identity and self-esteem and she laid the foundation for future research regarding self-concept among minorities (Cherry, 2020). She is particularly famous for the “doll test,” which demonstrated the impact of racism on Black children (Cherry, 2020).
Margaret Floy Washburn was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in psychology in 1894 and was the second woman to serve as president of the APA (APA, 2012). She is also known for her contributions in the fields of animal cognition and motor theory (Cherry, 2020).
Where are we now?
As of 2017, women made up more than half of the members of the APA and approximately 75% of graduate students in psychology are women (Cherry, 2020). Women’s voices have continued to shape the narrative related to the mental health needs of women (Weinberger, 2021). Further, feminist therapy works to empower all (not just women) who feel silenced and oppressed by societal norms (Cherry, 2020).
Studies have also found that including women as both participants and researchers in studies is more accurate and diverse (Bert, 2018). Additionally, women bring unique perspectives and ideas to research when included (Bert, 2018).
Overall, women are becoming more prominent within the field of psychology. While women continue to experience significant gaps in compensation, publications, and research grants, they are joining the field in record numbers (Grub et al., 2021). Additionally, women are as likely as men to gain tenure in academic settings (Grub et al., 2021). As women continue to join the field, it is hoped that they will continue to make significant strides in their contributions to the field.
About the Author
Dr. Montes is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center in Chesapeake, VA.
American Psychological Association. (2012). Margaret Floy Washburn: 1921 APA president. American Psychological Association. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/about/governance/president/bio-margaret-washburn
Bert, A. (n.d.). 3 reasons gender diversity is crucial to science. Elsevier Connect. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from http://www.elsevier.com/connect/3-reasons-gender-diversity-is-crucial-to-science
Cherry, K. (2020, May 14). 10 women who helped change psychology. Verywell Mind. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.verywellmind.com/women-who-changed-psychology-2795260
Delgado, J. (2019, June 19). 10 women who changed psychology. Psychology Spot. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://psychology-spot.com/women-psychology/
Gruber, J., Mendle, J., Lindquist, K. A., Schmader, T., Clark, L. A., Bliss-Moreau, E., Akinola, M., Atlas, L., Barch, D. M., Barrett, L. F., Borelli, J. L., Brannon, T. N., Bunge, S. A., Campos, B., Cantlon, J., Carter, R., Carter-Sowell, A. R., Chen, S., Craske, M. G., … Williams, L. A. (2020). The future of women in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 16(3), 483–516. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691620952789
History.com (Ed.). (2023, February 17). Women’s History month 2023 - history. History. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/womens-history-month
Isanski, B. (2011, February 27). The history of women in psychology. Association for Psychological Science - APS. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/the-history-of-women-in-psychology
Weinberger, J. (2021, January 28). The incredible influence of women in psychology. Talkspace. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.talkspace.com/blog/important-women-in-history-psychology-therapy/