The Evolution of Women in Psychology

Imagine yourself completing a PhD program, from your research and examines to your dissertation, then presenting your dissertation to a graduate committee made up of the most influential psychologists of your time and getting approved by the entire committee for your stellar work. Now imagine yourself not getting the PhD, that you earned and were granted approval for all because you’re a woman.

This was the case with Mary Whiton Calkin (1863- 1930), one of the first-generation women psychologists known for her research in the association of ideas, as well as her contributing studies in dreams, self-psychology, memory, and perception. Calkin is widely known for being the woman who completed a doctoral program at Harvard University (1895) but then being refused a PhD from the school even though she distinctively satisfied the requirements and was approved by the entire graduate committee—all because she was a woman.

We’re in March— Women’s History Month, a good time to recognize that when famous psychologists and research studies are mentioned, women are rarely mentioned, despite their huge contributions to the history of psychology.

The omission of the research and studies contributed to psychology by women during the 19th and 20th century is a clear example of how women were undervalued and discriminated against during these centuries. During the early 19th century, women were often prohibited from earning a doctoral degree. Under certain circumstances, women would be granted permission to sit-in on lectures and complete studies, however that didn’t mean they were enrolled in the school or eligible for a degree. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that women were granted doctoral degrees— the first one being granted to Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939) by Cornell University in 1894.

Despite women’s contribution to the psychology field, much of their research and publications were overlooked. There was a belief that women were not mentally fit to study psychology and even when they proved to be academically successful in the field they were still ridiculed because of the beliefs about a women’s role in society. During this time women were expected to only be a wife and mother, and society didn’t believe they could be taking good care of their family if they had a career, especially in a field like psychology. The women studying psychology and getting an advanced education were not praised for their work, they were considered an outcast.

It’s safe to say that Psychology was a male dominated field when it was first introduced to science. Today women are dominating the field.

“Psychology, once a man’s profession, now attracts mostly women. The Changing Face of American Psychology and the National Science Foundation show that the percentage of psychology PhDs awarded to men has fallen from nearly 70 percent in 1975 to less than 30 percent in 2008,” science journalist Cassandra Willyard reports.

The American Psychological Association reported that 76 percent of new psychology doctorates are awarded to women, 74 percent of early career psychologists are made of women, and women make up 53 percent of the psychology workforce. Women have definitely come a long way in the psychology field since the 19th century.

Influential women in psychology from the 19th century, such as Calkin, played a huge part in the success of women in psychology today. Calkin didn’t allow the discrimination and limitations put on her to stop her from pursuing a career in psychology.

“She established one of the first psychological laboratories in the country at Wellesley College, she published four books and over a hundred papers in psychology and philosophy, and she was ranked 12th in the list of the 50 most eminent psychologists in the United States in 19032,” the American Psychological Association reports in her biography.

In addition to these many accomplishments, Calkin became the first female president of the American Psychological Association in 1905 and the American Philosophical in 1918. Today she is recognized as part of the first generation of women psychologists, a woman who made history. Happy Women’s History Month!

Published by Casey K. Daniels

23 year old writer from New York. This is your open invitation to crawl into my mind.

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