We have been noticing more and more current issues bearing on gender bias and challenges women face in the 21st century. Just a sampling: In 2014 the radical Nigerian group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls; Malala Yousafzai attained fame in 2009 at the age of 11 when she wrote critically of the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls, and she went on to win the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17; The gender issues raised during the 2016 American Presidential election do not need repeating; Pope Francis recently said the Catholic Church ban on female priests would likely last forever; in November 2016 over 300 American gymnasts lodged complaints of sexual harassment by coaches and other training personnel spanning over 20 years.

These issues and others triggered some reflections on the role of women in the establishment of the psychology in America, and the lessons about coping they represent. Some of the facts are surprising. For instance, American women did not receive the right to vote until 1920 when the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified. Twenty-eight years before that the American Psychological Association (APA) was founded in 1892. In its second year of existence, 26 years before women received the vote, the men of the APA elected two women to full membership: Mary Calkins and Christine Ladd-Franklin. In 1905, Calkins was elected President of the APA and the first woman to serve in that office. In 1921, Margaret Washburn became the second woman elected to the position.

The stories of Calkins, Ladd-Franklin, and Washburn are models of coping because during their formative educational years, these gifted women faced obstacles from prestigious American universities that discriminated against women. Despite the obstacles, they all went on to become influential theorists and researchers in psychology.

Christine Ladd (1847-1930) graduated from Vassar in 1869 with a major in Mathematics. She applied to Johns Hopkins University for graduate work under the name C. Ladd and was accepted. Once officials discovered she was a woman they were not pleased. Only after intervention by a world-class mathematician was she admitted, but with restrictions that basically made her less than a fully-matriculated student.

Ladd completed all the requirements for the Ph.D. degree in 1882 but the University would not grant her the degree because of her gender. It was not until 1926, as part of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Johns Hopkins, that the University corrected the 1882 decision and awarded Christine Ladd-Franklin the doctorate she had earned 44 years earlier. She was 78 years old.

Shortly after her graduate studies, Ladd faced what she termed “the cruel choice.” She wanted to pursue an academic career as a college professor, but she was also in love with Fabian Franklin, a mathematician. In those times, full-time formal faculty status was seldom granted to married women; thus her cruel choice. She chose her heart and married Franklin, adopting the professional name Christine Ladd-Franklin. (This marriage bias is not limited to college-faculty employment. One of us remembers talking with a student in the mid-1970s about her upcoming job interview with a manufacturing company. She said she planned to remove her engagement ring for the interview. Biases die hard!)

Professionally, Ladd-Franklin went on to develop an influential theory of color vision. In 1893, she joined Mary Calkins as the first women elected to the APA. That year she was also named in American Men of Science. One organization not open to her as a woman was the prestigious Society of Experimentalists. Not only was she ineligible for membership on the basis of her gender, she also was barred from attending meetings when papers were presented. She waged regular “battles” with the Society’s founder, Edward Titchener, over his exclusionary policy.

Mary Calkins (1863-1926) also experienced academic challenges because of her gender. She sought graduate study at Harvard, but the institution did not admit women. Under some pressure from other academicians, the Harvard President gave in a bit and allowed Calkins to sit in on classes, but not as a registered student. She also took classes at the adjoining Harvard Annex, which later became Radcliffe College, a women’s college with strong ties to Harvard.

At Harvard, Calkins actually completed all course work and her doctoral dissertation, which was published and recognized as ground-breaking in the field of verbal learning. The Department of Philosophy and Psychology said her work was sufficient to be awarded the Ph.D. degree, and they recommended this action to the University. The University President, however, supported by the Board, identified Calkins as a “guest” and refused to grant her the doctorate, solely on the basis of gender. Harvard Professor William James, generally considered the father of modern American psychology, was astounded, noting that Calkins’ doctoral examination and dissertation were brilliant.

In 1902, Radcliffe College offered to grant the Ph.D. to Calkins and three other women who had completed their studies at Harvard. Calkins alone refused. In a demonstration of character and integrity, she refused to justify a situation that occurred because of discrimination made solely on the basis of gender.

In her autobiography Calkins related other instances of gender discrimination she experienced while completing her studies. She did so without bitterness, however, and expressed her gratitude to the many men who were supportive, collegial, and friendly toward her, and who helped make her accomplishments possible.

Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939) did not have the level of difficulties with colleges that plagued Ladd-Franklin and Calkins, probably due to different circumstances and different choices she made with respect to where she pursued her advanced study in psychology. Washburn earned her doctorate in psychology from Vassar College in 1894, and became the first woman to receive a doctorate in psychology. She was elected to membership in the APA, joining Ladd-Franklin and Calkins who had been elected the previous year. After Titchener’s death in 1927 (yes, the same Titchener who waged battle with Ladd-Franklin over membership in The Society of Experimentalists), Washburn and June Etta Downey became the first women elected to that society. In 1921, Washburn was elected the 30th President of the American Psychological Association, and in 1932 she was the first woman psychologist and the second woman to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Washburn’s contribution to the new discipline of American psychology was substantial. In 1908 she published The Animal Mind, generally accepted as the first textbook on Comparative Psychology, and for 25 years the standard text in that area.

What coping lessons can we take from these abbreviated biographies of Ladd-Franklin, Calkins, and Washburn? The answers are probably obvious to readers of this blog, but good lessons are always worth repeating:

You will never improve if you avoid challenges.

Never fear hard work. Most worthwhile things require it.

Actions trump thinking.

Pursue those actions that bring you a sense of satisfaction

and productivity

Learn from your failures.

Do not be defined by your fears.

Live by your personal rules with integrity and honor.

Finally, do not define yourself, and do not let others define you, by circumstances of nature like gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. Instead, define yourself by your actions, accomplishments, and values. In the final analysis, Ladd-Franklin, Calkins, and Washburn were judged by most of their colleagues and peers by the quality of their work as psychologists, researchers, and teachers who happened to be women; they were not judged as women who happened to be psychologists.


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