The Incredible Influence of Women in Psychology

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More than a century ago, 1 million people gathered for the first International Women’s Day. Now on March 8, we continue that tradition worldwide by celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women.

This day marks a welcomed opportunity to highlight female contributions across every culture, industry, and profession. This includes the field of psychology, where women have historically encountered similar discrimination and inequality felt in other industries.

The 2020 campaign theme, #EachforEqual, ties into the day’s call to action to accelerate women’s equality. “An equal world is an enabled world,” organizers say, and we echo this rallying call in psychology by highlighting women’s unique impact to this evolving field.

Early Influences

The names Freud, Skinner, and Jung often top the list of most prominent early psychologists. You may assume women weren’t on the forefront of this emerging specialty, yet women have actually contributed to psychology since its inception. In the early 1900s, about one out of every 10 psychologists in the United States was female.

This small group of pioneers faced adversity like women in other industries. Many were blocked from studying alongside men. Others were denied degrees they’d earned or faced challenges in finding positions where they could research and publish.

Ann Johnson, a professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas, spoke about the eventual shift in female acceptance at a “History of Women in Psychology” symposium.

“Women psychologists’ contributions and lives were excluded or minimized in traditional accounts of the field for many, many years, but that began to change, finally, after the infusion of feminist critique and analysis into psychology in the 60s and 70s, when their contributions and their lives were resurrected and historians started to document the life stories of these women and to preserve their voices,” she said.

Female Pioneers

So, who were these brave women who aspired to use their knowledge and expertise to help form the foundation of psychology that we know today? Here are just a few of these inspirational women.

Anna Freud

Sigmund Freud may be one of the most prominent names in psychology, but his daughter, Anna, has her own accomplishments in the field. She’s known as the founder of child psychoanalysis, even though her father didn’t believe that children could be psychoanalyzed. Anna Freud built on her father’s work by identifying different defense mechanisms in her 1936 book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. Defense mechanisms like denial, repression, and suppression have made their way into our everyday language.

Mary Whiton Calkins

As the American Psychological Association’s (APA) first female president, Mary Whiton Calkins is a noteworthy early psychologist. She’s remembered for her writings that combine philosophy and psychology. Her work centered on memory and the self, which she said could never be fully defined.

She earned her PhD at Harvard but was refused the degree (even posthumously) on the grounds that Harvard didn’t accept women.

Whiton Calkins established one of the first psychological laboratories in the country at Wellesley College where she taught until she died in 1929.

Mary Ainsworth

As a developmental psychologist, Ainsworth was a lead researcher in the field of attachment theory. She developed the Strange Situation Test, which analyzes the pattern of attachment between a child and mother or caregiver. Still used in psychiatry and psychology today, the test identified four areas of attachment: secure, anxious-resistant insecure, anxious-avoidant insecure, and disorganized/disoriented.

Results demonstrated that for young children, the primary caregiver is responsible for creating a secure foundation to explore the world. Later research built on the Canadian’s findings and found a strong correlation between a child’s attachment style and mental health challenges.

Karen Horney

This German psychoanalyst born in the late 1800s founded feminist psychology, the study of how gender power imbalances impact the development of psychological theories and mental health treatment. She urged others in the field to recognize how differences between men and women originate in socialization and culture — not biology.

Horney was forced to resign from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1941, but later co-founded the Association of the Advancement of Psychoanalysis and the American Institute for Psychoanalysis. She focused her research on how culture shapes personality.

Feminist Therapy

These female researchers shaped various aspects of psychology and were directly involved in creating new treatments and approaches in the process, including feminist therapy.

“In the aftermath of the civil rights and women’s movements, the profession began to become more diverse, said Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., LPCC-S, a Talkspace therapist. “And as more women began to enter the profession, their voices helped to shape the narrative related to the mental health needs of women.”

Feminist therapy started as a way for women to help women, but it has evolved to include anyone who wants to explore the role of gender in their emotions or relationships. Participants work to explore their identity, find their strengths, and use them to feel more powerful. Many use role-playing and assertiveness training to build their identity and self-esteem — all in an effort to combat cultural expectations and the restrictive limitations of gender roles. Unlike other forms of psychotherapy, therapists using this method may share their own personal stories.

The different types of feminist therapy work to empower those who feel silenced or oppressed by societal norms. Its foundation centers on understanding that “individuals are affected by and struggle with societal norms and must learn to look to themselves as the experts in their own unique identity.”

Countless other approaches and disciplines are attributed to female psychologists. O’Neill points to Marsha Linehan, the creator of the dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) approach, as especially influential.

“She revolutionized the process of therapy by creating an approach that focuses on the idea of acceptance of life circumstances and emotional states, instead of trying to change or escape those circumstances or states,” O’Neill explained. “For many therapists, Linehan’s work has redefined how we view, approach, and treat mental health concerns.”

Looking Ahead

As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2020, we honor how far the field has come. Nearly two-thirds of psychology graduate students and more than half of the APA are women. Almost 75 percent of psychology majors are female. Yet a report from the APA shows that female psychologists still lag behind men in terms of money, power, and status.

As more women enter the field, we hope to see greater gains — equality for all. That’s truly #EachforEqual.

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