Famous Women in Psychology

| March 28, 2018

Psychology has been a part of the Teachers College curriculum since 1899. It is quite common to hear about the Founding Fathers of psychology but what about the women who helped shape the field? For Women’s History Month, here are just a few important figures.


Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930) was the first female president of the American Psychological Association. She took all the courses needed to earn a PhD from Harvard but was not awarded one because she was a woman. She was later offered a PhD from Radcliffe College but rejected it because she felt it would allow Harvard to continue denying women PhDs. Her work focused on defining the self, which she later decided was undefinable.

All the books at TC by Calkins are in the closed stacks (which you can request!). You can learn more about her teachings on self-psychology in Dana Noelle McDonald’s article ‘Differing conceptions of personhood within the psychology and philosophy of Mary Whiton Calkins‘.



Karen Horney (1885-1952) was a psychoanalyst who pioneered feminine psychology in reaction to Freud’s emphasis on penis envy and his belief that female psychology was merely as a subset of male psychology. She also departed from Freudian orthodoxy in her beliefs that environmental and social conditions influence neuroses.

Due to her moving beyond Freudian theory, she was expelled from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. She went on to found the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis. After her death the Karen Horney Clinic was founded to promote her idea people can grow and change throughout their lives.

You can read more about her in Collected Works of Karen Horney and The feminist legacy of Karen Horney by Marcia Westkott.


Picture credit: Psychology's Feminist Voices

Picture credit: Psychology’s Feminist Voices


Inez Beverly Prosser (1897-1934) is believed to be the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in psychology. She focused on educational psychology and you can read her dissertation ‘Non-academic development of Negro children in mixed and segregated schools online. She wrote about how racial injustice affected black children. She believed that some children did better in integrated schools but many were better served in segregated schools due to their nurturing environment and family involvement. She died well before Brown v. Board of Education but her research into the education of black students was used by other researchers to inform the debate of separate but equal.


Picture credit: Psychology's Feminist Voices

Picture credit: Psychology’s Feminist Voices


Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) was a developmental psychologist known for her work with attachment theory. Before developing the Strange Situation procedure to study attachment behavior, she carried out research in Uganda studying mother-infant interaction. TC has her work Infancy in Uganda: infant care and the growth of love.

You can read more about Ainsworth’s experiments in ‘Attachment, Exploration, and Separation: Illustrated by the Behavior of One-Year-Olds in a Strange Situation‘, which she wrote with Silvia Bell.



Picture credit: Psychology's Feminist Voices

Picture credit: Psychology’s Feminist Voices

Martha Bernal (1931-2001) was a clinical psychologist and first Latina to receive a PhD in psychology in the United States. She faced hiring discrimination and unable to find a teaching position turned to research. She worked with autistic children and behavioral problems in children. She also focused on diversity issues in psychology.

You can read her work with Felipe Castro, ‘Are Clinical Psychologists Prepared for Service and Research With Ethnic Minorities?: Report of a Decade of Progress‘. You can also read more about her in ‘Complexities of the Latina experience: A tribute to Martha Bernal’.



For a broad overview of women psychologists in the United States, check out Untold lives: the first generation of American women psychologistsAlso you may wish to look at Mothers of psychoanalysis: Helene Deutch, Karen Horney, Anna Freud, and Melanie Klein.

Another great resource is the website Psychology’s Feminist Voices.