6 Women Who Changed the World of Psychology

Although many women in psychology have made essential and groundbreaking contributions to the field, female psychologists are often overlooked in textbooks.

According to the book A History of Modern Psychology, the only academic jobs typically open to women at the beginning of the 20th century were at women’s colleges. However, these schools often practiced their form of prejudice by refusing to hire married women. The reasoning was that a woman was incapable of managing both a husband and a teaching career.

Women who were early pioneers in psychology were not allowed to study with men. They were denied degrees or found it challenging to secure academic positions that would have enabled them to conduct research and publish papers. They faced discrimination and various obstacles. Yet, they managed to influence not only psychology but also culture in general.

The following list honors both early pioneers and scientists who are making contributions today.

Anna Freud

"How wonderful it is that nobody needs to wait even a single moment before starting to improve the world."

When hearing the last name Freud, many people have a single person in mind: Austrian doctor Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. But not many know that his youngest daughter created the field of child psychoanalysis.

Even though Sigmund Freud stated that children could not be psychoanalyzed, Anna Freud argued that claim. She suggested that child analysis could follow psychoanalysis's fundamental theories, but should have its own distinct therapy model.

She developed new techniques to help children and pointed out that children's symptoms varied from those displayed by adults. According to Anna Freud, this was a result of children's developmental stages.

Also, her writing on the ego's defense mechanisms is still considered fundamental. Anna Freud’s work is regarded as a significant contribution to both ego psychology and adolescent psychology.

Mary Ainsworth

"My advice to mothers is not to miss an opportunity to show affection to their babies."

Mary Ainsworth was a developmental psychologist who was a lead researcher in the field of attachment theory. Her work demonstrated the importance of healthy childhood attachments, and she pioneered the use of a technique known as the "Strange Situation Test."

The "Strange Situation Test" analyzes the pattern of attachment between a child and a mother or a caregiver. In her research, Ainsworth would have a mother and a child sit in an unfamiliar room. Researchers would then observe the child's reactions to various situations, including a stranger entering the room, being left alone with the stranger, and the mother's return to the room.

Mary Ainsworth identified four attachment areas: secure, anxious-resistant insecure, anxious-avoidant insecure, and disorganized/disoriented. This test is still used in psychiatry. Her findings significantly influenced our understanding of attachment styles and how they contribute to behavior later in life.

Mamie Phipps Clark

"A racist system inevitably destroys and damages human beings; it brutalizes and dehumanizes them, blacks and whites alike."

From a young age, psychologist and activist Mamie Phipps Clark was aware of racial segregation. "I became acutely aware of that in childhood because you had to have a certain kind of protective armor about you. You learned the things not to do to protect yourself," said Mamie Phipps Clark in an interview.

Even as a young child, Mamie Phipps Clark knew that she wanted to help other children. She studied psychology and developed a research methodology that combined the study of child development and racial prejudice.

Mamie Phipps Clark’s social psychology work crossed over into the Civil Rights Movement: Her research and expert testimony became instrumental to ending school segregation across the country in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954.

One of the most influential studies that Mamie Phipps Clark conducted is "The Doll Experiment''. The researchers used four dolls, identical except for color, to test children's racial perceptions. Children were asked to identify both the dolls' race and which color doll they prefer. A majority of the children picked the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it. The researchers concluded that "prejudice, discrimination, and segregation" created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem.

Mamie's Phipps Clark's research on racial identity and self-esteem also helped pave the way for future research on self-concept among minorities.

Leta Stetter Hollingworth

"Women are as intelligent and capable as men."

Leta Stetter Hollingworth is best known for her contributions to the psychology of women and the education of the gifted, the latter culminating in two books, Gifted Children and Children Above IQ 180.