Important Women in Psychology History

Learn More About Eminent Women in Psychology

When you read many introductions to psychology history, one of the first things you may notice is the fact that there are relatively few women mentioned. The contributions of many of psychology's most eminent female thinkers have long been ignored, but that is starting to change as more history texts begin to recognize women such as Karen Horney, Mary Ainsworth, Leta Hollingworth and Christine Ladd-Franklin in their pages.

The following are just a few of the women who have made a mark on psychology.

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Anna Freud was the daughter of Sigmund Freud. She was influenced by her father's psychoanalytic theories, but her own contributions to ego psychology and child psychoanalysis made her an important theorist in her own right.

Her father is often referred to as history's most famous psychologist, but she was far from just living in his shadow. She is perhaps best-known as the founder of child psychoanalysis and for her description of the ego's defense mechanisms in her book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (1936).


Mary Ainsworth in 1973
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Mary Ainsworth was a developmental psychologist perhaps best-known for her "Strange Situation" assessment of early childhood attachment. She made many important contributions to attachment theory and her work has played an important role in our understanding of child development.


Sandra Bem is a contemporary psychologist known for her gender schema theory. She developed the Bem Sex Role inventory, which measures how well people fit into traditional gender roles and characterizes personality as masculine, feminine, androgynous or undifferentiated.


Mary Whiton Calkins is probably best-known as the first woman president of the American Psychological Association, but she made many more contributions to the field as well. She studied had Harvard with famous teachers including William James and Hugo Munsterberg. Despite completing all of the requirements for a doctorate degree in psychology, Harvard refused to grant her degree simply because she was a woman.


Leta Hollingworth

Leta Stetter Hollingworth is known for her important work with exceptional children, but she was also one of the early pioneers in the psychology of women. She challenged the view at the time that women less gifted and talented than men by conducting a large scale study of more than 2,000 male and female infants. She later shifted her focus to the study of exceptional children and the environmental and educational factors that could help nurture giftedness.

Karen Horney

Karen Horney was a prominent psychoanalyst known for her important contributions to psychology through her work with neurosis, feminine psychology and self psychology. While Horney was a neo-Freudian, she was also famous for challenging many of Sigmund Freud's theories about women. For example, Horney countered Freud's assertion that women experience "penis envy" by suggesting that men feel "womb envy" because they are unable to bear children.


Melanie Klein was an Austrian psychoanalyst best known for creating the therapeutic technique known as play therapy. She was one of the first people to use traditional psychoanalysis with children and the therapeutic techniques she used continue to have an important influence on contemporary child psychology. Today, Kleinian psychoanalysis is considered to be one of the major schools of thought within the field of psychoanalysis.


Christine Ladd-Franklin

Christine Ladd-Franklin was a psychologist and logician who grew up in a family of women who were staunch supports of women's rights. These early influences may have help play a role in her adult career in academia and research, areas that were at the time not particularly open and welcoming to women.

She studied at John Hopkins and completed a dissertation titled "The Algebra of Logic." However, the school did not permit women to receive a Ph.D. at that time. She went on to spend time in Germany studying with Hermann von Helmholtz and Artur Konig and eventually rejected both of their theories of color vision to develop her own. Finally, in 1926, 42 years after completing her dissertation, John Hopkins awarded her the doctorate degree she had rightfully earned.

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