Leta Stetter Hollingworth Biography

Leta Stetter Hollingworth was an early pioneer in psychology who is best known for her contributions to the study of intelligence testing and giftedness. While some of her contemporaries believed that intelligence was largely the result of genetic inheritance, Hollingworth felt that education and environment played a more critical role.

Best Known For

  • Research on exceptional children
  • The psychology of women
  • Work in clinical psychology
  • Work in educational psychology

Birth and Death

May 25, 1886 - November 27, 1939

Leta Stetter Hollingworth's Early Life

Leta Stetter was born in Nebraska on May 25, 1886. Leta's early life was marked by tragedy when her mother died giving birth to her third child. Her father abandoned the family and left the children to be raised by their mother's parents, only to return a decade later to reclaim the children and force them to move in with him and his new wife.

Stetter later described the household as abusive, plagued by alcoholism and emotional abuse. Her education became a source of refuge, allowing her to explore her talents as a writer. She left home for good when she graduated high school in 1902.

Stetter enrolled in college at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln when she was only 16 years old. Leta completed her bachelor's degree and teaching certificate in 1906 and married Harry Hollingworth in 1908.

Her Career and Theories

Stetter Hollingworth began her career as a teacher and assistant principal in Nebraska high schools. She soon moved to New York to be with her husband as he completed his doctoral studies.

While she had originally planned to continue teaching, New York did not allow married women to teach high school at that time. Frustrated and bored, she soon enrolled at Columbia University and went on to earn a master's in education in 1913. She took a position at the Clearing House for Mental Defectives where she administered and scored Binet intelligence tests.

She went on to continue her psychology studies under the guidance of famed psychologist Edward L. Thorndike. She completed her Ph.D. in 1916 and took a job at Columbia's Teachers College, where she remained for the rest of her career.

Research on the Psychology of Women

Hollingworth's earliest research interests centered on the psychology of women. One of her early experiments challenged the notion that men had more intellectual variation than women (in other words, that they were more likely to be intellectually gifted or challenged, while women were more likely to be "mediocre"). She found that although mental institutions had more men than women, this was less due to innate differences and more due to societal ones: women with intellectual disabilities were more likely to be overlooked and isolated at home rather than sent to an institution.

In further research on the psychology of women, Hollingworth challenged the notion at the time that women were essentially semi-invalid while menstruating.

The erroneous belief that menstruation made women incapacitated had a major impact on women's rights since many employers refused to hire women because they believed they would be incapable of performing their duties for about one week each month.

Over a three-month period, she tested 23 women and two men on a variety of tasks that tested mental abilities and motor skills. She found that there were no performance differences at any point in a woman's menstrual cycle.

Research With Gifted Children

Hollingworth is also famous for her work with gifted children. As part of her work administering intelligence tests, she became interested in the psychology of giftedness. She believed that educational services often neglected these students because educators and parents believed that these gifted could simply take care of themselves. Instead, Hollingworth suggested that it was important to create a curriculum designed to foster the specific needs of gifted children. Hollingworth also wrote the first comprehensive book about gifted children as well as taught the very first college course on giftedness.

Hollingsworth's studies of gifted children coincided with Lewis Terman's famous study of highly intelligent people. The two thinkers never actually met, but they purportedly held each other's work in high esteem. One of the major differences between their approaches was that while Terman believed that intelligence was largely genetic, Hollingworth was more concerned with the environmental and educational factors that contributed to intelligence.

Selected Publications

Through her work, Leta Stetter Hollingworth left a major mark on the field of psychology. Some of her most frequently cited publications include:

Hollingworth, L. (1914). Variability as related to sex differences in achievement. American Journal of Sociology, 19, 510-530.

Hollingworth, L. (1916). Sex differences in mental traits. Psychological Bulletin, 13, 377-384.

Hollingworth, L.S. (1927). The new woman in the making. Current History, 27, 15-20.

Hollingworth, L.S. (1928). The psychology of the adolescent. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

What Were Leta Hollingworth's Contributions to Psychology?

Leta Stetter Hollingworth pioneered the psychological study of women, and her work helped to dispel a number of myths that were often used to argue against women's rights. As a psychology professor, she also mentored a number of students who went on to become important psychologists, including Florence Goodenough. Hollingworth died on November 27, 1939 of abdominal cancer.

While her early life was marked by hardship and despite the fact that she died young, she managed to become one of psychology's most eminent thinkers and left an indelible mark on the field of psychology.

3 Sources
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  1. Hollingworth LS. Variability as related to sex differences in achievement: A critique. American Journal of Sociology. 1914;19:510-530. doi:10.1086/212287

  2. Hollingworth LS. Functional periodicity [thesis]. New York: Teacher's College, Columbia University; 1914.

  3. IntellTheory. Leta Stetter Hollingworth (1886-1939).

Additional Reading
  • Held, L. Leta Hollingworth. Psychology's Feminist Voices.

  • Hollingworth HL. Leta Stetter Hollingworth: A biography. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press; 1943.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.