10 Women Who Helped Change Psychology

Psychology has long placed an emphasis on the contributions of male psychologists such as Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, John B. Watson, and other thinkers.

Unfortunately, the important contributions of female psychologists are often overlooked in psychology textbooks. There were many women in psychology, however, who made critical contributions and helped shape the development of the field of psychology.

Where Are All the Women in Psychology History?

While studying the early history of psychology, you might find yourself wondering if all the early psychologists were men.

The dominance of male thinkers on lists of important pioneers in early psychology certainly makes it seem that way, but the reality is that women have been contributing to psychology since its earliest days. Estimates suggest that in the early 1900s, roughly 12% of psychologists in the United States were women.

However, many of these pioneering women in psychology faced considerable discrimination, obstacles, and difficulties. Many were not allowed to study with men, were denied degrees they had rightfully earned, or found it difficult to secure academic positions that would allow them to research and publish.

Women have made many important and groundbreaking contributions to the field of psychology, often despite facing considerable discrimination due to their sex.

These women deserve to be recognized for their pioneering work. The following are just a few of the women who helped shape psychology.


Anna Freud

When most people hear the name Freud, Sigmund is probably the first name that comes to mind. However, the famous psychoanalyst's daughter Anna Freud was a well-known and influential psychologist in her own right.

Anna Freud not only expanded upon her father's ideas, but she also helped develop the field of child psychotherapy and influenced other thinkers such as Erik Erikson. Among her many accomplishments are introducing the concept of defense mechanisms and expanding interest in the field of child psychology.

Major Accomplishments

  • Expanded child psychology field
  • Developed the concept of defense mechanisms

Mary Whiton Calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins studied at Harvard, although she was never given approval for formal admission. She studied with some of the most eminent thinkers of the time, including ​William James and Hugo Munsterberg, and completed all of the requirements for a doctorate. Despite this, Harvard refused to grant her a degree on the grounds that she was a woman.

Regardless, Calkins went on to become the first female president of the American Psychological Association. During her career, she wrote over a hundred professional papers on psychology topics, developed the paired-association technique, and became known for her work in the area of self-psychology.

While Harvard may have refused to grant her the degree she rightfully earned, that didn't stop Calkins from becoming an influential psychologist.

Major Accomplishments

  • First female president of the American Psychological Association
  • Developed the paired-association technique

Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth was an important developmental psychologist. Her work demonstrated the importance of healthy childhood attachments, and she pioneered the use of a technique known as the "Strange Situation" assessment.

In her research on mother-child attachments and interactions, 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.

Ainsworth's groundbreaking work had a major influence on our understanding of attachment styles and how these styles contribute to behavior later in life.

Major Accomplishments

  • Contributed to the understanding of attachment styles

Leta Stetter Hollingworth

Leta Stetter Hollingworth was an early pioneer of psychology in the United States. She studied with ​Edward Thorndike and made a name for herself for her research on intelligence and gifted children.

Another of her important contributions was her research on the psychology of women. The prevailing opinion at the time was that women were both intellectually inferior to men and essentially semi-invalid when they were menstruating. Hollingworth challenged these assumptions, and her research demonstrated that women were as intelligent and capable as men were, no matter what time of the month it was.

Her many accomplishments are perhaps even more remarkable considering the fact that she not only faced considerable obstacles due to gender discrimination, but she also died at the age of 53. Despite a life cut short, her influence and contributions to the field of psychology were impressive.

Major Accomplishments

  • Proved that women were equals during her research in women's psychology

Karen Horney

Karen Horney was an influential ​neo-Freudian psychologist known for her take on feminine psychology. When Sigmund Freud famously proposed that women experience "penis envy," Horney countered that men suffer from "womb envy" and that all of their actions are driven by a need to overcompensate for the fact that they cannot bear children.

Her outspoken refutation of Freud's ideas helped draw greater attention to the psychology of women. Her theory of neurotic needs and her belief that people were capable of taking a personal role in their own mental health were among her many contributions to the field of psychology.

Major Accomplishments

  • Developed the theory of neurotic needs
  • Developed the concept of "womb envy"
  • Contributed the idea that people can influence their own mental health

Melanie Klein

Play therapy is a commonly used technique to help children express their feelings and experiences in a natural and helpful way. Widely used today, a psychoanalyst named Melanie Klein played a pivotal role in developing this technique. Through her work with children, she observed that children often utilize play as one of their primary means of communication.

Since young children are not capable of some of the more commonly used Freudian techniques such as free association, Klein began to utilize play therapy as a way to investigate children's unconscious feelings, anxieties, and experiences.

Klein's work led to a major disagreement with Anna Freud, who believed that younger children could not be psychoanalyzed. Klein suggested that analyzing a child's actions during play allowed the therapist to explore how various anxieties impact the development of the ego and the superego.

Today, Kleinian psychoanalysis is considered to be one of the major schools of thought within the field of psychoanalysis.

Major Accomplishments

  • Made major contributions to the field of play therapy
  • Discovered that children communicate through play

Mamie Phipps Clark

If you've read about Mamie Phipps Clark in your textbooks, her name was likely mentioned only in passing. This is unfortunate because Clark made many important contributions to psychology, including the development of the Clark Doll Test, her research on race, and her role in the famous 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case.

Clark became the first Black woman to earn a degree from Columbia University. Despite considerable prejudice based on both her race and her sex, Clark went on to become an influential psychologist. Her research on racial identity and self-esteem help pave the way for future research on self-concept among minorities.

Major Accomplishments

  • First Black woman to receive a degree from Columbia University
  • Researched racism's impact on Black children in the famous "Doll Test" experiment

Christine Ladd-Franklin

Christine Ladd-Franklin's role as a female leader in psychology began early in life, as both her mother and aunt were staunch supporters of women's rights. This early influence not only helped her succeed in her field despite considerable opposition, it also inspired her later work advocating for women's rights in academia. 

Ladd-Franklin had various interests including psychology, logic, mathematics, physics, and astronomy. She challenged one of the leading male psychologists of the day, Edward Titchener, for not allowing women into his group for experimentalists, and she developed an influential theory of color vision.

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 color vision with Hermann von Helmholtz and Arthur Konig. She eventually rejected Helmholtz's theory of color vision to develop her own. Finally, in 1926, nearly 44 years after completing her dissertation, John Hopkins awarded her the doctorate degree she had rightfully earned.

Today, she is remembered for both her work in psychology and her influence as a pioneering woman in a field once dominated by men.

Major Accomplishments

  • Advocated for women's rights in academic fields
  • Developed a theory of color vision

Margaret Floy Washburn

Margaret Floy Washburn was the first woman to be awarded a PhD in psychology. She conducted her graduate studies with Edward B. Titchener and was his first graduate student. Like many women on this list, her work in psychology took place in a time when women were often denied positions in academia based on their gender. Despite this, she became a well-respected researcher, writer, and lecturer.

Her primary research interests were in the areas of animal cognition and basic physiological processes. She strongly influenced comparative psychology and developed a motor theory of cognition suggesting that the body's movements had an influence on thought.

Major Accomplishments

  • First women to receive a PhD in psychology
  • Made strides in the fields of animal cognition and motor theory

Eleanor Maccoby

Eleanor Maccoby's name is likely familiar to anyone who has ever studied developmental psychology. Her pioneering work in the psychology of sex differences played a major role in our current understanding of things such as socialization, biological influences on sex differences, and gender roles.

She was the first woman to chair the psychology department at Stanford University and, by her own description, the first woman to ever deliver a lecture at Stanford wearing a pantsuit. She held a position as professor emeritus at Stanford and received numerous awards for her groundbreaking work. The Maccoby Book Award is named in her honor.

Major Accomplishments

  • First chairwoman of the Department of Psychology at Stanford University
  • Influenced how people view gender roles and the psychology of the sexes

A Word From Verywell

As you can see, many women made important contributions to the early development of psychology as a science. While women once made up a minority in psychology, the tides have turned dramatically. According to a 2017 report, women make up more than half the members of the American Psychological Association, and 75% of psychology graduate students are women.

15 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."