Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Martha Bernal: Life and Contributions

Racism and Sexism

Martin Luther King Jr spoke at the 1967 convention of the American Psychological Association (Distinguished, 2001). Before his assassination he asked social scientists to find out why a great number of white Americans resisted equal opportunities for others (Sleek, 1999). No one seems to have a specific answer but, although, it seems there have been gains and progress made for women as well as minority groups, they still have to face unfairness on regular basis (Vasquez, 2002). Some psychologists would argue that racism and sexism have not changed but that it has become unrecognizable (Sleek, 1999). According to Janet Helms white people do not realize they belong to a different race and only through this realization, it is possible for them to transcend racism (Sleek, 1999). Joseph Trimble, studies American Indians, he believes, it is important for psychologists to become more culturally informed in order to know the difference between honoring a culture and exploiting it (Sleek, 1999). This was something that Martha Bernal would try to achieve throughout her career.

It is important to note that Martha Bernal's culture (Mexican) in the United States has been exploited and continues to be. Bernal describes as a major problem the stereotypical assumptions made towards Mexicans and she noted that people linked the Mexican culture to violence, crime and drugs (Sleek, 1999). Martha Bernal growing up had a bicultural experience, and she was able to relate to the struggle Latinos and especially women have to face in the United States. Although, many of her life obstacles came from being Mexican, others more specifically were due to her being a female. Martha Bernal was the first woman of Mexican descent to complete her Ph.D. in clinical psychology (Bernal, 2001).

Early Life

Bernal was born on April 13, 1931, San Antonio Texas, and raised in El Paso, Texas (Vasquez, 2003). Her parents, Alicia and Enrique de Bernal were young adults when they migrated to the United States (Vasquez, 2003). They came during the Mexican revolution era of the 1920's with people were crossing the border as political refugees. Alicia and Enrique met while attending English classes to prepare themselves for their citizenship examinations (Bernal, 1988). Martha Bernal describes both her parents as coming from traditional Mexican families. Their strong Mexican roots emphasized the nurturing of their children and their family ties. Latinos/ Latinas value family above all (Ginorio & Huston, 2001).

Bernal found herself immersed in a bicultural experience. Nevertheless she mentions the presence of an invisible line dividing the Mexican-American and the Anglo- American (Martha, 2001). Martha Bernal described a situation where Anglos that had superior socioeconomic and educational backgrounds would prohibit their kids to get along or worse to intermarry with Mexicans. Mexican- American parents also prohibit this type of union, because they regarded Anglo - Americans as being uneducated and as having a lack of morals and manners (Bernal, 1988). Martha Bernal grew with other Mexican-American kids, but soon she started to realize that her culture and heritage were not well liked.

In 1939, when I began school in El Paso, Texas, the use of the Spanish language by Mexican children was punished in Texas schools. Because I did not speak English, I immediately learned that the dominant society disapproved of my language and heritage (Bernal, 1988, p. 264).

This experience was just the beginning of some challenges and injustices she had to face because of being Mexican and a female.


After graduating from El Paso High School, Martha Bernal wished to continue her education. Her aspirations of continuing her studies were seen as inappropriate for a Mexican female (Bernal, 2001). Martha's mom seemed to be more supportive and caring, but it was her dad who strongly felt that college education would be a waste. She had to fight her dad and change his ideas that women were not meant to just stay home with their parents until marriage, and that women do not solely have the role of taking care of their husbands, children, and their home (Bernal, 1988). Although with much hesitation her dad supported her. "My father gave in an assisted me financially even though, as little as it cost in those days to attend that particular public institution, I knew it was economically difficult for him to help (Bernal, 1988, p. 266)." After High school Martha Bernal worked for a year and was able to attend a local college (Texas Western College), now the University of El Paso (Bernal, 1988).

Martha Bernal was lucky enough to finish her high school degree, since according to Chamorro (2004) "Government data drawn from in 1999 showed that Hispanic girls, ages 16 to 24, were dropping out of high school at a rate far greater than any other group of girls in the United States (p. 64)." Martha believed that one factor that might actually contribute to this, is the lack of advisement and encouragement given to girls. Bernal describes an incident where she remembered her professors telling her, as well as her two sisters, to stay away from the more difficult courses, such as advanced mathematics (Bernal, 1988). The lack of encouragement towards girls can be seen as a major contributor in women not pursuing their educations any further. Nevertheless, Martha Bernal was not persuaded by her professors but was able to pursue her convictions.

Martha Bernal earned her Master of Arts degree in 1955 at Syracuse University (Bernal 2001) and in 1962 Martha Bernal earned her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Indiana University, Bloomington (Vasquez, 2003). Throughout her education she encountered other challenges. At Indiana University, female students were not invited to participate with their professors on research projects. The ones that participated were mainly white students (Bernal, 2001). Not only were students not allowed to participate but Martha Bernal witnessed her married male professor chasing her female classmates (Bernal, 1988). Martha believed that female students were not expecting to see things differently since they never complained. Many times it was because of these experiences that Martha was ready to leave, she found it hard to finish her degree at the Indiana University (Bernal, 1988). She had such a great desire to leave but Harry Yamaguchi told her that once she left she would have one in four chances of finishing her degree. It was because of him that Martha Bernal was able to finish at Bloomington (Bernal, 1988).

Work and Contributions

After getting her Ph.D., Martha showed an interest in an academic job, she applied for a position as faculty but received many replies that stated "We do not hire women" (Vasquez, 2003). Her response to this was to obtain a U.S. Public Health Service Postdoctoral Fellowship at UCLA (University of California) which allowed her to engage in two years of research in the area of human psychophysiology (Baillie, 2002). In 1969 she assumed her first teaching position (assistant professor) at the University of Arizona at Tucson where she was influenced by Roland Tharp and Ralph Wetzel and where she would conduct later on some of her research (Bernal, 1988). Martha Bernal returned to the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA where she was greatly influenced by Ivar Lovaas who was teaching language and behaviors that are socially acceptable to children that suffer from autism by using operant-conditioning principles (Martha, 2001). It was here at UCLA that Martha Bernal's pioneer work began. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) gave Martha her first grant in 1965 (Bernal, 2001). The grant was intended to help her with the study of the use of classical conditioning on autistic children. Another research project she was involved with was the training of parents, using television feedback; allowing her to create lesson plans that were based on learning principles, for the parents to follow, when trying to change their children's conduct problems (Bernal, 1988). Bernal received many National Research Service Awards from the National Institute of Mental Health, as well as grants from other foundations. This is a reason why Martha Bernal moved to the University of Denver where she continued her research only this time with the goal of assessing the efficacy of this approach (Bernal, 1988).

Martha Bernal saw her research as successful. According to her it led to a very different theory about human problems. "namely, that children who had such problems were not internally ill or damaged but had learned their maladaptive behaviors (Bernal, 1988 p. 270)." Martha Bernal was giving frequent workshops and conferences, and she also began to stress the importance of several social systems in which the child operated as factors to be considered in assessment and treatment. Nevertheless she always seem to find some opposition and some professionals believed her research was unethical (Bernal, 1988).

Behavioral treatments are widely used nowadays in many types of settings, but it was interesting to have been a part of a major advance in the treatment of human problems, an advance that initially met strong resistance from prevailing mental health professional establishment (Bernal, 1988, p. 270).

At Denver University, after, attending several conferences and meeting on ethnic minorities, her awareness is raising on the commonality of her experiences with sexism and racism (Bernal, 2001).

Major Turning Point

It was here were Martha Bernal got interested in the research of minorities. Not only had she undergone this, being her self part of a minority, but she felt interested in studying individuals that encountered similar situations (Baillie, 2002). It is at Denver University where she sets three goals. First to retreat her research and teaching into topics that would be of more interest to people of color, second, to advocate for people of color by using presentations and publications, and finally to try to work within the American Psychological Association to improve minorities' status (Ballie, 2002). Although it is impossible not to see how valuable Martha Bernal's work has been so far,it is interesting to find out she didn't find it as important or valuable and this is why she felt those three goals needed to be addressed.

After 1979, I wanted to conduct research that had bearing on central issues affecting ethnic minorities. For this reason, my previous research seemed dissatisfying… It became necessary to change research fields, and I struggled for several years to carve out a new minority mental health research area for myself (Bernal, 1988, p. 273).

Although at first Martha Bernal found it hard to generate funds specifically for working with minorities she was a clear example of willingness. She has been able to succeed in many different ways when trying to achieve her goals.

Bernal's efforts were rewarded in 1979 when she received a National Research Service Award from NIMH that allow her to study the preparation of psychologists to work with multicultural populations (Vasquez, 2003). As part of this she travel to different universities to speak with minorities students and faculty about some changes that were needed in the curricula (Martha, 2001). Martha Bernal published the results of a national survey of APA-accredited clinical psychology programs. The results emphasize the scarcity of students and faculty of color as well as the few multicultural curricula for psychologists (Vasquez, 2002). Martha Bernal was placed as the program director and given a NIMH Minority Clinical Training Grant to fund multicultural curricula for students (Martha, 2001). A short time later she was given a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship that gave her the opportunity to begin to develop expertise in the study of ethnic identity (Martha, 2001).

Later, in 1986, Martha Bernal returned to Arizona State University (ASU). During 1987-1990 she helped sponsor an annual Ethnic Identity Symposium for several years (Vasquez, 2003). She consulted at a mental health center and worked with a married couple where the wife was mentally ill; she created a series of programs that would help them change their behaviors so they would not distress one another (Bernal, 1988). When working with her colleague George Knight, as well as graduate and undergraduate students, she worked in developing methodology for measuring ethnic identity, collecting normative data and studied the developmental course of ethnic identity on Mexican children (Vasquez, 2002). Martha Bernal's second goal was achieved trough a series of presentations and publications. In 1979 Martha Bernal presented at the Lake Arrowhead National Conference of Hispanic Psychologists where she reviewed the main issues faced by Hispanics and mentioned steps necessary in order to improve their status in psychology (Bernal, 2001). Martha Bernal was extremely concerned with the increasing population of people of color and the under representation they had, as well as the lack of knowledge psychologists had, to work with multicultural populations (Distinguished, 2001). It is across her 30 years of career that she tries to make individuals responsive to these concerns (Distinguished, 2001). One way in which she does this is by being one of two representatives at the 1972 Vail Conference on Training in Psychology were she drafted a speech that urged the APA to work with minority issues (Martha, 2001). Martha Bernal was involved with drafting the bylaws of the Board of Ethnic Minority Affairs (BEMA) and on the process of establishing BEMA in which she served on its Educational and Training Committee (Vasquez, 2003). Martha Bernal served as well on the task force that help establish the National Hispanic Psychological Association (NHPA) which now is know as the National Latino/a Psychological Association in which she served as second president and treasurer (Vasquez, 2002). In 1994 she was appointed by President Ron Fox to the Commission on Ethnic Minority Recruitment, Retention and Training (CEMRRAT) (Martha, 2001). In 1996-1998 she was on the board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest.

Awards and Recognitions

Martha Bernal has received many awards that represent the work and contributions she has given. One of these awards is the The Distinguished Life Achievement Award from Division 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues) (Vasquez, 2003). At the first National Multicultural Conference and Summit in 1999 she was honored as one of four "pioneer Senior Women of Color" and received the Carolyn Attneave award for lifelong contributions to ethnic minorities psychology (Martha, 2001). In 2000, at the Latino Conference in San Antonio she was recognized for her contributions to Latino psychologists (Martha, 2001). In 2001, she attended the APA convention although she was having complication with her chemotherapy and with great difficulty she received the Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Public Interest (Vasquez, 2002). She died a few weeks later.

Final Efforts

Martha Bernal was having health problems; she had suffered from three different bouts of cancer. Due to her health she was forced to drop out but she reentered social action leadership by serving on the Commission on Ethnic Minority, Recruitment, Retention and Training (Vasquez, 2003). She died on September 28, 2001 from lung cancer at the age of seventy (Ballie, 2002). At the moment of her death she was an active member of the CEMRRAT 2 Task Force, as well as an active member of the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Affairs (Vasquez, 2002).

Role Model

Martha Bernal will always be an influential figure in the field of psychology. Bernal is a person that has to be look with admiration. Her struggles and challenges, that although might be present today, are nothing like they were before. Martha Bernal was the first Mexican women to get her Ph.D. in the United States. She is someone that can be looked upon with admiration, not only for being such a collaborator in the area of psychology but for showing her vulnerability when trying to maintain a connection with her heritage.

My comfort as a bicultural Mexican-American psychologist has been vastly increased by coming to terms with sensitivities and feelings that were long suppressed and unrecognized. Finally, after all these years, there is a good fit between that identity and my professional work. In the years ahead, I have much to learn and many things left to accomplish (Bernal, p.274).

Martha Bernal showed strength until the end. Bernal has been a psychologist that has demonstrated outstanding dedication to promote awareness amongst ethnic minorities. She has been capable of developing and teaching methods for serving the ethnic minority populations. Throughout her life she was able to inspire many directly as well as indirectly, as she will continue to do in the future.


Distinguished Contributions to psychology on the public interest. (2001, July/August). Monitor on Psychology, 31, Retrieved September, 9,2004, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/jan99/racism.html

Ballie R. (2002, January 1). Martha E. Bernal dies at age 70. Monitor on Psychology, 33, Retrieved September, 6, 2004 from http://www.apa.org/monitor/jan02/latina.html

Bernal, M. (1988). Martha E. Bernal. In A. N. O'Connell, & F. N. Russo. (Eds.), Models of achievement: Eminent women in psychology (p. 261-276).

Chamorro, R. ( 2004, January). Mentoring the parentified child: The professional development of the Latina psychologist. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 3, 64-72.

Ginorino, A & Huston, M. (2000). Si se puede! / Yes, they can: Latinas in school. Washington, American Association of University Women. Retrieved September,9, 2004 from http://www.aauw.org/research/latinasp.cfm

Sleek, S. ( 1999, January 1). Three decades after King, a report card: As America celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.'s fight against racism and discrimination, psychologists worry about the subtler forms of prejudice. APA Monitor Online. Retrieved September, 6, 2004, 30. ,p> Vasquez, J.Melba. (2002, November 1). Complexities of the Latina Experience: A tribute to Martha Bernal. American Psychologist, 57.

Vasquez, J.T. Melba. (2003). The life and death of a multicultural feminist pioneer. The feminist psychologist of the American Psychological Association, 30.

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