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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by Samantha Ragsdale


Christine Ladd-Franklin was a psychologist, a logician, a mathematician, and at times an aspiring physicist and astronomer. She is known for her bold expression of her ideas and theories, in an academic environment that was often less than welcoming. Despite the forces working against her, she managed to accomplish remarkable feats. Laurel Furumoto (1992) (1994), who has extensively researched her life and work, observes that:

"There were many enabling influences in Ladd-Franklin's life that served to counter the larger societal forces working against her entry into a scientific career. These included a mother and a maternal aunt who were women's rights advocates; a concerned and supportive father; an undergraduate professor who provided a role model ... and marriage to a fellow academic who encouraged and supported her work" (Furumoto, 1992, p. 176).

In no way should those factors minimize her accomplishments; Ladd-Franklin was undeniably an extremely intelligent and determined woman. Consideration of these influences does, however, provide a framework for understanding her life in terms of the cultural climate of this time in history.

Christine Ladd-Franklin, sometimes known as Kitty, was born on December 1, 1847, in Windsor Connecticut. She was the oldest of three children to Eliphalet and Augusta (Niles) Ladd, who were both from colonial New England. Her brother was Henry Ladd and her sister, Jane Augusta Ladd McCordia. She also had two half-siblings from her father's second marriage, Katherine and George Ladd. Her father was a successful merchant in New York City, where her family lived until Christine was six years old, when they moved to Windsor, Connecticut.

Her mother, Augusta, and her aunt Juliet Niles were "both staunch supporters of women's rights" (Furumoto, 1992, p. 176). Even as a toddler, Christine was attending women's rights lectures with her mother, such as one given by Elizabeth Oakes Smith. In a letter to her sister, Riar, Augusta once wrote of Elizabeth Oakes Smith's lecture, saying "women belonged not only in the pulpit, a place for which they were 'peculiarly' suited, but also 'every place where a man should be' " (Furumoto, 1992, p. 176). Christine's mother, Augusta, died of pneumonia when Christine was only twelve years old, at which time she moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where she spent her adolescent years with her father's mother. Christine spent two years at the Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, where she followed the same track of courses as the boys who were being prepared for Harvard. She proceeded to graduate in 1865 as valedictorian of her class (Hurvich, 1971) (Furumoto, 1992) (Grinstein & Campbell, 1987).

Although her family, and as a result Christine herself, at first questioned the wisdom of her pursuing her education further at Vassar College, she eventually convinced her family that she should attend. Her diary entries reveal her joy at the decision, "Vassar! Land of my longing! Mine at last," but her concerns as well, "Is it really for the best? I confess I have misgivings - everyone is so opposed to it" (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987, p. 121). She finally convinced her grandmother that it was best that she get an education and take care of herself, because of her slim chances at marriage. She argued that the overabundance of women in New England and her commonplace looks rendered her unlikely to marry. At this her grandmother agreed.

Her aunt on her mother's side, Juliet Niles, agreed to financially support her Vassar education. In 1866, Christine entered the second class of Vassar College. She was there for one year, when she took a year off to teach in Utica, New York and study independently - presumably because of financial difficulties. During her year away from Vassar she is said to have, "practiced piano, read in three or four languages, worked problems in trigonometry, and collected 150 botanical specimens" (Grinstein & Campbell, 1987). As the many areas she pursued in her career and personal time indicate, her interests and talents were vast. With additional assistance from her aunt, she then returned to Vassar for a second year, and in 1869 received her A.B. degree (Hurvich, 1971).

Vassar proved to be a great influence in her developing interest in science, as well as her passionate involvement in women's rights activism. A female astronomy professor, Maria Mitchell, was a role model and inspiration to Christine while at Vassar. She encouraged her, as a woman, to pursue her interests in mathematics and science. Christine regularly attended women's rights lectures and activities at Vassar. The year she graduated, she wrote two letters to her Aunt discussing women's rights awareness at Vassar. She wrote: "We are not so secluded as not to hear some discussion of Women's Rights here" and "I am delighted to find that Hartford is so far waking up to the state of the times as to admit a Women's Rights Convention within its sacred precincts" (Furumoto, 1992, p. 176; Furumoto, 1994; Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).

In addition to the encouragement of her mother and aunt, the financial support of her aunt and her exposure to the women's suffrage movement, Christine benefited from her father's on-going support of her academic endeavors and intellectual growth. Despite his initial reservations about her attending Vassar, his letters to her, which continued into her mid twenties, "conveyed intense interest and concern for her welfare and the progress of her education ... infused with warmth, humor, and tenderness" (Furumoto, 1992, p. 176). Although even her enlightened father revealed the "commonly held notion that excessive mental activity could jeopardize a young female's physical health and well-being," his support was undoubtedly remarkable (Furumoto, 1992, p. 176). He wrote, "You must do all you can to improve yourself now, but I do not wish you to study at the expense of your health, good health first, and then study" (Furumoto, 1992, p. 176). During her first year at the co-educational Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, he wrote, "All you want is a little more courage you can do as well as anyone I have no doubt, so do not be afraid but go ahead and do your best. And my word for it you will have as good an essay as anyone in the school" (Furumoto, 1992, p. 176). While she was at Vassar he wrote, "I was pleased to see that you passed so good an examination in all your different studies and I trust you will stand No. 1 in your classes though I suppose that you will have abler contestants that at Wilbraham but then you must fight the harder" (Furumoto, 1992, p. 176).

During the year that Christine left Vassar to work, her father wrote to her praising her initiative and growing independence, "We all miss you very much and wish you was at home but it is for your advantage and good to have some occupation and to be of some use in the world and acquire habits of independence, and self-reliance and know that if you have health you can take care of yourself" (Furumoto, 1992, p. 176).

At this time Christine was most interested in physics, but because she was not allowed access to the laboratories, she pursued mathematics, an area that a woman could engage in more independently. Years later she reflected on this period of her life, saying that "had it not been for the impossibility, in those days, in the case of women, of obtaining access to laboratory facilities" she would have eagerly pursued physics. Instead she pursued what she called "the next best subject, mathematics, which could be carried on without any apparatus" (Furumoto, 1994, p. 98). For the next nine years after graduating from Vassar, she was an instructor of science and mathematics in secondary schools in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York and published multiple articles on mathematics in Educational Times in Great Britain. Her diary entries indicate her growing distaste for teaching. She wrote, "Sunday evening is the most miserable time of all the week. The burdens of the morrow look impossible to be born. Teaching I hate with a perfect hatred...I shall not be able to endure it another year" (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987, p. 122).

Presumably in an effort to escape this vocation, she applied to Johns Hopkins University as a graduate student, a university not traditionally open to women. A fellow contributor to the publication, Educational Times, who was familiar with her work, James J. Sylvester, noticed her name on a list of applicants and urged the university to admit her. In 1878, she was accepted on the terms that she would only attend his lectures. One year later, with growing acknowledgment of her work, she was admitted into other lectures and given the stipend of a fellow, which she would hold from 1879-1882. Though she received the stipend, the formal title of "fellow" was withheld. She was not granted regular admission either; rather than being on the lists of students, her name was recorded by a special note.

During her studies at Johns Hopkins she published several papers in the American Journal of Mathematics, but it was while she was there that the work of Charles S. Peirce, peeked her interest in symbolic logic. In fact, she completed a dissertation on the subject of logic that was published in 1883 (Grinstein & Campbell, 1987). Despite fulfilling the requirements for a Ph.D. she was not granted it until 1926. In her late seventies, Ladd-Franklin attended Johns Hopkins Anniversary Ceremony to receive her degree, forty-four years late. Vassar eventually granted her an honorary LL.D. in 1887 as well. When she had completed her fellowship, on Aug. 24, 1882 and now in her mid-thirties, she married Fabian Franklin (1853-1939), a younger member of the John Hopkins math department faculty. Within two years, they had two children, a daughter Margaret Ladd and another who died in infancy (Hurvich, 1971; Furumoto, 1992, 1994; Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).

Ladd-Franklin is probably most known for her theory of color vision, and work with vision in general. "Her interest in this area began with a study (1886) of the horpoter, which is the locus of points in external space whose images are so formed on the retinas of the two eyes that they are seen singly in binocular vision" (Hurvich, 1971, p. 355). This area of research has drawn both psychologists and mathematicians and may be understood as the link between her early interest in mathematics and later focus on visual processes in psychology. The paper resulting from this study appeared in the American Journal of Psychology's first volume in 1887. When her husband, Fabian Franklin, took a sabbatical in the academic year 1891-92, she accompanied him to Europe where she was able to continue her vision research in Professor G.E. Muller's laboratory in Gottingen. At this time, women were not allowed to enroll in German Universities. However, upon her persistent requests for admission, Muller accepted her into his laboratory and even repeated for her individually his lectures that she was not allowed to attend.

Next she went to Berlin, while her husband cared for their daughter back in Gottingen. Here she was admitted into the laboratory of Hermann von Helmholtz and the lectures of Professor Arthur Kˆnig. It has been suggested that she was more readily admitted to academic circles abroad because of a sense that "foreign women were far less of a threat, since they would return home and not expect to teach in Germany" (Rossiter, 1982, p. 43). Having worked closely with these three men, she rejected both the three-color theory of color vision, expounded by Helmholtz and Konig and the three opponent-color pairs theory supported by Muller. She instead formulated her own theory of color vision, one that she insisted integrated the correct or useful aspects of each of their theories (Hurvich, 1971). Thirty years later, recalling her experiences in the German laboratories of these psychologists she said: "in the scientific world at large, opinion was divided between these two utterly diverse explanations of the phenomena of color-vision, each of which took account of one-half of the facts of color and wholly ignored the other half" (Furumoto, 1994, p. 91).

In 1892 in London, to the International Congress of Psychology, Christine introduced her theory. Apparently she had written excitedly to G.F. Stout, who was editor of a publication, Mind, about her new theory in hopes of having it published. He proceeded to contact officials of the upcoming congress of psychology and was instrumental in securing her a place in the program. Her theory of color vision involves a photochemical model of the visual system and proposes three levels of molecular differentiation, which she assumed to correspond to stages of evolutionary development. Asserting the evolutionary component of her theory, she said the "course of development of the color sense...(was) ignored by the adherents of both the rival theories (Furumoto, 1994, p. 92). According to her, black-white differentiations occurred in the first stage, white became differentiated into blue-yellow hues in the second, and finally yellow differentiated into red-green in the third. Although current research challenges some aspects of her theory, it was considerably well received at the time and the evolutionary aspect remains a viable theory today. She would spend "the remainder of her life - nearly four decades - promoting her theory" (Furumoto, 1994, p. 93). Her papers were published in American and foreign journals, including Science, Mind, Nature, and the Psychological Review.

After completing the equivalent of her Ph.D., she requested a position lecturing at Johns Hopkins in 1893. When Ladd-Franklin was denied this position, she continued independent work and persisted in her efforts to secure a position at Johns Hopkins. From 1901 to 1905, she also held the position of associate editor for logic and philosophy in Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology. Finally in 1904, she was allowed to lecture one course per year at Johns Hopkins. Although this continued for 5 years, until 1909, this status had to be renewed on a year-to-year basis. In 1895, her husband, Fabian, had left his career in mathematics to pursue journalism and in 1910 when he attained the position of associate editor of the New York Evening Post, she and her husband left for New York. Christine continued to pursue her research interests and continued to lecture part-time, now at Columbia University from 1912-1913. Finally in 1913, she lectured at Clark University and Harvard University, and in 1914 at the University of Chicago. Although she was only teaching one or two courses, most of these positions were a struggle to obtain and she often lectured without pay. She saw her volunteer lecturing as the only way for her to attain some degree of academic affiliation. Laurel Furumoto notes that "her inability to secure a regular academic position was a predictable consequence, in that time period, of her decision to marry" (Furumoto, 1994, p. 97). In light of the fact that "she never held a regular academic appointment" and therefore never secured solid academic affiliation, her active academic career was remarkable (Furumoto, 1994, p. 93).

In 1929, a year before she died, she published Colour and Colour Theories, which featured articles and papers she had published throughout the past four decades. In addition, she was asked to contribute an appendix to the English translation of Helmholtz's Handbook of Physiological Optics in 1924. She was also active presenting papers at meetings of the American Psychological Association, the American Philosophical Association and at several international congresses (Hurvich, 1971; Zusne, 1924; Furumoto, 1994).

When in her mid-sixties and twenty years his senior, Ladd-Franklin began writing to E.B. Titchener concerning his insistence on banning women from the meetings of the Experimentalists. Her response was, of course, outrage at his exclusion of women. She wrote in 1912, "I am particularly anxious to bring my views up, once in a while, for hand-to-hand discussion before experts, and just now I have especially a paper that I should like very much to read before your meeting of experimental psychologists. I hope you will not say nay!" In response to his argument that women could not tolerate such masculine activities as smoking, she wrote, "Have your smokers separated if you like (tho I for one always smoke when I am in fashionable society), but a scientific meeting is a public affair, and it is not open to you to leave out a class of fellow workers without extreme discourtesy" (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987, p. 125).

Ladd-Franklin unfortunately never succeeded in gaining membership to Titchener's Experimentalist group. This "collegial exclusion" has been cited as one of the many forces working against Christine and women like her at the time. Membership in this group afforded young faculty and graduate students the connections and social contacts necessary to succeed in the academic arena. In Titchener's own words, "the select group of newcomers to the field" were the "men who (had) arrived" (Furumoto, 1994, p. 97).

Laurel Furumoto (1994) suggests that her publication of journal articles and papers into a single volume book, Colour and Colour Theories, was an attempt "to secure herself a place in science" (p. 94). The changes Christine made to the works were primarily additions of long footnotes correcting who had contributed what to the psychology of vision, reclaiming credit for discoveries and theories she felt had unjustly been given to others. "In a footnote almost a page long," she made it clear that Hermann Ebbinghaus had claimed credit for the "Purkinje phenomenon," though he was well aware that she had previously observed it "in the very same laboratory as he" (p. 98). She also took issue with Kˆnig for his claims on the account of "normal night blindness of the fovea," which she too had earlier observed (p. 98).

Hurvich (1971) notes that "her 'belligerent scientific career,' as it has been described, marked by a vigorous and persistent adherence to her theories, continued into an advanced age. "A well-known paper on the 'blue arcs,' a visual phenomenon whose origin is still not clearly understood, appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1926, when she was in her late seventies" (p. 355). As an advocate for women's suffrage and access to higher education, Ladd-Franklin also helped to established the Sarah Berliner and other research fellowships for women. At eight-two years old, Christine Ladd-Franklin died at her Riverside Drive home in New York City on March 5, 1930 (Hurvich, 1971).

Christine Ladd-Franklin's remarkable achievements - against the odds of her social position, opposition from universities and individual psychologists - have been well remembered by historians of women psychologists. Too often however, her deserved place in history of psychology textbooks, is forgotten.



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