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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Leta Hollingworth

Sponsor of the Gifted


Leta Holllingworth was born in northwestern Nebraska on May 25th, 1886, to Margaret Danley and John Stetter (Hollingworth, 1943). According to Harry Hollingworth, Leta was the first-born child followed by two other daughters, Ruth and Margaret. Holllingworth's frail mother died immediately after the birth of Margaret, leaving behind a journal in which she had recorded the first year of her first daughter Leta 's life. This journal was a precious memory of the mother Holllingworth Stetter would always long for.

After her mother's death, Leta 's father John Stetter left his three daughters with their maternal grandparents to be cared for at their log cabin for the next ten years (Hollingworth). According to Hollingworth, when Leta was twelve years old, her father remarried and took his daughters to live with him and his new wife in Valentine, Nebraska. During this time, the family suffered from the alcoholism of both parents. Leta went from being a sensitive, brooding child at her grandparent's house to a child full of loneliness and an overarching feeling of isolation while living with her father and stepmother. When Leta was fourteen years old, she published a poem entitled "Lone Pine" in the local Valentine newspaper that compared her loneliness and isolation to a solitary pine tree.

Education, Career, and Work

Holllingworth entered college at the early age of sixteen, a welcomed escape from her parents' household (Hollingworth). According to Hollingworth, she attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, the state capitol. Here she met her future husband, Harry Hollingworth. After they became engaged, Harry moved to New York to do graduate work at Columbia University while Holllingworth stayed behind to get her Bachelor of Arts degree along with a State Teacher's Certificate from the University of Nebraska. In addition to an outstanding academic record, Holllingworth became known for her creative writing abilities.

After acquiring her teaching certificate, Hollingworth was now qualified to teach English Language and Literature in any Nebraska public high school (Hollingworth). According to Hollingworth, Leta's first job was in DeWitt, Nebraska, her fiancÈ's hometown. Here she served as assistant principal of the local high school for one year. She had another teaching position in McCook, Nebraska, for nearly two years. Her teaching career ended when her fiancÈ Harry could afford to have her live with him in New York because he had gotten a job as an assistant professor at Barnard College. Holllingworth moved to New York and the couple was married on December 31, 1908.

Despite her teaching certificate and past experience, Holllingworth had much difficulty finding a job because of her marital status (Hollingworth). According to Hollingworth, Leta was frustrated with not being able to contribute to the couple's financial welfare. Hollingworth busied herself with housework while continuously working on her writing. She applied for many scholarships, but was unsuccessful at obtaining any. In 1911, the couple was able to save enough money for Hollingworth to enroll in a few graduate courses in the field of literature.

In 1911, Harry had been hired by the Coca-Cola Company to investigate the effects of caffeine on mental and motor tasks of human beings (Benjamin, Rogers, and Rosenbaum, 1991). According to Benjamin, Coca-Cola had been charged with violation of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Hollingworth was hired as the assistant director of the research project; therefore, the couple was able to save up enough money for her schooling.

Around this time, Hollingworth decided to leave her pursuit of an education in literature to specialize in education and sociology at Columbia University (Hollingworth). Hollingworth received her Masters in Education from Columbia in 1913 (Hollingworth).

Leta Hollingworth was the first woman to scientifically research and challenge the dogma which alleged the inferiority of women ("University"). Hollingworth's Master's thesis addressed sexist hiring practices (Klein). According to Klein, Hollingworth challenged the assumption that women would be "incapacitated" once a month due to menstruation. She also disproved the "variability hypothesis" which claims that there is a greater variability among men as a species than women in their talents and intelligence. She stated that if it was true that more men achieved eminence, then it would also be true that more men would fall at the opposite end of the continuum. In addition, Hollingworth proved that environmental conditions greatly affected the degree to which women were allowed to become intellectually distinguished.

Leta Hollingworth conducted an experiment in which 1,000 consecutively born males and 1,000 consecutively born females were measured anatomically ten different ways (Hollingworth). The study showed that there were no sex-related differences in variability on any measure (Klein, 1). Thus, the study determined that there were no differences in the variability between the sexes.

After Hollingworth completed her Masters studies, she worked part-time for the Clearing House for Mental Defectives (Hollingworth). According to Hollingworth, she administered Binet intelligence tests at this facility. In 1914, the Civil Service of New York began to supervise the administration of these tests. Examiners had to engage in competitive exams to establish their ability to administer and interpret these tests. Leta had the best scores and filled the first position (male or female) as psychologist under the Civil Service in New York at Bellevue Hospital, where she later obtained the position of chief of their psychological lab. Hollingworth also helped to develop the Classification Clinic for Adolescents at Bellevue (Stevens and Sheldon, 1982).

While continuing her work as a clinical psychologist, Hollingworth completed her Doctorate work at Columbia University under the instruction of Edward L. Thorndike (Hollingworth). According to Hollingworth, Leta Hollingworth received her Ph.D. in 1916. Hollingworth's Doctoral thesis addressed "functional periodicity," or the women's menstruation cycle. It was a commonly held belief at the time that a woman's menstrual cycle would render her a semi-invalid. Leta tested twenty-three women and two males (used as controls) over a period of three months. She gave them tasks to complete which tested perceptual and motor skills and mental abilities. The study concluded that there were no differences in the women's performance on any of these tests during any phase of the cycle.

After graduating from Columbia, Hollingworth was offered a teaching position at Columbia Teacher's College (Hollingworth). She accepted the position and remained there until her death in 1939 at the early age of 53 (Klein, 1). While teaching at Colombia, Leta used her own textbooks that she had published for her classes ("Leta: Educational").

Career and Major Published Works

Leta Hollingworth became most famous for her work with and study of gifted children ("Leta: Educational"). After obtaining her Ph.D., Hollingworth became concerned with the "unique adjustment problems that gifted children experience" (Silverman, 1990, p.171). Hollingworth coined the term "gifted" for the intellectually superior (Leta: 1886). She was "fascinated with the minds of gifted children and sought to understand each child's personal experience" (Silverman, 1990, p.171). According to Silverman, it was probably her own struggle to understand the inner conflicts that developed because of her own giftedness and her role as a female in society that gave rise to her interest in gifted children. Hollingworth became particularly interested in how these children survive in a world where they are constantly searching for minds similar to their own.

"A profoundly gifted child is a child who learns at an incredibly fast pace, often in multiple subjects. These children may be tremendously sensitive to light, loud sounds, and odors" ("National:What"). According to the National Gifted Child's Fund, these children can rarely be taught successfully in public schools. They often feel frustrated and lonely because they feel different, and they may appear shy or introverted, which is commonly mistaken for low intelligence. The gifted child is born with a brain that functions differently than the brain of an average child.

Leta Hollingworth wanted to establish a revolving fund for gifted children that would allow them to take money for their educational development and then donate money after they are established ("National: Leta"). This fund was created after Hollingworth's death in her honor, and is called the National Gifted Children's Fund ("National: Leta").

Some problems that Leta observed with educating gifted children at public schools were that when they were placed three to four grades more advanced in order to meet their intellectual needs, they often had problems socially and emotionally and could not participate with classmates in athletic activity and could not write quickly enough (Silverman, 1990). They often had so many interests and capabilities that they are unable to finish all of their projects (Silverman).

R. Barsch developed a system of education for the gifted child based on Leta Hollingworth's attributes of a teacher (Griffin, 1990). According to Griffin, the metaphor for these six attributes came from one of Leta's poem about a Native American child entitled "Papoose." Hollingworth often recognized the central importance of the individual in her work, therefore, Barsch used the idea of a Native American hogan with six walls and one focal point as a metaphor for a "Hollingworth, student-centered room" for gifted children (Griffin, 1990, p.193). The attributes that make up the six walls of the hogan are concern for the individual, recognition of special abilities, objective observation, wit/humor, friendship, and vision (Griffin).

Leta Hollingworth worked with both learning disabled children and gifted children (Griffin). According to Griffin, Hollingworth thought that concern for the individual was important because she was able to recognize that every child was different from all others. The second wall of the hogan represents the aspect of recognition of special abilities. Leta advocated the focus on ability rather than disability and paying careful attention to strengths that the child can build off of. Objective observation was important to Leta because she thought teachers should develop individual education plans based on factual evidence rather than applying generalized strategies derived from curriculum models to the studies of all children. The fourth wall of the hogan represents with and humor. Leta used these personal attributes in her counseling with gifted children. She downplayed the personal disabilities and learning inefficiencies of the learning disabled and gifted children she worked with. She also thought it was important to strike a balance between work and play. The fifth wall of the hogan represents friendship. Leta befriended the children she studied. She also became close to the families of the children and even provided financial support when necessary. The last wall of the hogan represents vision. Hollingworth did not worry about how her learning approaches differed from the norm of the time period. She demonstrated a personal commitment to improve the education of each student, which all teachers should strive to do.

Leta Hollingworth worked extensively in the field of clinical psychology (Stevens and Sheldon, 1982). According to Stevens, Leta helped establish the American Association of Clinical Psychologist in 1917. She was the first secretary for this association, which promoted certification standards and adequate training for clinical psychologists (Street, "June," 2002). Hollingworth was involved in developing the ethical guidelines for clinical psychologists and in promoting universal standards for training in clinical psychology (Stevens and Sheldon, 1982).

In 1920, Hollingworth 's book entitled Psychology of Subnormal Children was published (Street, "December," 2002). According to Street, this book became a standard text and reference source in the field for several years.

Hollingworth wrote another book in 1923 entitled Special Talents and Defects ("Leta: Educational"). This book "presented a comprehensive survey of special abilities and disabilities in reading, spelling, drawing, painting, music, and other subjects" (Griffin, 1990).

In 1922, Hollingworth administered a longitudinal study on fifty students with IQs over 155 that lasted three years (Hollingworth). According to Hollingworth, a goal of the study was to explore multiple aspects of the children such as psychological makeup, social skills, and family backgrounds. Another goal of the study was to form a curriculum that would be most beneficial for the education of the gifted children. Leta wrote the first course book on intelligently gifted children in 1926, entitled Gifted Children: Their Nature and Nurture ("Leta: Educational"). The details of her longitudinal study can be found in this book.

Leta Hollingworth wrote another book in 1928 entitled The Psychology of the Adolescent, which was quoted by one biographer as "one of the best sellers in psychology of all time" (Stevens & Sheldon, 1982, p. 178).

In 1936, Hollingworth established Speyer School, a school for the education of gifted children (Hollingworth). According to Hollingworth, Leta Hollingworth devised a curriculum called "The Evolution of Common Things," in which the children studied things such as food, shelter, clothing, time keeping, and communications. This proved to be more beneficial to the gifted children than to simply advance them to subjects they would meet later in college, because the children were so interested in exploring their more immediate world.

Leta Hollingworth died on November 27, 1939, of abdominal cancer (Benjamin and Shields, 1990). Hollingworth's last publication was completed after her death by her husband Harry; it was published in 1942 and is entitled Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet: Origin and Development ("Leta: Educational"). The book is based on a longitudinal study of twelve gifted children (Benjamin and Shields, 1990). According to Benjamin, Hollingworth found that many exceptional children suffered form adjustment problems due to a lack of intellectual challenge and inept treatment by adults. She found that adults often gave these children less attention because it was believed that they were self-sufficient.

Hollingworth's importance in psychology is also evidenced by her inclusion in Robert Watson's "Eminent Contributors to Psychology"; Leta Hollingworth was one of only fourteen women to be recognized in this publication (Benjamin and Shields, 1990).

In 1974, Leta Hollingworth was nominated as a "Builder of a Nation" by the Nebraska International Women's Year Coalition (Griffin, 1990).


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