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 Susan K. Hochman

The well loved plains of northwestern Nebraska were both the birthplace and final resting place of Leta Stetter Hollingworth, a pioneer woman in the field of psychology. On May 25th 1886, she was born in Dawes County near the town of Chadron to Margaret Elinor Danley and John G. Stetter. Her mother was a gentle petite woman who died immediately after the birth of her third child. Leta was the first-born followed in rapid succession by two other girls, Ruth Elinor and Margaret Carley. Little is written of Margaret Elinor Danley Stetter save for the remarks of townspeople who remembered her. "She was so small that her ring would not span my littlest finger, and she was too meek and tender-hearted for this world" (H. L. Hollingworth, 1943 p.29). She also left behind a small red leather journal in which she recorded the first year of her first daughter's life. This was a precious memory of the mother Leta Stetter would never know and for whom she longed (as her later poetry shows).

John G. Stetter was a "rollicking minstrel cowboy". Among other things he was a rancher, a peddler, a trader, a teamster, an absentee farmer, a speculator and owned bars and entertainment halls (H. L. Hollingworth, 1943). He was an irresponsible yet engaging man who, after the death of his wife, left his three daughters with their maternal grandparents for the next ten years. Although she recalled fond memories of those days spent in the homey log cabin of her grandparents, there remained a pervasive sense of sadness in Stetter's life. She was a brooding sensitive child who kept a journal of her thoughts that shows a maturity far beyond her years.

When Leta Stetter was twelve years old, her father remarried and the children went to Valentine, Nebraska to live with him and their stepmother. This proved to be a miserable experience for all. The girls were torn from the "beneficent care of their pious and gentle grandparents" into a home where neither parent was equipped to handle this uncomfortable transition. Hollingworth (1943) politely refers to "dipsomania" but nowadays we would come right out and say that alcoholism was the problem that plagued this unhappy household. In her childhood journals, Leta Stetter refers to this period of her life as the "fiery furnace". During this time Leta Stetter longed for her mother to be alive and spoke in her journal of the pain she felt that was more than "mere emotion". Around the age of fourteen, she published a poem in the local Valentine newspaper called "Lone Pine" in which she compares her lonely yet stalwart existence to that of a solitary landmark in the vicinity. In 1902 she graduated from Valentine High School and was able at last to escape the dreaded life in the "fiery furnace".

At the tender age of sixteen, Leta Stetter entered the University of Nebraska. She described her first impression of Lincoln, the state capitol, in a journal entry dated June 1, 1907, "An 'emotion' of the irresistible swept over me, an 'impression' of inevitable movement and destination, if you will" (H. L. Hollingworth, 1943 p.60). During her University of Nebraska years, Leta Stetter blossomed. In addition to an outstanding four-year academic record, she also gained an accomplished reputation for her creative writing. It was around this time that Leta Stetter met her future husband, Henry Hollingworth. He describes her as follows: "She was small, lithe and graceful, with a lively gait and a characteristic lilt to her gestures. And she was full of enthusiasm and animation, unpretending and friendly" (H. L. Hollingworth, 1943 p.63). Stetter and Hollingworth became engaged while both attending University of Nebraska. While Hollingworth moved to New York to do graduate work at Columbia University, Stetter stayed behind to complete her under graduate studies. In 1906 she received her Bachelor of Arts degree along with a State Teacher's Certificate. She was thus qualified to teach English Language and Literature in any Nebraska public high school.

DeWitt, Nebraska, the hometown of her betrothed, was the location of Stetter's first job as assistant principal of the high school in the fall of 1906. "His family still lived thereabouts, as they had done for three generations, and she had, during that year, ample opportunity to explore his background and reputation before committing herself irrevocably" (H. L. Hollingworth, 1943 p.77). Stetter taught here for one year followed by a second teaching position a little bit larger town of McCook. She gave to both positions her signature enthusiasm. A particularly touching description of her concern for and connection with her students can be found in Hollingworth (1943) on page 84 in which she counsels a young boy on the dangers of smoking. Her teaching career ended abruptly in the middle of her second year at McCook when Harry, having obtained an assistant professorship at Barnard College, could afford to bring her to New York. They were married on December 31, 1908.

Though happily married, the first few years in New York proved to be trying for Leta Hollingworth. Unable to secure a teaching job due to her marital state, she busied herself with housework while continuing her writing efforts. It was difficult for her to bear the fact that despite her professional training, she was still unable to contribute to their financial welfare. Finally in 1911 the two were able to budget some tuition money. Leta began to take some "bare bones" graduate courses in the field of literature, as that remained her top career priority. She applied unsuccessfully for various scholarships and fellowships hoping to be able to afford a full course of study. It was around this time that she began to consider a change of career goals as she was observing numerous problems of social maladjustment. She, thus, decided to leave literature and specialize in education and sociology (H. L. Hollingworth, 1943). She received her Masters in Education at Columbia University in 1913.

Soon after completing her Masters studies, Leta Hollingworth got the opportunity to gain some part-time work at the Clearing House for Mental Defectives. Her job was to administer Binet intelligence tests, which having no prior experience, she quickly taught herself to do. In 1914, the Civil Service began supervising the administration of these mental tests and it became necessary for examiners to take competitive exams in order to establish eligibility. Leta Hollingworth was the top scorer and filled the first position as a psychologist under Civil Service in New York. The first opening was at Bellevue Hospital where she was later offered the position of chief of the soon to be established psychological lab (Benjamin and Shields, 1990). While continuing in this position of consulting psychologist, she completed her Doctorate work at Columbia University under Edward L. Thorndike. She received her Ph.D. in June of 1916. Around this time she was offered a teaching position in educational psychology at Columbia Teacher's College that had been vacated due to the death of Dr. Naomi Norsworthy. She "reluctantly" accepted and remained in that position for the rest of her life (H. L. Hollingworth, 1943). she continued to work at Bellevue at least one day a week and helped to establish the Classification Clinic for Adolescents where she later functioned as its psychologist. In addition to her teaching duties at Columbia, which consisted of training clinical psychologists, she was the principal of the School for Exceptional Children there (Stevens and Gardner, 1982).


While Leta Hollingworth was doing her graduate work at Columbia University, she decided to look critically at the status of women. This could easily have precipitated from her negative experiences in both failing to secure a teaching position (as married women were expected to stay home and have children) and in being unable to obtain any funding for her Doctoral studies (it was feared that too many women college professors would soften the field). She wondered if women were viewed as inferior to men because of their biology or because they were victims of a male dominated social order (Benjamin, 1975). An assertion held at the time was that there was greater variability among men while women as a species were less variable. Hollingworth referred to this variability hypothesis as "armchair dogma" which she characterized as the "literature of opinion". This differs, she maintained, from the "literature of fact" which has been carefully obtained through controlled scientific data because it is merely statements made by scientific men not based on experimental evidence (Shields, 1990). Darwin had documented the importance of variability as the principal means by which a species progresses. So if it were true that more males achieve eminence, then it would also hold that more males would fall at the other end of the continuum. The fact that variability was measurable, inspired Hollingworth to devise an experiment. Her position at the Clearing House for Mental Defectives provided her the chance to collect data on male and female variability. Dr. Hollingworth looked at 1,000 cases diagnosed at the Clearing House between 1912 and 1913. Results showed that males did exceed females 568 to 432. There did exist, however, an interesting age bias. For those over 16 years old at the time of admission, there were 78 males to 159 females. For individuals over 30 years old there were 9 males to 28 females. Hollingworth noted that females escape the Clearing House until beyond age 30 three times as frequently as males. Her reasoning was that girls are not recognized as mentally defective as often because "it is not unnatural for her to drop into the isolation of the home, where she can take care of small children, peel potatoes, scrub, etc". Thus they survive outside of institutions" (L. S. Hollingworth cited in Benjamin, 1975 p.497).

In order to further her research on the "inherently more variable male hypothesis", Dr. Hollingworth performed another experiment in which she used infants as they would not be influenced by the environmental conditions that could account for variability differences in adults. These environmental conditions would provide the adult male with many more opportunities to be more variable than females. Men had a wide range of professions from which to choose that would improve the talents they possessed. Women, on the other hand, had been confined to only one profession, housekeeping, which did not provide them the chance to use all their talents. Thus, their natural variability would be impaired. Dr. Hollingworth and Helen Montague collected data on 1,000 consecutively born males and 1,000 consecutively born females in the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. They took ten anatomical measurements on each infant and found that on the whole the male infants were slightly larger than the females, but there were no differences in variability between the sexes. "For the first time a serious crack had appeared in the armor of the variability hypothesis" (Benjamin, 1975 p.499).

The next topic taken on by Dr. Hollingworth was that of "functional periodicity" or the female menstrual cycle. This was to be the subject of her Doctoral thesis supervised by E.L. Thorndike. It was believed at the time that a woman's menstrual cycle would render her a semi-invalid. This was typical of the superstition and prejudice, which dominated medical opinion on menstruation. Through a compilation of objective data, Dr. Hollingworth felt she could initiate a desperately needed correction. In order to test the hypothesis that women were significantly impaired during their menstrual cycle, she tested twenty-three females and two males (as controls) by giving them tasks, which involved perceptual and motor skills and mental abilities over a three- month period. She concluded that there were no differences in performance during any phase of the cycle.

In 1927 Leta Hollingworth published her final article on the subject of the psychology of women in which she addressed the puzzle of the "Woman Question" and reflected upon attempted solutions over time. The question has always been this: "How to reproduce the species and at the same time to win satisfaction of the human appetites for food, security, self-assertion, mastery adventure, play, and so forth". As compared with man, woman has always been in a cage, with these satisfactions on the outside" (Hollingworth, L.S., 1927p.15). The cage she refers to is the woman's reproductive system. The article traces the evolution of women's roles from the time during which men first realized their part in paternity. She identifies that as the point at which men became the guarantors of subsistence while women were obliged to perform in exchange any tasks of which they were capable within the limitations of their reproductive system. With the beginning of feminism and the passage of suffrage for women, their role was starting a gradual change. Hollingworth spoke of the tremendous lag time involved with any major change because of those who would resist it. She said, "Suffrage can be used to modernize law, but it has very limited use as an instrument to modernize people" (p.18). And on the topic of modernization, she indicates that men of science have changed woman's world with new inventions, which suddenly modified her environment. She now has more time on her hands. She has become the "New Woman" who is beginning to satisfy her craving for individuality. The "New Woman" is consciously experimenting with her own life to find out how women can best live. "Surely this requires a courage and a genius deserving of something better than blame or jeers; deserving at least open-minded toleration and assistance"(p.20). Thus, Hollingworth optimistically saw progress being made. Perhaps that is why she left the subject of the psychology of women to champion other causes. She did not, however intend to abandon the "New Woman" altogether. At the time of her death, she left behind an unfinished work, which she planned to title, "Mrs. Pilgrim's Progress".


Although many articles have been written about Leta Hollingworth's contributions to the field of women's psychology, she is, perhaps, best known for her work with gifted children. This was a natural offshoot from her mental testing experiences. She began doing research on the characteristics of mental deficiency and of special mental disabilities. (Benjamin and Shields, 1990). This in turn led to interest at the other end of the intellectual spectrum (Benjamin, 1975). She learned from working with "mentally defective" children that many of them had normal intelligence, but were suffering from adjustment problems, especially during adolescence. She, thus, began to focus more directly on that group. Regarding the above mentioned topics she wrote the following books: The Psychology of Subnormal Children (1920), Special Talents and Defects (1923) and The Psychology of the Adolescent (1928), which became the leading textbook in the field for the next two decades, replacing the one written by G. Stanley Hall. Several popular magazines published excerpts from the chapter entitled "Psychological Weaning". Dr. Hollingworth described this as similar to the "physical weaning from infantile methods of taking food, it may be attended by emotional outbursts or depressions, which are likely to come upon people whenever habits have to be broken" (p.36). The book gives several instances in which this process is successfully completed in order to serve as a guide for puzzled parents. Additional volumes on the subject of "defective children" are The Problem of Mental Disorder (1934) and Psychology of Special Disability in Spelling (1918). With her monumental energy she was able to provide her own textbooks for her university classes at Columbia while teaching full-time and continuing her clinical practice.

In the early 1920's Leta Hollingworth began in earnest her research on gifted children. She was concerned that the proper educational opportunities did not exist for them. The opinion of educators at that time was "the bright can take care of themselves" (H. L. Hollingworth, 1943 p.103). She developed a process for working with gifted children which stressed the importance of maintaining contact with them everyday, identifying them early in life, not isolating them from other children and realizing that their needs were not being met by the regular school structure.

Her first long- term experiment with the gifted began in 1922 at P.S. 165 in New York City. A group of fifty children ages seven to nine with IQ's over 155 were studied for a three- year period. The experiment served two purposes. The first was to study as many aspects of these children as possible, including such things as their backgrounds and family circumstances, their psychological makeup, as well as physical and social and temperamental traits. The second purpose was to identify a curriculum that would prove beneficial to these exceptional children. The results of this study are contained in her book entitled Gifted Children (1926). Dr. Hollingworth continued to stay in contact with this group for the next eighteen years adding to her study the spouses and children of the original participants.

In 1936 an opportunity for a second experiment with gifted children presented itself with the establishment of Speyer School (P.S. 500). Children with special educational problems were also included in the study. Again a group of gifted seven to nine year olds was gathered only this time special attention was paid to keeping the racial mix similar to that of the other New York public schools. The school affectionately known as "Leta Hollingworth's school for bright children" received much public interest. The curriculum devised was called the "Evolution of Common Things". It was discovered that the minds of children wanted to explore their world. Thus, their enrichment curriculum consisted of learning about such things as food, shelter, clothing, transport, tools, time keeping and communication. The children themselves gathered their own learning materials supervised by Dr. Hollingworth, and made them into work units. This type of learning proved to be more beneficial to the gifted students than introducing them to advanced subjects that they would later meet in college (H.L.Hollingworth, 1943).

Leta Hollingworth's last publication Children Above 180 IQ (1942) was actually completed after her death by her husband, Harry L. Hollingworth. It is based on a longitudinal study of twelve exceptional children, which began in 1916 when her interest in high intelligence was stimulated by a demonstration of an IQ that measured 187. Among her findings was the fact that many exceptional children suffered from adjustment problems due to two things: inept treatment by adults and lack of intellectual challenge. Often, adults ignored them because it was thought that they were self-sufficient. Results of Dr. Hollingworth's studies served to dispel the myth that exceptional children were fragile, clumsy and eccentric (Benjamin and Shields, 1990).


Leta Hollingworth died on November 27, 1939 at the age of 53 of abdominal cancer. The above mentioned details of her life and work merely scratch the surface of the truly outstanding accomplishments she achieved in such a short time. Five years after receiving her doctorate, she was listed in "American Men of Science". Her importance in psychology is evidenced by her inclusion in Robert Watson's Eminent Contributors to Psychology (1974, 1976). She was one of only fourteen women to be so recognized (Benjamin and Shields, 1990).

Looking back over her brief but illustrious career, it is possible to see a thread of continuity. From the very beginning Leta Hollingworth was concerned with the subject of variability. She saw that males had the opportunity to develop their abilities to a much greater extent than did women, and determined that the reason for this was not due to inherent inferiority on women's part, but to societal restraints placed upon women. Women were not permitted to realize their full potential, as they were confined to the roles of child rearing and housekeeping. Thus, statistical results showed that they did not vary as much as men; that they were not as individual. Her next endeavor with the gifted (as well as the mentally deficient) also stemmed from her recognition that the individuality of these exceptional children was being grossly overlooked. Education at that time was focusing on the norm - the middle of the group, rather than on either end of the intellectual spectrum. She made it her life's work to make sure that these neglected individuals were given the opportunity to realize their fullest potential. In doing her work, she was extremely concerned with the quality of her research. She, unlike her peers in the testing profession, stressed the importance of direct contact with her subjects. She criticized her cohorts for their lack of connection with their subjects pointing out that their main concern seemed to be to get knowledge quickly. She chided them that "The adding machine has tremendous advantages over the child as an object of intimate association. It has no parents; it does not lose its pocket-handkerchief; it does not kick or yell. All this we grant. Those who really study children -those who would study any individuals - must be prepared to take pains" (L. S. Hollingworth cited in Shields, 1991).


Benjamin, L.T. Jr. (1975). The pioneering work of Leta Stetter Hollingworth in the psychology of women. Nebraska History, 56, 493-505.

Benjamin, L.T. Jr. and Shields, S.A. (1990). Leta Stetter Hollingworth (1886-1939). In O' Connell A.N. and Russo, N.F. (Eds.), Women in Psychology: A Bio-Biographic Sourcebook (pp.173-183). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Hollingworth, H.L. (1943). Leta Stetter Hollingworth. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

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. Appelton and Company.

Shields, S.A. (1991). Leta Stetter Hollingworth: "Literature of opinion" and the study of individual differences. In G. A. Kimble, M. Wertheimer, and C.L. White (Eds.) Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum (pp.243-255).

Stevens, G. and Gardner, S. (1982) Mrs. Pilgrim is afforded an opportunity to carry on her work: Leta Stetter Hollingworth (1886-1939). In Women in Psychology: Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman (pp. 176-186).

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