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 Adrian Weiss, Webster University

Mamie Phipps Clark is best know for her work accomplished with her husband Kenneth. Together, they established the ground research used in the Brown vs. Board of Education segregation case in 1954. Her research on self esteem and self concept in Afro-American children boosted the case for Brown (Clark 1953).

Her Life:

Mamie was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Her father Harold (a doctor), was a native of the British West Indies. Her mother, Katie, helped him in his practice, and encouraged Mamie to reach for high goals. Mamie's younger brother Harold was a dentist. She graduated from high school in 1934, and began her college career at Howard University as a physics and math major. She met her husband Kenneth at Howard. He was a psychology major, and persuaded Mamie to switch majors. Mamie graduated in 1938 magna cum laude. That summer she took a job in the law office of William Houston. Houston was instrumental in the early planning of civil rights cases. This job helped Mamie learn more about the psychological effects of segregation in the south (Guthrie 1976).

Mamie and Kenneth had two children. Both were born in the height of her graduate studies. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1943. She was the only Afro-American student in the psychology program. She also worked in an all black nursery school while in Washington D.C. She decided to move to New York City to do research with Ruth and Gene Hartley. They were studying pre-school children using line drawings (Guthrie 1990).

Her Work:

Her Master's thesis was titled Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Preschool Children. This research was done 15 years before Brown, and it paved the way on increases in psychology of self esteem and self concept in minorities.

In the 1940's, job offers to Afro-American, especially Afro-American females were few. Mamie was briefly employed by the U.S. Armed Forces Institute as a research psychologist. She didn't like it, and so she quit after one year and went to the Riverdale Home for Children in N.Y. She counseled homeless Afro-American girls.

In 1946, Mamie Phipps-Clark established the Northside Center for Child Development in a Harlem apartment basement. The center provided a homelike environment for children. Services were provided by social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and physicians. Due to the stigma of being mentally ill, most parents wouldn1t seek help for their children. The people of Harlem accepted the center because of the frustration parents had with the public school system. Mamie had long suspected that many of the Afro-American children who were tested and told they were retarded, or had some other learning disability, were in fact not retarded. The I.Q. tests were racially and economically biased toward white children. Mamie said this about the many cases.

"Following psychological testing it was found that most of the children were in fact above the intelligence level placement in CRMD (Class for Children of Retarded Mental Development) classes (I.Q.=70) and that actions on the part of public school personnel were illegal in those schools located in minority and deprived areas" (M. P. Clark, 1983).

Mamie's research involved a coloring test and a doll test. Three year old Afro-American children were given a sheet of paper with the drawings of an apple, a leaf, an orange, a mouse, and a boy and a girl. They were also given a box twenty-four crayons with the colors brown, black, yellow, white, pink, and tan. Mamie would then ask them to pretend that the little girl or boy was them, and to color the picture the same color they were. After the child responded, Mamie would ask the child to color the opposite gendered picture the color they want it to be. The results proved Mamie's suspicions. All Afro-American children with very light skin colored the picture correctly. Most of the darker skinned Afro-American children colored the picture with yellow or white crayons. Some children even used red or green. Mamie concluded that the children's choice of inappropriate colors indicates emotional anxiety in terms of the color of their own skin; that because they wanted to be white, they pretended to be (Clark 1944).

In the coloring test, children were shown a white doll and a black doll. They were asked simply, which doll they preferred to play with. Over half of the children rejected the black doll and preferred the white doll. The children were first asked to give the experimenter the colored doll, and then the white doll. This way, Mamie could be sure that the children could identify the difference between the two.

Mamie Phipps Clark died on August 11, 1983. She and Kenneth were married 45 years. She left two children, and three grandchildren. Her studies gave important insights into the sense of the self, and self esteem in Afro-American children.


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