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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Mary Whiton Calkins

by Jenn Bumb


Mary Whiton Calkins, whom is best known for two things: becoming the first woman president of the American Psychological Association and being denied her doctorate from Harvard. However, these two aspects only make up a small portion of what she accomplished in her life. Her entire life was dedicated to her work, especially the development of her "psychology of selves." She founded an early psychology laboratory and invented the paired-associate technique. She passionately delved into the new field of Psychology but also was highly active in the field of Philosophy. She was not deterred by being a woman and used her struggles to gain a voice to speak out against women's oppression.


Mary Whiton Calkins was born on March 30, 1863 in Hartford, Connecticut. Her father was Wolcott Calkins and a Presbyterian minister. She was from a close knit family, especially to her mother, and the eldest of five children. In 1880, when she was seventeen, she moved to Newton, Massachusetts where her family built a home that she lived in the rest of her life. Her father, knowing the education that women received, decided to design and supervise Mary's education. This enabled her to enter Smith College in 1882 with advanced standing as a sophomore. However, in 1893, an "experience which permanently influenced her thinking and character" occurred with the death of her sister Maude. The following academic year she stayed home and took private lessons. She reentered Smith College in the fall of 1884 as a senior and graduated with a concentration in classics and philosophy.

In 1886 her family went to Europe for sixteen months. This is where she broadened her knowledge of the classics. Upon returning to Massachusetts her father arranged an interview for Mary with the President of Wellesley College, a liberal arts college for women that was a few miles from their home. She was offered a position there as a tutor in Greek and began teaching in the fall of 1887. Mary remained in the Greek Department for three years. However a professor in the Department of Philosophy noticed her talent of teaching. He discussed with Mary the position needed to teach the new field of Psychology, which was still a sub discipline of Philosophy. Due to the scarcity of women in that era it made it realistic to see her potential and offer her the position. The motto for the time was to "find the right person and preparation can be discussed later."


The only requirement that the professor had was that Calkins study for one year in a Psychology program. However, she faced two problems meeting this condition. The first being that there were few psychology departments in 1890. Secondly, getting admitted to these places that did offer the program was highly unlikely since she was a woman. Her first consideration was to study abroad. An instructor at Smith told her that her best chance was to try obtaining "private instruction in psychology and philosophy at any of the German universities outside of Zurich" (Furumoto, 1980). However, another instructor told her that would be a good idea "if ladies had been allowed the same privileges as men" (1980). Calkins formally dismissed going to Germany when she received a letter from a woman student attending the University of Gottingen which stated, "I wish I might encourage you; but past experience has proved to me the utter uselessness of trying to enlighten the authorities, at least, in our generation."

Once Calkins started looking at the United States she discovered that the University of Michigan, where she would be studying under John Dewey, and Yale, where she would be studying under G.T. Ladd, were promising. However, she received a letter from another woman student that dissuaded her. The letter stated, "Personally, I should be immensely glad if you would come. We might be able to get some delightful work together...By the way Prof. Ladd thinks you ought to have some lady with you at the lectures. If there were only one or two other girls who would come to join us, we could get a tremendous amount..."(1980). She decided against both universities, most likely because they were further away from home that she would like and they did not have a psychological laboratory.

However, one of the few universities that did have a laboratory was Harvard. Two professors their, William James and Josiah Royce, had sent Calkins letters inviting her to "sit-in" on their lectures on a strictly informal basis. When Calkins requested that she be allowed to sit-in on these lectures, President Eliot refused stating that her presence at these lectures would receive an angry reaction from the governing body at Harvard. However, Calkins father wrote a petition to Harvard requesting that his daughter be granted admission to these lectures. In addition the President of Wellesley College wrote a letter stating that Calkins was a member of their faculty and that this program suited her needs.

On October 1, 1890 Harvard approved the petition. Calkins was permitted to attend the seminars of James and Royce; however, it was noted in the university records "that by accepting this privilege Miss Calkins does not become a student of the University entitled to registration" (1980). Calkins began attending her first lecture with James that fall. When she arrived to her lecture she was fortunate enough to be the only person left in the class, therefore giving her a private tutoring session of sorts. In addition to taking classes with James and Royce, Calkins began studying experimental psychology under Dr. Edmund Sanford of Clark University.

In the fall of 1891, Calkins returned to Wellesley College as an Instructor of Psychology in the Department of Philosophy. In that same year she established a psychological laboratory at the college (1980).

At this time she was already planning on furthering her studies in Psychology and asked James, Royce and Sanford where they felt she should look into attending. Dr. Sanford made it clear in his correspondence that neither Clark or Johns Hopkins University were not prepared to offer fellowships for graduate education to a woman. William James wrote that Calkins "best opportunity would be served learning under Hugo Munsterberg at the University of Freiburg who had had a woman student a year ago" (1980). He informed her a month later that Munsterberg would be coming to Harvard the following year. Once again another petition was submitted, by Calkins, asking for permission to attend Professor Munsterberg's laboratory. In 1892, President Eliot of Harvard wrote, once again, that she would be permitted in his laboratory as a guest; but not as a registered student of the university.

During this period Calkins had been writing and conducting several experiments within the field of psychology. At this time she invented the paired-associate technique. This was a suggested classification of cases of associations. In her research Calkins originated a technical method for studying memory, later referred to as the method of paired associates. G.E. Muller refined the technique, and later Titchener included it in his Student's Manual, taking full credit for it. She continued to conduct research under Professor Munsterberg until October of 1894. At this time Munsterberg wrote to the President and Fellows at Harvard requesting that Calkins be admitted as a candidate for the Ph.D. On October 29, 1894, Harvard considered Munsterberg's request and refused.

In the spring of 1895, Calkins presented her thesis, An experimental research on the association of ideas. "At the examination, held May 28, 1895, before Professors Palmer, James, Royce, Munsterberg, Harris and Dr. Santayana, it was unanimously voted that Miss Calkins satisfied all customary requirements for the degree" (1980). In Harvard's records this communication was noted but not considered.


In 1895, Calkins returned to Wellesley College where she was made an Associate Professor of Psychology and Philosophy and was promoted to Professor in 1898. She wrote hundreds of papers divided between the two disciplines. Calkins' writings encompass more than a hundred papers in professional journals of psychology and philosophy. She wrote four books, including, An Introduction to Psychology (1901); The Persistent Problems of Philosophy (1907), which went through five editions; and The Good Man and the Good (1918).

Throughout this period Calkins did work in both the fields of psychology and philosophy. For example, in the same year she published an analytic and experimental essay on association, she also published an article on the religiousness of children. Three years later her contribution to research on the attributes of sensation was published, along with a philosophical treatment of time as related to causality and to space. Her most influential work in philosophy, The Persistent Problems of Philosophy, appeared at the same time as some of her important psychological articles on the self (Strunk, 1972).

After 1900, Calkins' major contribution to psychology was the development of a system of self-psychology (Furumoto, 1980). Her own work in the field dealt primarily with such topics as space and time consciousness, emotion, association, color theory and dreams. Her theory held, in contrast to behaviorist views then in the ascendant, that the conscious self is the central fact of psychology. In the field of philosophy she acknowledged Royce's idealism as the chief influence leading her to her own system of "personalistic absolutism."

In 1905, Calkins was elected president of the American Psychological Association and the president of the American Philosophical Association in 1918. Her achievements brought her a number of honors in addition to the presidencies. In a 1908 list of leading psychologists in the United States, Calkins was ranked twelfth of the list (1980). Columbia University bestowed a Doctor of Letters degree on her in 1909 and Smith College a Doctor of Laws degree in 1910. Both Columbia and Smith also offered her positions on their faculty which she declined, partly because of the responsibility she felt to remain with and look after the welfare of her parents (1980).

In 1929, after a teaching career spanning forty-two years, Calkins retired from Wellesley College with the title of Research Professor. She planned on devoting her retirement to writing and enjoying the companionship of her mother, but less than one year later she was dead, the victim of inoperable cancer (1980).


Two underlying forms of psychology in vogue at the time were "atomistic psychology" and the "science of selves." Calkins was the first to "discover" the psychology of selves. She called it a reconciliation between structural and functional psychology. Her first basic definition of her psychology is as follows:

"All sciences deal with facts, and there are two great classes of facts-Selves and Facts-for-the-Selves. But the second of these great groups, the Facts-for-the-Selves, is again capable of an important division into internal and external facts. To the first class belong percepts, images, memories, thoughts, emotions and volitions, inner events as we may call them; to the second class belong the things and the events of the outside world, the physical facts, as we may name them... The physical sciences study these common and apparently independent or external facts; psychology as distinguished from them is the science of consciousness, the study of selves and the inner facts-for-selves (cited in Strunk, 1972).

Calkins felt that her psychology could relate, if not directly but indirectly, within other current models of psychology. As Sigmund Freud's theory of psychoanalysis gained notoriety, she felt that self-psychology could interpret all the facts discovered by him. She wrote, "Self-psychology is finally at the core of every one of the psychoanalytic systems. Not only does the conscious ego play a role, if only a minor role, on the psychoanalytic stage, but even the unconscious closely studied turns out to resemble nothing so much as a dissociated self" (1972).

As psychological views moved on, Calkins theory became dissolved and rather dated. However, in 1937 Gordon Allport wrote Personality: A Psychological Interpretation. In this book he gave considerable credit and notoriety to Calkins ideas and self-psychology. However, in the third revision of his book, he dropped all references to Calkins. Since then most of Calkins' ideas and much of her work have been "swept under the rug."


At the time in which Calkins was struggling to get her education she faced many setback because she was a woman. These experiences shaped many of her views on women's rights and cultivated her into somewhat of an advocate. In the 1890s, for example, she challenged the work of a colleague, Joseph Jastrow. In his study, he asked college students, both male and female, to write down one-hundred words as fast as possible. He found "that women repeat one another's words more than men" and "there is less variety among women than among men" (Furumoto, 1980). After analyzing these lists he concluded, "that the feminine traits revealed...are an attention to the immediate surroundings, to the finished product, to the ornamental, the individual, and the concrete; while the masculine preference is for the more remote, the constructive, the useful, the general, and the abstract" (1980).

Calkins was infuriated by his findings and responded that "if sufficiently extended, establish characteristic differences in the interests of men and women." However, she maintained that it was "futile and impossible to attempt a distinction between masculine and feminine intellect per se...because of our entire inability to eliminate the effect of the environment" (1980).

Another area that she opposed differentiation was the right to vote. In an address to a National Suffrage Convention at Baltimore, she maintained that: "the student trained to reach decisions in the light of logic and of history will be disposed to recognize that, in a democratic country, governed as this is by the suffrage of its citizens, and given over as this is to the principle and practice of educating women, a distinction based on difference of sex is artificial and illogical" (1980).

The most profound action against sexist attitudes that she rejected was her refusal to accept the offer of a Radcliffe Ph.D. In 1902, she and three other women who had done graduate work at Harvard, but were not eligible for a Harvard degree on account of their sex were recommended by Radcliffe and approved by Harvard as candidates for the degree of Ph.D. from Radcliffe College. Although she was urged by several colleagues to take the degree, she declined. She writes,

"I sincerely admire the scholarship of the three women to whom it is to be given and I should be very glad to be classed with them. I furthermore think it highly probably that the Radcliffe degree will be regarded, generally, as the practical equivalent of the Harvard degree and finally, I should be glad to hold the Ph.D. degree for I occasionally find the lack of it an inconvenience; and now that the Radcliffe degree is offered, I doubt whether the Harvard degree will ever be open to women. On the other hand, I still believe that the best ideals of education would be better served if Radcliffe College refused to confer the doctoral degree. You will be quick to see that, holding this conviction, I cannot rightly take the easier course of accepting the degree" (1980).

To this day Harvard has not issued any degree in honor of Mary Whiton Calkins and feels that there is "no reason to" award the degree.

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