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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Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939)

by Jenn Bumb

"Nothing in the world is so compelling to the emotions as the mind of another human being" --Margaret Floy Washburn

Margaret Floy Washburn's fascination with the study of the mind led to a forty-three year career lasting from 1894-1937. Although her career decision did not allow her traditional roles as wife and mother, it opened up something greater. Such as, the first woman to receive her Ph.D. in the field of psychology and presidency of the American Psychological Association. In her life she embraced everything that interested her: ideas, activities, people, animals. She was considered by many as warm, a sharp wit and goal directed. In her life she accomplished far more than the average woman by far.

Washburn was born on July 25, 1871 in Harlem, New York City to Rev. Francis and Elizabeth Floy Washburn. Washburn was an only child, however, nowhere does she mention childhood companions of her own age. Instead, she writes about the "blessed privilege of an only child to be undisturbed when at leisure." Though she did not enter school until she was seven years old, she had learned to read and write long before. Her first school was private-conducted in the home of a retired Presbyterian minister by his three accomplished daughters. When she was eleven years old she attended a public school. She graduated high school in June of 1886 at the age of fifteen.

The following fall she attended Vassar College where she concentrated in chemistry and French. However, when she graduated in 1891 her interest had changed to philosophy and science. As these two curricular concerns appeared to be combined in the new science of experimental psychology, she determined to study under Cattell in the newly established Columbia University psychological laboratory. Although she was fully accepted and encouraged by Cattell, Columbia would not admit a woman graduate student. However, after three months of effort she was admitted by special dispensation of the trustees permitted to register in Cattell's classes as a "hearer." At the end of one year Cattell advised her to transfer to the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University, where she might receive not only a degree but also a scholarship. Thus, in 1892, Washburn became E.B. Titchener's first, and for that year, only major graduate student. She reported that "he did not quite know what to do with me."

After a year at Cornell, Vassar College awarded her in 1893 an M.A. degree in absentia for work done under Titchener. A year later, in 1894, she obtained her Ph.D. from Cornell, the first Ph.D. that Titchener recommended. Thus making her the first woman to complete her Ph.D. training in the field of psychology. In the fall following her doctorate, she went to Wells College as Professor of Psychology, Philosophy and Ethics. She remained there six years, keeping up her contacts with Cornell by weekly visits to use the library and to attend seminars and lectures of interest. From Wells College, in 1900, she returned to Cornell's Sage College as a warden (glorified resident advisor) for the women's dormitory. Intermittently lecturing in psychology. However, she quit this job in 1902 to accept an assistant professorship at the University of Cincinnati, where she was the only woman in faculty rank.

Washburn returned to Vassar College as Associate Professor of Philosophy in 1903. Partly because she was only 16 miles away from her parents and because it was her alma mater. Her return to Vassar College, in 1903 marked a significant point in her career. In this year she was included in Cattell's list of 1000 most important "men of science" and she was appointed as a cooperating editor of the American Journal of Psychology, a title she held until her death in 1939. In 1908, under her leadership, an independent department of psychology was formed at Vassar of which she was appointed Professor. She remained at Vassar the rest of her life: when retired as Emeritus Professor of Psychology in June 1937. Among her years at Vassar she was a well-liked professor, students commenting, "Miss Washburn's lectures were brilliant, exact, clear, with such a wealth of references and citing of original sources as almost to overwhelm a student...I recall wishing that the course in social psychology would never end, both because of the absorbing fascination of the material, and because of the consummate skill with which she unfolded and developed the theme" (Goodman, 1980). A pinnacle of her success as a teacher, which also showed her innate value of education, she received $16,000 from her students after completing twenty-five years of service for Vassar with which they wanted her to spend entirely on herself. However, she established scholarship aids for students of psychology.

Washburn was notably a teacher, however she worked in many areas of psychology and it well-known for her contributions in theory development (including her motor theory), experimental work, animal behavior and professional service. Besides publishing over 200 scientific articles and reviews, she translated Wundt's Ethical Systems, 1897, and wrote two books: The Animal Mind, 1908; and Movement and Mental Imagery, 1916. Between 1905 and 1938, she published sixty-eight studies from the Vassar Psychological Laboratory-an undergraduate laboratory with 117 students as joint authors. The summers of 1913-1917 she taught psychology in the summer sessions at Columbia University; the spring of 1928 when, on her only sabbatical leave, she took a Mediterranean cruise; and the summers of 1929 and 1932 during which she traveled to England and Copenhagen. She was cooperating editor of the Psychological Bulletin, 1909-1915; associate editor of the Journal of Animal Behavior, 1911-1917; advisory editor of the Psychological Review, 1916-1930; and associate editor of the Journal of Comparative Psychology, 1921-1935. In 1921, she was president of the American Psychological Association; that same year, she was awarded a prize of $500 by the Edison Phonograph Company for the best research on the effects of music--a study of "The Emotional Effects of Instrumental Music" in collaboration with a colleague in the Department of Music at Vassar. In 1932, she was the U.S. delegate to the International Congress of Psychology in Copenhagen. Margaret Floy Washburn died after a long illness that began on March 17, 1937 when she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. She died on October 29, 1939 at her home in Poughkeepsie, New York, at the age of sixty-nine.


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