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

For some people, Margaret Floy Washburn was only "the first women ever awarded a Ph.D." To others she was a great teacher, but for most contemporary psychologists and social science-related people, she is an eminence whose works in the field are of extraordinary long-lasting importance. Born in Harlem, New York, on July 25, 1871, as an only child, Margaret developed later in life one of the most interesting theories about the dualism between motor development and mental activity. Yet, the most controversial of her studies came from her book The Animal Mind (1908), where she states "[A]ll psychic interpretation of animal behavior must be on the analogy of human experience...Our acquaintance with the mind of animals rests upon the same basis as our acquaintance with the mind of our fellow-man" (541). Can you imagine saying something like this in the times when women were not supposed to express "higher reasoning?" This was the time when some antagonist theories were around such as Renee Descartes' which states that animals have no mind, no memory, and therefore no souls. Margaret definitely was asking for trouble. Yet, this kind of trouble was something she knew well.

Margaret's parents, Francis Washburn and Elizabeth Floy Davis, were natives of New York. Francis had no much of higher education, but was a hungry reader, and had a talent for business which he practiced until he entered the Episcopal ministry eight years after Margaret's birth (O'Connell & Russo, 1990: 342). Although not a very common sight of the times (and possessing a very violent temper), Francis encouraged his daughter to pursue higher education motivated by his strong literary tendencies. Her mother, Elizabeth, was truly an inspiration for Margaret who once wrote that she was "The most perfect balanced nature I have ever known. Her natural strength and sweetness of character were only increased by the difficulty of living with my father" (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987:94). From this statement one may have an idea of the situation at home where Margaret was raised without the companion of siblings or any other kids to interact with (specially when feeling scared by her fatherπs aggressive temper). However, loneliness was never a problem for her. She filled her loneliness with readings, deep private reasoning, and studying French, German and, another of her passions, music. In fact, music was a very important aspect of her life. In 1921 she received a national prize presented by Edison Phonograph Company for the best study involving the effects of music on emotions (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987:94).

Margaret's parents loved to travel and considered that by traveling their daughter would enrich her intellectual capabilities and widen her knowledge. After a trip through the United States, Margaret's parents took her on a voyage to Europe which she enjoyed enormously. Unlikely other women who were trying unsuccessfully to get higher education's opportunities but lacked economic sources to pay for it, Margaret had a different situation. She had no problems at all since her family was economically secure and could finance her education and "cultural trips" adequately. In one of her memoirs she recalls how much her grandfather helped her, "I have a reason to thank the gods for his diligence, which enabled me to finish my professional training without having to earn my own living" (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987:138). Margaret started her education in a very reputable private school at age seven feeling comfortable and content since the school was located next to her house. Her father's constant moving from one parish to another led to several school changes which went from Harlem to Orange county to Ulster county in New York. Her father's harsh religious tendencies also caused her to dropped orthodox religious ideas, having been strongly influenced by the religious radicalism of other students (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987:96). She finally graduated from high school in 1886 and went straight to Vassar College the same year when she was only fifteen. Margaret was interested in several courses including philosophy, science, poetry and music. Her interest in psychology developed in her senior year when taking a required course taught by the president of Vassar College (OπConnell & Russo, 1990:343). At that point, her vocation turned completely to the study of the mind. Margaret seemed to have found her true passion. After graduating from Vassar College in 1891, Margaret was determined to study in the graduate psychology program at Columbia University. Yet, Columbia University was not accepting women in the graduate programs, a privilege reserved only for men. She was allowed to audit courses and work in James M. Cattell's new laboratory of experimental psychology but was not admitted as a regular student (McHenry, 1980:431).

According to Agnes O'Connell and Nancy Russos' book Women in Psychology (1990), "James M. Cattell, treated Margaret as a 'regular' student, and became her first mentor when she developed her first experimental work and theoretical study" (343). But his support was not enough to convince the Columbia's board of her intellectual capabilities to allow her enrollment as a regular student in the graduate program of the university. Although Margaret showed all the traits required to be accepted as a regular student at the Columbia University, she finally had to leave for Cornell University due to Columbia's lack of acceptance and gender bias which could have jeopardize her possibilities to achieve her Ph.D. since it was impossible to reach such recognition by being an auditor student. At Cornell her possibilities and options were much wider than at Columbia, and Margaret was a perfect candidate for graduate scholarship.

In another O'Connell and Russo's publication, Models of Achievement (1983), one can see that although James McKeen Cattell's efforts to help Margaret in her education at Columbia did not work, she was completely satisfied and thanked him for his unconditional support when saying, "[He is] a lifelong champion of freedom and equality of opportunity, it would never have occurred to him to reject a woman student on account of her sex" (17). It was at Cornell where Margaret met Edward Bradford Titchner, the only experimental psychologist teacher in the university, who became her second guidance into the world of psychology and a fundamental part of Margaret's success in this field. The first recognition she received as a professional was an M.A. in absentia under Titchner's tutelage. It was also at Cornell where she became the first woman ever awarded with a doctorate in psychology in June, 1894. That same year Margaret was accepted as a member of the American Psychological Association (APA).

From that moment on, Margaret began to experience a world of opportunities that was exclusively reserved for men. However, the social stigma against female professional never abandoned her. Even while being one of the brightest women in the psychological field, Margaret still had to face constant rejections and bias based on her sex. The president of Vassar College, H. N. McCracken, once tried to bring awareness of the danger provoked by educated women when expressing, "Miss Washburn had been intrepid enough to invade the sacred precinct of the menπs smoker at psychological meetings. Marching uninvited into its midst, she had sat down and lighted a cigar. None questioned her privilege to enjoy the smoker thereafter" (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987: 105). Although she was aware of her social condition as a woman in a society dominated by men, she certainly was not the passive type. She went straight forward to accused a prominent psychologist, John B. Watson, when she felt that Watson was under estimating her work for an issue of the Journal of Animal Behavior : "Mr. Watson has given me so much trouble, although you needn't tell him I said so; I have already dealt with him more in sorrow than in anger...Mr. W. now tells me he simply neglected to answer my cards...Inferior people, like Turner, who is negro, and me, who am a woman, are willing to do this hack work as well as we can. Really superior people, like Wheeler, if they consent to do it at all, do it beautifully as they do everything else. Of people in between, the less said the better...Although Watson's reviews are full and valuable, he has given me more trouble by carelessness than others put together...I smile to reflect what comments upon the feminine mind I should have made if I had been a man and my contributors women. However, even I am fallible on rare occasions" (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987: 106). As one can see, in this letter Margaret put not only her discontent about Watson's disrespect towards her, but also her frustrations for being a woman in a society where women--even those capable of meritocracy--were margined.

While being Titchner's student, Margaret investigated the relationship between visual imaginary and movements and its effects on judgments of tactual distance and direction. Her thesis about these topics impressed her mentor so much that Titchner decided to send her research to the famous Wilhelm Wundt for his reputable psychological publications. A few years later, Margaret was the English translator of the second volume of Wundt's Ethics (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987:97). Soon, she realized that Titchner's strict structural psychology theories had several limitations and started to work in her own theory about the motor system and mind processes. Her desires to develop a new theory about motor skills and mind were fueled by her refusal to accept most of the formulations from the major schools of psychology about the matters. She developed a doctrine that states "Thinking requires tentative movements...Mental phenomena--for example, feelings and sensations, colors and tones--were not only legitimate but necessary topics to examine; psychology is the study of behavior and consciousness" (OπConnell & Russo, 1990:345).

Her extreme interest in the correlation between motor skills and mental processes yielded the publication of her second book, Movement and Mental Imagery (1916), an attempt to find a third way between the opposed and equally one-sided schools of behaviorism and introspectionism (McHenry, 1980:431). Margaret took what she really thought was valuable from other psychologies such as aspects of behaviorism, Gestalt psychology, structuralism, etc., and rejected any theory of psychology that were ignoring the importance of mechanism. For her, it was impossible to examine movement without considering mental processes. She believed that behavior was the expression of our conscious thoughts and our bodily movements were central explanatory principles. She viewed consciousness as a phenomena that accompanies the simultaneous excitation and inhibition of a motor discharge (OπConnell & Russo, 1990:345).

Although Movement and Mental Imagery caused a tremendous reaction from the world of psychologists, some agreeing with her and some strongly rejecting her findings, it was The Animal Mind (1904) the publication that put Margaret's name on the map. Despite of theories such as dualism proposed by Rene Descartes which states that every human being is a bipartite creature composed by a material part (body) and an immaterial one (mind), and these traits are exclusively found in humans, Margaret proposed that animals also have these characteristics. The common belief of the society at that time, which still continues in some aspects of our contemporary society, was that animals have no consciousness; that they are aware of their surroundings but not aware of themselves, and therefore they have no mind. Descartes himself proposed that the behavior of animals was entirely caused by mechanical operations of their nervous systems, but since they lack consciousness and reasoning, both traits viewed by him as what we called soul, it what impossible for animals to have minds (Hardy & Jackson, 2001:7). Margaret brought this subject to a very controversial comparison between humans and animals by conceiving animals as possessing the same dualism proposed by Descartes. She was decided to knowledge and make public her considerations about animal's psychology in the first comprehensive textbook about this issue. In her studies of animal's psychology, Margaret proposed that animals possess mental processes and capabilities to learn that are structurally similar to those found in humans. "The effects of previous experience are recalled in the guise of an idea or mental image of some sort...The actions of our fellow-men resemble our own, and we therefore infer them like subjective states to ours: the actions of animals represent ours less completely, but difference is one of degree, not of kind...the facts are those of human and animal behavior; but the mental processes are as justifiable inferences as any others with which science deals...We know not where consciousness begins in the animal world. We know where it surely resides in ourselves; we know where it exists beyond a reasonable doubt in those animals of structure resembling ours which rapidly adapt themselves to the lessons of experience...Beyond this point, for all we know, it may exist in simpler and simpler forms until we reach the very lowest of living beings" (Washburn, 1908:539-541-42). Whether she was right or wrong when assuming through experiments that animals have consciousness, the truth is that she really did a very plausible comparative work about animals' mental processes.

Margaret left Cornell after receiving an offer from Wells College to be the chair of psychology, philosophy and ethics, and taught these subjects along with logic courses. In spite of her newly acquired status at Wells which required enduring long hours of work, Margaret never stop going to Cornell to visit her friends with whom she maintained a very close relationship. But the vigorous mind of such a thinker like Margaret was could not remain in peace if put to do the same thing everyday. After six years of teaching and guiding students and departments at Wells College--and having been paid the highest salary ever paid to a woman-- she decided to go back to Cornell to develop all the theories she was investigating on her own about psychology.

At Cornell she received the title Warden of Sage College, a women's residence which required functions as director for the women's dormitory and was as important as the dean's position. During that time she also taught courses in animal and social psychology (McHenry, 1980:431). After two years at Cornell, where she was also engaged in laboratory work studying visual phenomena and introspection, Margaret accepted an assistant professorship in psychology at the University of Cincinnati. She spent only one year in the Midwest, however, and was delighted when she received an offer to return to Vassar College as associate professor of philosophy where she remained for the rest of her career (O'Connell & Russo, 1990:344). At this point of her life, Margaret was already a truly eminence in the world of psychologists, even though the public did not know her as well as they knew her masculine colleagues of that time. It was definitely a problem of gender bias because Margaret proved to be as efficient, smart, talented, and bearer of undeniable merits to be in the same position as her fellow male psychologists were. Yet, those were the times were female precursors had to fight fist-by-fist with the entire social system, and Margaret, as well as Karen Horney, Mary Calkins, and Christine Ladd-Franklin, was not the exception of the rule. By being an stoic goal-oriented person as she was, Margaret never gave up her dreams an desires to express not only her ideas about the intrinsic mind, but also to vindicated womanhood from a professional perspective.

One of the most important moments on Margaret's career took place at the 1927 Wittenberg Conference on Feelings and Emotions, which gathered an important crowd of international scholars in chemistry and psychology. Margaret expressed her dualistic motor theory which granted her honorary degrees at the end of the conference (O'Connell & Russo, 1990:346). Margaret was the only woman speaker that evening, and was now beginning to receive recognitions from parts of the society that never considered women's intellectual contributions before. She achieved several positions that were absolutely reserved for men such as member of the influential council of the association (from 1912 to 1914), chair of several departments and committees, vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and member of the National Research Council Division of Psychology and Anthropology, member of the International Committee on Psychology, chair of the Society of Experimental Psychology. But it was in 1921 that one of her dearest dreams finally materialized when she became president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Another extraordinary recognition came in 1932 when Margaret was elected to the National Academy of Science becoming the first woman psychologist ever to be elected, and the second woman scientist. She shared a prestigious position within the world of professionals with few other women such as Mary Whiton Calkins, and Christine Ladd-Franklin, all of them included among the fifty principal American Psychologists in 1903 (O'Connell & Russo, 1990:346).

Although Margaret Washburn had to live with the rigorous and constantly unfair social disregard for woman's capabilities as professionals, no one can deny that her situation was much more positive if compared to other struggling female psychologists of those times. Parental support, particularly economic support, was a primordial factor to facilitate her education. Margaret was very fortunate to have her father as one of the principal motivators in her education. He, along with her mother, fueled her intellectual capabilities, and encouraged her to pursue a different life. Unlikely other women of her generation, Margaret did not have to choose between marriage, family claims or career. She knew that above all the possibilities and choices of her life, career had no competitors. That was her choice. And she could not be more precise. As a professional, Margaret enjoyed a whole new world of friendships, fellowships, researches, extra-career activities, multi-dimensional involvement, music expressions, animals fascination, and converted all the disadvantages in opportunities to learn from them and to grow stronger. Margaret Washburn died from an incapacitating stroke in Poughkeepsie, New York, on October 29,1939 at the age of sixty-eight years old.


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