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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(1874 - 1947)

by Samantha Ragsdale

Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley was a psychologist, a social reformer, a women's rights leader, a mother of two daughters and takes claim for many significant "firsts" in psychology. She was born in Chicago, Illinois to David Wallace Thompson and Isabella Perkins (Faxon) Thompson on November 6, 1874. Her father was a shoe manufacturer and her mother a homemaker. She is sometimes referred to as and referenced as Helen Bradford Thompson, as her major work was published before her marriage. Both her mother and her father were advocates of education for women and were very supportive of her academic interests. Helen and her two sisters all attended college. After graduating from Englewood High School she enrolled at the University of Chicago. She is said to have been a remarkable student there. She received her undergraduate degree in 1897 and a Ph.D., summa cum laude, in 1900 with studies focused on neurology and philosophy (Zapoleon & Stolz, 1971).

At the University of Chicago, she carried out the first major research concerned with the differences between men and women. Upon reviewing literature on the subject, she concluded that there were "marked inconsistencies, contradictions, and lack of data behind the conventional wisdom on sex differences" (Rosenberg, 1984, p. 78). The conventional wisdom of the time was being expounded and published in the form of theory, by the "scientists" of psychology, with no empirical foundation. Among the beliefs, Helen would contend were McGrigor Allen's that:

"radical, natural, permanent distinctions in the mental and moral conformations" exist between the two sexes; W.L. Distant's that "modern, domesticated women, like Mr. Darwin's rabbits, were frailer and dumber than either their primitive ancestors or their contemporary mates. Francis Galton asserted that "women tend in all their capacities to be inferior to men." In William James' Principles of Psychology (1890), which was extremely influential in psychology, he supports the ideas of G.H. Schneider on maternal instinct, portraying "women before motherhood as vain, egotistic, irritable, and nervous" but, "instantly transformed when they have a baby. They become totally selfless, no longer need sleep, function unconsciously and intuitively, find absolute delight in their hideous infants, are similar to the animal mother, and do not mind holding feces in the 'naked hands'" (Rosenberg, 1982).

Such notions were commonly used as justification for the exclusion of women from academia and professional realms, the "natural" reasons why women should stay within their domestic boundaries. Helen Bradford Thompson's work directly challenged these beliefs. Her research provided scientific data to support women's urgings for acceptance into the public domain. Her dissertation involved the first experimental laboratory study comparing mental traits of men and women. She conducted experiments, on U. of Chicago undergraduates, in seven areas of mental functioning including: motor ability, skin and muscle senses, taste and smell, hearing, vision, intellectual faculties, and affective processes (Thompson, 1903, p. 5).

Her methods were remarkable, unlike many researchers of the time, she controlled for confounding variables and "carefully matched her sets of male and female subjects" (Rosenberg, 1984, p. 78). She avoided using averages that distort distributions of data. Overall, she found wide individual variations, but an astounding likeness between men and women. When she did find differences, she demonstrated how environmental influences could account for them. Her study was the first to observe a sex difference on measures of visual-spatial stimuli response, a subject still being investigated today.

In 1903, she published her doctoral dissertation, entitled Psychological Norms in Men and Women, written under the supervision of James Angell. The findings of her work with sex differences had a significant influence on psychology, especially in "undermining biological determinism" (Rosenberg, 1984, p. 78). Although many misconceptions persisted, following her work, "psychologists were less ready to emphasize the differences between the male and female mind than they had been before" (Rosenberg, 1984, p. 79). Helen Thompson Woolly greatly influenced Leta Stetter Hollingworth and other female psychologists, who would continue to challenge common notions about sex differences (Rosenberg, 1984) (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987). Probably for the same reasons men weren't conducting sex difference research themselves, psychology departments would not have typically been encouraging of such a study as Helen performed. Feminist ideas were explicitly not tolerated at some universities. In Helen's case, the University of Chicago may have been particularly liberal in this sense. One source reported that her attitudes and research were enabled by a number of "sympathetic" male faculty members who were friends and supporters of her (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).

When she left the University of Chicago she received a fellowship from the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (which later became the American Association of University Women), to study in Paris and Berlin for a year. She then returned to the U.S. and began teaching at Mount Holyoke College. In 1902, she became director of its psychological laboratory and professor of psychology. As a graduate student she had become engaged to Dr. Paul Gerhardt Woolley at the University of Chicago and in 1905, she left her positions and went to Japan to marry him and moved to the Philippines to live where he was working. At the time, he had been serving as director of the Serum Laboratory in Manila, of a laboratory in the Philippine Islands. There, Helen worked for the Philippines Bureau of Education as an experimental psychologist, but when her husband moved to Bangkok to head a new serum laboratory, she followed him there. Here, in 1907 she became the chief inspector of health. The next year, perhaps because of the birth of their first child, in 1908, she and her husband moved back to the United States, living in Nebraska for a year before settling in Cincinnati.

At the University of Cincinnati, Helen took up teaching again, as an instructor of philosophy from 1909-1911. This lasted for only one year however. And one source (Rosenberg, 1984) indicates that after having two children, she was unsuccessful in obtaining academic positions. At this point, one author notes that she "lived almost exclusively in a world of women whose concerns and goals became her concerns and goals" (Rosenberg, 1982, p. 83). She became very involved in social reform, "a powerful proponent of child welfare reform and an influential community leader" (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987, p. 200). She fought whole-heartedly for the causes in which she believed When an African American was not allowed to enter a professional meeting that she was attending, in protest, she lead a group out of the hotel where it was being held. She was a women's rights activist, a member and chairperson at one point of the Ohio Woman Suffrage Association (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).

Next, early in 1911, Helen became director of the Bureau for the Investigation of Working Children, which was formed after the enactment of the Ohio child labor law in 1910. The child labor law gave the state legal control over children until the age of 17 and enabled the investigation of working children's development. Under the direction of Helen Woolley, the bureau conducted a five-year follow-up study, investigating the mental and physical differences between 750 children in school and 750 children who had left school to go to work at the age of fourteen. Her findings in this study inspired her many articles, speeches, and special reports in support of compulsory school attendance for children. Basically, she found that education can increase children's IQ, the first reported finding of this. And that children benefit from being in school (Woolley, 1925). She appealed to national groups of educators, social workers, and vocational guidance personnel, as well as congress to pass revised compulsory school attendance and child labor law for Ohio. Her full report of the research was published as An Experimental Study of Children at Work and in School between the Ages of Fourteen and Eighteen Years in 1926. The findings of research made considerable contributions to the area of child development (Rosenberg, 1984) (Zapoleon & Stolz, 1971).

In 1921, Helen, her husband and their two daughters moved to Detroit, presumably again because of her husband's work. Before they moved, the Woman's City Club, where Helen had been very active, gave her a farewell civic dinner and established a scholarship in her honor. In Detroit, Helen became the psychologist on staff at the Merrill-Palmer School and in 1922 became Associate Director. At the Merrill-Palmer school, she "organized one of the first nursery schools in the country for the study of child development and the training of teachers" (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987, p. 200). Another aspect of her job was researching the mental and personality development of children. She is said to have "an unusual ability to observe behavior and to interpret motivations in children" (Zapoleon & Stolz, 1971 p. 658). Based on her research she published "Personality Studies of the Three Year-Olds" in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 1922; three case studies of children in the nursery school, "Agnes: A Dominant Personality in the Making" and "Peter: the Beginnings of a Juvenile Court Problem" and "David: A Study of the Experience of a Nursery School in Training a Child Adopted from an Institution" (Zapoleon & Stolz, 1971, p. 659). She was also instrumental in designing early performance tests, the beginnings of what would become the Merrill-Palmer Scale of Mental Tests. She also supervised research and taught courses to undergraduate and graduate students in child psychology and child guidance. As her reputation grew, she was sought after by women's groups, educational institutions, and scientific societies to present her findings. She was said to be an articulate speaker and writer, who appealed to professional and lay audiences alike. She not only published in scientific journals, but in magazines such as Mother and Child and Child Study.

Helen and her husband had "always lived separate lives, spending their summers apart" (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987, p. 200). But in the mid-1920's when he was away in California, she accepted a position in New York as director of the Institute of Child Welfare Research, and as professor of education at Columbia university's teacher's college - apparently solidifying their separation. She was initially very successful in these positions, but in the city life of New York and the large campus of Columbia she felt alienated and underwent numerous struggles in her personal life. She had always had a close network of female friends, which was lacking for her in New York. She had also been very close to her daughters, but they were now away at school. She underwent a series of stressful events, including a hysterectomy, losing a friend to cancer, and realizing the inevitability of a permanent separation from her husband. In 1926, she "became emotionally incapacitated," and in 1930 the college asked her to resign from teaching; eventually she was no longer able to uphold any of her previous responsibilities. She spent the last 17 years of her life in her daughter, Eleanor's, home in Pennsylvania (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987, p. 201). On December 24, 1947, she died of cardiovascular disease, at the age of 73.


Other works about or by Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley

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