Mary Whiton Calkins – Important Women in Psychology

Women in Psychology: Mary Whiton Calkins
As psychology was developing into a science unto itself in the later part of the 1890s, universities were being established all over the world at an astronomical pace. Although the subject of psychology was taught in several different forms, the curriculum was not available to women and minorities at the graduate level. In fact, one of the predominant theories of the period was that women were intellectually inferior to men and higher forms of learning could prove hazardous to the health for a delicate female (Goodwin, 2008). During this period a few exceptionally intelligent and determined individuals did manage to make a name for themselves in spite of the odds they faced. Mary Whiton Calkins is one such individual. In a time when women were not only thought to be inferior, but were barred from most institutions of higher education, Mary Whiton Calkins persevered and became one of the most widely known women in the history of psychology (Goodwin, 2008).

The eldest of five children, Mary Whiton Clakins, was born on March 30, 1863 in Hartford Connecticut. Mary’s father, Wolcott Calkins, was a Presbyterian minister who believed strongly in a well rounded education. Wolcott frequently took his family to Europe and Mary was fluent in German as well as several other languages at a young age. The Calkins moved to Newton, Massachusetts in 1880 where Mary graduated from high school (Hutchinson Directory, 2009).

After graduating from Newton High School, Mary entered Smith College in 1882. She was able to attend for one year but the death of her younger sister forced her to remain at home and tutor her younger siblings the following year. She eventually graduated from Smith having majored in the classics and philosophy. Soon after her graduation from Smith, the Calkins family took another trip to Europe where Mary met Abby Leach, an instructor at Vassar, who encouraged her to become a teacher. Mary had been studying and tutoring her siblings in Greek and upon her return to the United States she was recruited by Wellesley College where she worked for the next 42 years (Hutchinson Directory, 2009). During her time at Wellesley the leaders of the college decided to offer a new course providing a laboratory approach to psychology. Although Calkins had not been trained in psychology, she expressed an interest in teaching the course and the college board gave her the position provided that she take a year off from her teaching schedule to study psychology. Thus began Mary’s difficult journey toward higher education in the highly segregated atmosphere of the early 1900s (Goodwin, 2008).

After looking into several universities, Mary applied to Harvard. Harvard officials allowed her to attend lectures given by the brilliant William James and Josiah Royce (who both supported her application to Harvard) as an unofficial “guest” but nothing more (Goodwin, 2008). In her autobiography Mary notes that the male members of James’ psychology class “dropped away in the early weeks” of the fall semester leaving her and James quite literally alone by a library fire. She studied James’ new book The Principles of Psychology with the author himself with the added privilege of his personal insight and explanation. During this same year (1890) Mary was fortunate to work in the laboratory under Edmund Sanford where she conducted dream studies that further sparked her interest in the concept of the unconscious mind, leading to a paper she wrote with Dr. James on ‘association’ which became her man focus for many years (Calkins, p. 1, 1925). In 1894 William James recruited Hugo Munsterberg to run the lab at Harvard. Mary was still teaching at Wellesley but worked part-time in Munsterberg’s laboratory conducting the brilliant experiments on association that would eventually become her first published work (Goodwin, 2008).

Theoretical Perspective
Mary Whiton Calkins’ most prominent theoretical perspective was the concept of self-psychology. Calkins defines self-psychology as the study of conscious persons or selves. This concept is a result of the influence of William James who asserted in Principles of Psychology that “introspective observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always” for the observation of the self. The basal forms of this concept are the subject, the object, and the relation between the object and subject. Calkins contended that all consciousness is personal, and further, it was impossible to define the “self” because these qualities or associations are always in flux and unique to every individual. Calkins distinguished self-psychology from other forms of psychology such as psychological atomism because they did not include a conscious self component (McDonald, 2007). Mary Whiton Calkins, like James, believed that the individual’s constant scrutiny of the self through perception and association was the main function of the mind. This was not merely an intellectual conviction, but a moral and spiritual conviction as well. Mary’s theories of self-psychology were not well accepted in the academic atmosphere of her time, yet she continued to champion these theories because of her strong moral views about human interconnection (Wentworth, 1997). She was a strong opposer of the sexist belief that women were intellectually inferior to men and expressed those views many times throughout her career (Furumoto, 1980).

Contributions to the Field of Psychology
Although Mary Whiton Calkins was never officially recognized by Harvard University officials for her doctorate work, she made important contributions during her experiments on association and memory. Calkins conducted several experiments using variations of numbers and colors in which she investigated the effects of frequency, primacy, and vividness on associative memory. She concluded from her research that frequency was by far the most important factor in effective memory association (Goodwin, 2008). These techniques are now referred to as the paired-associate techniques. In 1891Calkins established a psychology laboratory at Wellesley while she was instructing a psychology course in the Philosophy Department.

Following in the footsteps of one of her primary mentors, William James, Calkins turned to philosophy again in the latter part of her career becoming an Associate Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at Wellesley in 1895. Calkins published many of her papers from her work on association in Munsterberg’s lab during this period and her first book, An Introduction to Psychology, was published in 1901 (Furumoto, 1980).

In a time when women were thought to be mentally inferior to men, Mary Whiton Calkins proved that this sexist conception was far from the truth. Because of her father’s intense devotion to the proper education of his children, Mary was educated far beyond the standard of the time, thus proving that if given the opportunity women can achieve equal academic levels to men. Mary was also fortunate in being accepted by great minds like William James, Josiah Royce, and Hugo Munsterberg who treated her as an equal and championed her applications for graduate work.

Harvard University never officially granted Mary Whiton Calkins her PhD. Radcliffe, the women’s version of Harvard offered to award her one, but she would not have it from any other school than the one at which she had earned it, explaining to the Dean of Radcliffe that doing so would only allow Harvard to continue to be discriminatory toward women (Furumoto, 1980). This decline to accept the PhD from Radcliffe is further of example of Mary Whiton Calkins’ strong moral resolve.
Despite having been denied her PhD from Harvard, Calkins’ professional and scholarly achievements led to several honors such as being ranked 12th on a list of the 50 leading psychologists in 1903, a Doctor of Letters degree from Columbia University in 1909, and a Doctor of Laws degree from Smith College in 1910. Mary Whiton Calkins was elected the first female president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1905 and in 1918 was elected as the first female president of the American Philosophical Association.

It has been said that a woman has to work twice as hard to progress half as far as a man in modern society. In the time of Mary Whiton Calkins a woman had to work three times as hard, be twice as smart, and more brave and outspoken than any other woman around her. Mary did far more for the world than just contribute to the fields of philosophy and psychology, she paved the way for future female students, who will continue to disprove the old theories of the intellectual inferiority of women.

Calkins, M. W. (1930). A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol. 1, pp. 31-62). Worcester, MA: Clark University Press. Retrieved April 18, 2010.
Furumoto, L. (1980). Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930). Psychology of Women Quarterly, Vol. 5(1) Fall 1980. Human Sciences Press. Retrieved from Ebsco database April 18, 2010.
Goodwin, J.C. (2008). A history of modern psychology, (Third Edition) John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
McDonald, D. N. (2007). Differing concepts of personhood within the psychology and philosophy of Mary Whiton Calkins. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 43, No. 4, Indiana University Press.
The Hutchinson Directory of Scientific Biography (2009). Helicon. Retrieved April 18, 2010.
Wentworth, P. (1999). The moral of her story: Exploring the philosophical and religious commitments of Mary Whiton Calkins’ self-psychology. History of Psychology, Vol.2 (2), May 1999. Pp. 119-131. Educational Publishing Foundation. Retrieved from Ebsco database April 18, 2009.