The 10 Essential Women In The History Of Psychology

Female psychology: the ten most influential women who have left us a magnificent legacy.

Throughout history, many psychologists have influenced the development of the science of the human mind and behavior. It is common to speak of  Watson ,  Skinner ,  Bandura ,  Freud, among others, the vast majority of whom are men. Unfortunately, the voice of women has been silenced for many years, and their contributions were minimized or excluded from scientific circles.

But as Ann Johnson of St. Thomas University states, this changed in the 1960s and 1970s, and in recent years, new generations of female psychologists have begun to receive more recognition.

Psychologists have not had an easy road

Today it seems impossible to think that psychology was a profession exclusively for men, because today it is a career that more women study than men. The truth is that psychology was considered a male domain, and women who wanted to carve out a professional future as psychologists had to carve out a niche in a discipline that only accepted men.

Fortunately, the social and economic changes of the last century have allowed the growth of “female psychology”. As in other fields, women have fought to obtain the same rights as men. In the United States, data show that the number of female psychologists has been increasing over the years: in 1901 only 20 women obtained their doctorate in psychology, in 1974 22% of doctorates in psychology were for women, and in 1983 they received doctorates 56% of psychologists.

The 10 most influential women in Psychology

It may seem normal now, but many of these women had to face long-standing discrimination, obstacles and hardships. In today’s article, and in honor of all these women, we have compiled a list of psychologists who have made important and innovative contributions to the field of psychology.

These women deserve to be recognized for their pioneering work and for being leaders in the fight for equality. Despite all the difficulties, they left us a very valuable legacy that we will detail today.

1. Brenda Milner

Neuropsychologist Brenda Milner (1918), born in Manchester (United Kingdom), is considered the founder of neuropsychology and is one of the most important figures in the  study of memory. For 60 years it has contributed to the knowledge of how the brain works. To this day, she continues to teach and direct research at the Montreal Neurological Institute (Canada) and is also a professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University.

Brenda Milner is famous for her study of the patient HM This was a young man who had suffered from very severe epileptic seizures since he was 10 years old. Desperate, he went to see Dr. Scoville and agreed to undergo an experimental surgery in which his medial temporal lobes on both sides were removed. His epileptic seizures were greatly reduced, but he was afflicted with anterograde amnesia , the inability to store new events in long-term memory. Brenda Milner began working with HM, conducting a series of experiments designed to assess her memory and learning ability. What she observed eventually led to a revolutionary discovery: she found that HM was steadily improving overnight in tests, despite the fact that she had no recollection of ever doing those things before. In other words, the patient was learning new skills effectively despite having no recollection of doing so before.

This indicated that the brain is not governed by a solitary memory system and caused a change in the direction of memory research from then on. In addition to this monumental finding, Milner identified the role played by the hippocampus and the medial temporal lobe in explicit memory and provided the first data on the storage of implicit memory.

2. Virginia Satir

Virginia Satir ( 1916 – 1988) is known for her work as an exceptional therapist, and is one of the most important people in  Family Systemic Therapy. Virginia Satir believed that people are equipped with the capacity for growth, transformation and continuing education. Her methodology not only combined the interactive and intrapsychic elements of modern therapy, but she endeavors to create an improvement in the quality of communication and relationships within the family structure.

Satir’s Systemic Transformation Therapy works to address a client’s actions, emotions, and perceptions that are related to their dynamics in the family unit. As a highly trained and skilled therapist, she worked with patients to enable them to find their sense of harmony and unity, and hold them accountable for addressing and accepting traumas and hurts that ultimately lead to an inner sense of peace and joy.

3. Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth (1913) was born in Ohio, United States and developed a long and fruitful career. She was a pioneer in  developmental psychology and is possibly best known for her research on infant behavior in the “strange situation” and for her contribution to Attachment Theory.

This theory, first developed by John Bowlby, is essential in any introductory book on developmental psychology. Ainsworth identified three attachment styles that children have with their parents and caregivers. In a 2002 ranking of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, Ainsworth was ranked 97th among the most frequently cited psychologists.

It may interest you:  “The 10 most important and influential psychologists in history”

4. Elisabeth Loftus

Elizabeth Loftus (1944) is one of the most influential and controversial psychologists. She is famous for her research on the reliability of repressed memories and is a pivotal figure in cognitive psychology. With her work she has made an enormous contribution to psychology and opened the debate on a controversial aspect of psychology and memory. During the 1970s, Loftus published a collection of influential studies on the fallibility of witness testimony in the courtroom. At first her contributions did not have much impact, but today her work is beginning to make its mark.

The controversial side of his investigations is based on the role he has played in accusations of sexual abuse in childhood based on the recovery of memories, which made him the object of lawsuits and death threats. His research on the use of false memories to modify behavior is viewed by some as highly unethical.

5. Laura Perls

Laura Posner (1905 – 1990), better known as Laura Perls, is one of the most influential psychologists of this century. Together with her husband Fritz Perls and Paul Goodman, she developed Gestalt Therapy in the 1940s, a humanistic-existentialist therapeutic model that was originally designed as an alternative to conventional psychoanalysis. Gestalt therapy experts use experiential and creative techniques to enhance the patient’s self-awareness, freedom, and self-direction.

If you want to know more about Gestalt Therapy, you can visit our article: “ Gestalt Therapy: what is it and on what principles is it based?

6. Leda Cosmides

Leda Cosmides (1957) is best known for her pioneering work in the field of evolutionary psychology. She developed her interest in this field while studying biology at Harvard University, and in 1985 she obtained her doctorate in cognitive psychology. Cosmides was a member of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences , before transferring to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he has been on the faculty since 1991.

In 1988 he won the Behavioral Science Research Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science , and in 1993 he was awarded the Distinguished Scientist Award from the American Psychological Association . In 1992 he published his well-known book called “The Adapted Mind” together with JH Barkow and J. Tooby. This text is recognized as one of the most important of the moment in its field, both for establishing the theoretical and methodological principles that serve as the basis for evolutionary psychology, and for its importance in the application field.

7. Anna Freud

Anna Freud (1895 – 1982) was born in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. She is the daughter of Sigmund Freud but, far from remaining in the shadows, she was also important in the theory that her father originated, as she was a pioneer in the field of child psychoanalysis and extended the concept of defense mechanisms that are put in place to adjust the drives of the id to the demands of the superego.

He was especially interested in communication problems between therapists. His contributions were eminently practical, the fruit of his experience at the Hampstead Children’s Therapy Clinic in London. He did many scientific works and contributed to founding the annual publication of the Psychoanalytic Study of the Child in 1945. His main work is “The self and defense mechanisms” (1936), which has become a classic of  psychoanalysis.

8. Mary Whiton Calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins (1863 – 1930) was an American psychologist who became the first female president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Despite graduating in philosophy, she became an influential figure in the development of early psychology, especially ego psychology, and trained many students through her teaching position at Wellesley College. 

In her time, women could not study psychology, and despite the fact that she was invited to a seminar at Harvard University, the center refused to grant her the degree because she was a woman.

9. Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein (1882 – 1960) was born in Vienna in and was an Austrian psychologist known for creating a therapeutic technique called “Play Therapy”. Her initial intention was to attend medical school, but she became a well-known psychoanalyst.

She met Sigmund Freud for the first time in 1918 at the International Psychoanalytic Congress in Budapest (Hungary), and it inspired her to write her first article on psychoanalysis called “The Development of a Child.” This experience was a motivation to remain linked to this mainstream psychology and began to devote himself to psychological therapy.The Kleinian school is one of the most famous in the school of psychoanalysis.

10. Margaret Floy Washburn

Margaret Floy Washburn  (1871 – 1939) was a pioneer in her time because she will always be remembered for being the first woman to earn a doctorate in psychology.

He received his doctorate in 1984 and his contributions to psychology were many. This psychologist spent many years of her life conducting research with animals. Notably, Washburn was the second woman to chair the American Psychological Association (APA) after Mary Whiton Calkins.

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