In the early days of psychology there were few female psychologists who had any type of impact on the field of psychology. There was sex discrimination and it was a common belief that women were inferior to men. Mary Whiton Calkins was able to beat the odds and have a long lasting legacy in psychology. She is considered one of the pioneers in psychology and is credited with a major theoretical contribution of self-psychology, which was centered on the idea that all consciousness is personal.
Calkins overcame discrimination from both students and scholars and succeeded in inventing a procedure that was historic; paired associate learning, which has become the standard method in cognitive research (Goodwin, 2008). Mary Whiton Calkins was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1863. She was the oldest of five children; their parents encouraged their education, especially the study of languages and cultures (Furumoto, 1980). Calkins did graduate from high school in Newton Massachusetts and began Smith College in 1882 as a sophomore.
Unfortunately, in 1883, her sister’s illness and subsequent death caused her to decide to study Greek at home the following year. However Calkins returned to Smith College in 1884 as a senior, and graduated with a concentration in classics and philosophy in 1885. In 1887, after graduating from Smith College, she was hired to teach Greek at Wellesley College. She had been teaching for three years when she was offered she was offered a position teaching in the new area of psychology (Goodwin, 2008). In 1890 Wellesley finally offered Calkins the position, with the condition that she would study psychology for a year.
There were very few psychology programs available at that time, and even fewer that would accept women applicants. This made it difficult for her to have the one year of study needed to teach the subject of psychology. During the following year Calkins also worked unofficially at the psychology laboratory at Clark University with Edmund Sanford. He also assisted Calkins in the creation of a psychology lab for Wellesley College, equipped with state of the art equipment. That psychology lab officially opened in 1891, the same year that Calkins began teaching psychology at Wellesley (Goodwin, 2008).
After being invited to sit in on some of the lectures at Harvard, Calkins formally requested that she be allowed to sit in on these lectures. She decided to try to take classes at the Harvard Annex taught by Josiah Royce, a Harvard professor, because the Annex was not an official part of Harvard University. Royce, however, pushed her to try to attend regular Harvard classes because not all of his classes were available through the Annex. Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, believed strongly that the two sexes should be educated separately.
But it was not until the pressure applied to him from both James and Royce was combined with a petition from Calkins father and a letter from the president of Wellesley College that Eliot finally agreed in 1892. Calkins would be allowed to attend James and Royce’s seminars on psychology, but it was officially stated that she would not be a student of the University entitled to registration. (Furumoto, 1980). Calkins felt like she needed to do more graduate work. She continued teaching while simultaneously studying with J. Munsterberg until 1894 when she studied full-time for a year.
At that time Munsterberg petitioned Harvard to admit Calkins as a Ph. D. candidate, but was refused. The Harvard psychology department held an informal examination of Calkins, which she passed in 1895. The same year, while at Harvard, Calkins presented her theses, where she completed a series of experimental studies on association. She developed a procedure known as paired-associate learning (Goodwin, 2008). Her subjects first studied stimulus-response pairs comprised of sequentially presented color patches and numbers, and then they tried to recall the umber responses when shown the color stimuli.
Her results showed that recall was enhanced by each of the four factors: frequency, vividness, recency, and primacy. These four conditions could strengthen associations, and found that frequency was the most important. (Goodwin, 2008). Calkins then returned to Wellesley College where she continued to teach until her retirement in 1927. From about 1900, her publications became less research-oriented as she developed her major theoretical contribution to psychology, self-psychology.
Calkins maintained that psychology could be the study of mental life, but that the central fact of psychology must be that all consciousness contains an element of the self (Goodwin, 2008). In 1900, Calkins published her first article on a system of psychology of the self, a topic which became her primary focus. Over the next thirty years, Calkins continued to present, develop, and defend her theory of self-psychology, gradually moving more towards philosophy and away from the psychological trend towards behaviorism.
There is evidence that her primary interest was always philosophy rather than psychology. She was teaching psychology for almost a decade before another faculty member trained in psychology joined the philosophy department. (Furumoto, 1980). In 1905, Calkins became the first woman elected president of the American Psychological Association. As her interests shifted to philosophy, she became the first woman elected president of the other APA, the American Philosophical Association in 1918. All of her work in philosophy as well as psychology came to center around the importance of self.
She used it as a way to reconcile competing theoretical schools of thought including structuralism and functionalism (Furumoto, 1980). She believed that self-psychology was a method of resolving disputes between structuralism, which analyzes consciousness in to its basic elements, and functionalism, which focuses on how consciousness serves to adapt the individual to the environment (Goodwin, 2008). Among her major contributions to psychology are the invention of the paired associate’s technique and her work in self based psychology. Calkins believed that the conscious self was the primary focus of psychology.
Despite Mary Whiton Calkins contributions, Harvard maintains its refusal to grant the degree she earned and her influence on psychology is often overlooked by both scholars and students. She was passionate about her beliefs, even when Harvard was going to award her a PhD. from Radcliffe College; she refused to accept the degree because she did not agree with the “injustice of unequal treatment of the sexes based on the implicit assumption that there are inherent differences in their mentalities” (Furumoto, 1980). Mary Whiton Calkins was a pioneer in psychology.
She was responsible for the creation of a method of memorization called the paired associate technique, founder of one of the early psychological laboratories in the United States, and creator of a system of self-psychology (Furumoto, 1980). Conclusion Mary Whiton Calkins was a prolific writer in both psychology and philosophy, publishing four books and over a hundred papers divided among the fields. In addition to being the first woman president of the American Psychological Association, Calkins also served as president of the American Philosophical Association in 1918.
The topics Mary Whiton Calkins studied in psychology covered a wide range including dream research, animal consciousness, and memorization. In 1892 she presented a report on a dream study that she had worked on with Sanford at the first meeting of the APA. Thirteen years later she was elected president of that same organization. In 1895 she returned to Wellesley as an associate professor, and in 1898 she became a full professor, a position she held until she retired in 1927 (Furumoto, 1980).
On February 26, 1930, Calkins died of inoperable cancer, one year after retiring from Wellesley as a Research Professor and turning over that department to Eleanor Gamble. Her teaching career spanned forty two years. She died with two honorary degrees, a doctor of letters from Columbia University and a doctor of laws from Smith College. However, she never received the degree that she worked for at Harvard. In 1927 a group of Harvard alumni petitioned the president of Harvard requesting that the university grant Calkins her Ph. D. , but they were denied (Furumoto, 1980).
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