Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939) was the first woman to obtain official recognition of her PhD degree in psychology from Cornell University, and she was also the second woman president of the APA (American Psychological Association).

His studies have been pioneering, although little known, in experimental psychology especially applied to the mental processes of animals and human beings. She is also one of the first representatives of the struggles for equal opportunities for women in higher education.

In this article you will find a biography of Margaret Floy Washburn , as well as some of her main contributions to psychology and some of the elements that generated important barriers for the participation and scientific development of women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Margaret Floy Washburn: biography of a pioneer in psychology

Margaret Floy Washburn was born on July 25, 1871 in New York City. She grew up in a context where education was provided in spaces reserved for men, and spaces were gradually being opened up for women as well.

Washburn trained in philosophy and science at Vassar College and then went on to graduate study with James McKeen Cattell, who had started a psychology lab at Columbia University. Despite the fact that women were not allowed to participate in the labs, Margaret Floy Washburn was admitted as a “listener”.

A year after working with Cattell, Washburn decided to study at Cornell University with British psychologist Edward B. Titchener, as she seemed to have a better chance of getting an official degree as a psychologist there. She became Titchener’s first doctoral student and the first woman to be officially recognized as a Doctor of Psychology in 1894.

Washburn developed in a privileged family context from which she was able to develop an important professional career and face the context that excluded women from academic activity , while demanding from them a life based on marriage and family.

He kept his professional career as a priority and gained a lot of prestige both for his research and for his teaching activity. For example, she published a total of 69 experimental studies that were produced in her laboratory at Vassar College, where she also prioritized the participation of women. In 1903 he was part of the list of the best 50 psychologists in America.

Society of Psychologists and First Generation Women

Edward B. Titchener had some disagreements with the psychology that the APA supported at the time, so he decided to found the first alternative society of experimental psychologists. Titchener had refused outright to accept women as part of his society , among other reasons because he considered it inappropriate for them to be present in the smoking room; a place that the APA had already opened for women scientists.

In this context, Washburn had distanced herself from Titchener and had become critical of his reductionist approaches to the mind, but she was already part of the first generation of prestigious women in experimental psychology. In fact, in 1921 she was appointed president of the American Psychological Association , becoming the second woman to hold this position (the first was Mary Whiton Calkins).

After Titchner had died, the Society of Experimental Psychologists reorganized, and for the first time admitted two women as members of the group: June Etta Downey and Margaret Floy Washburn. In 1931, Washburn even managed to have the annual meetings of psychologists held at Vassar College, the women’s college to which she was attached. In the same year she became the second woman to be elected to the prestigious National Academic of Science.

Main works and books

The main contribution of Washburn’s work to psychology was the study of consciousness and mental processes in animals and later in humans . Specifically, he explored the existence of conscious processes, such as attention and learning. In addition, he emphasized the importance of motor movements for the activation and development of psychological processes, especially for learning, attention and emotion.

From his studies with animals, Washburn argued that it is the motor excitement that prepares for future actions . In other words, higher mental processes, such as reflection and consciousness, decision making and learning, occur through physical movements that predispose or inhibit action in the presence of distal stimuli (those that activate the sensory system because they function as an announcement of the arrival of a proximal stimulus, which is the one that directly affects the organism).

Some of his main works are The Animal Mind , from 1908, which has been recognized as one of the pioneering studies in animal cognition, as well as one of the investigations that allowed the field of experimental psychology to mature and to standardize both definitions and vocabulary.

Another of his main works is Movement and Mental Imagery from 1917, which was where he developed his theory of consciousness in an important way. It is in the latter that Washburn managed to integrate the experimental method of introspection with an emphasis on motor processes.

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychological Association (2018). Margaret Floy Washburn, PhD. 1921 APA President. Retrieved June 19, 2018. Available at
  • García Dauder, S. (2005). Psychology and Feminism. Forgotten history of pioneering women in Psychology. Madrid: Narcea.
  • Rodkey, E. (2010). Margaret Floy Washburn. Psychology’s Feminist Voices. Retrieved 19 June 2018. Available at