Throughout history, many psychologists have influenced the development of the science of human mind and behavior. It is usual to talk about Watson, Skinner, Bandura, Freud, among others, the great majority of them 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 from St. Thomas University states, this changed from the 60s and 70s, and in recent years the new generations of women psychologists have begun to receive more recognition .
Psychologists have not had an easy time
Nowadays it seems impossible to think that psychology was a profession exclusively for men, because nowadays 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 make a place for themselves in a discipline that only accepted men.
Fortunately, t he social and economic changes of this last century have allowed the growth of “feminine 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 56% of psychologists were female.
The 10 Most Influential Women in Psychology
It may seem normal now, but many of these women had to face discrimination, obstacles and difficulties for a long time. In today’s article, and in honour of all these women, we have compiled a list of the 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 benchmarks in the fight for equality. In spite of all the difficulties, they left us a very valuable legacy that we will detail today.
1. Brenda Milner
The 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 she has contributed to the knowledge of the functioning of the brain. Today she continues to teach and conduct 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 patient H.M. This was a young man who had suffered from very severe epileptic seizures since the age of 10. In desperation, he went to Dr. Scoville and agreed to undergo experimental surgery in which his medial temporal lobes on both sides were removed. His epileptic seizures were significantly reduced, but he was affected with anterograde amnesia , the inability to store new events in long-term memory. Brenda Milner began working with H. M., conducting a series of experiments designed to assess her memory and learning ability. What she observed over time led to a revolutionary discovery: she found that H. M. improved steadily from one day to the next on tests, despite the fact that she had no memory of doing those things before. In other words, the patient was effectively learning new skills despite having no memory of having done them before .
This indicated that the brain is not governed by a solitary memory system and caused a shift in the direction of memory research from that point on. In addition to this monumental finding, Milner identified the role played by the hippocampus and the medial area of the temporal lobe in explicit memory and provided the first data on implicit memory storage.
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 Systemic Family 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 intra-psychic elements of modern therapy, but she strove to create an improved 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 relate to their dynamics in the family unit. As a highly trained and qualified therapist, she worked with patients to enable them to find their sense of harmony and unity, and to hold them accountable for the direction and acceptance of the traumas and wounds 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 perhaps best known for her research into the behaviour of babies in “the strange situation” and her contribution to Attachment Theory.
This theory, first developed by John Bowlby, is a must in any introductory book on developmental psychology. Ainsworth identified three styles of attachment 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 .
You may be interested in: “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 leading 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 judicial sphere . At first his contributions did not have much impact, but today his work is beginning to leave its mark.
The controversial side of his investigations is based on the role he has played in cases of allegations of child sexual abuse based on memory retrieval, which made him the target of lawsuits and death threats. Her investigations into the use of false memories to modify behaviour is considered by some to be 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. Experts in Gestalt therapy use experiential and creative techniques to improve 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 what principles are it based on?
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 PhD in cognitive psychology. Cosmides was a member of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Science , before moving to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she 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 J. H. Barkow and J. Tooby. This text is recognised as one of the most important in its field , both for establishing the theoretical and methodological principles that serve as a basis for evolutionary psychology, and for its importance in the field of application.
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 staying in the shadows, she was also important in the theory that her father originated, since was a pioneer in the field of child psychoanalysis and extended the concept of defense mechanisms that are put into place to adjust the drives of the it to the demands of the superego.
He was especially interested in the problems of communication between therapists. His contributions were eminently practical, fruit of his experience at the Hampstead Children’s Therapy Clinic in London. He carried out many scientific works and helped to found the annual publication of the Psychoanalytical Study of the Child in 1945. His main work is “The Self and the 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 woman president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Despite her degree in philosophy, she became an influential figure in the development of early psychology, especially the psychology of the self, and educated many students through her teaching position at Wellesley College.
In her time, women could not study psychology, and although she was invited to some 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 .
He met Sigmund Freud for the first time in 1918 at the International Psychoanalytic Congress in Budapest (Hungary), and inspired him to write his first article on psychoanalysis called “The Development of a Child”. This experience was a motivation to stay linked to this current of psychology and he began to dedicate 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 doing research with animals. It should be noted that Washburn was the second woman to chair the American Psychological Association (APA) after Mary Whiton Calkins.