18 Female Leaders in Psychology who Rock!
September 25, 2017
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The word 'Leaders' written on chalkboard. For example, female thought leaders in the field of psychology.Photo Credit: thinkpublic

Did the famed Grateful Dead have it right when they sang ”That’s right, the women are smarter’?

Well, I like to think that everybody is intelligent in their own way, regardless of gender or other defining characteristics (recognizing that people aren’t always expressing or accessing their wisest self).  Nevertheless, the work of the following 18 thought leaders in the field of psychology, social work and human development is truly impressive and inspiring…and all happen to be women!  While not an exhaustive list, it does represent a diverse array of powerful and smart women who shaped (and continue to shape) psychology through scholarship and practice, from the mid-19th century through the present.

1.) Jane Addams (1860 – 1935)

Winning worldwide recognition in her lifetime as a pioneer social worker in America, Jane Addams was a social reformer activist, philosopher, feminist, sociologist, author, and leader in women’s suffrage and world peace. In 1920 she co-founded the ACLU, in 1931 she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and she is regarded as the founder of the social work profession in the United States.

Addams was one of the most prominent and outspoken members of the Progressive Era movement in which social activism and political reform were sweeping the U.S. from the 1890s to the 1920s. She focused on issues that affected women, mothers, children, local public health, and world peace. She remained adamant that women had much to offer their communities and became a role model for middle-class women who volunteered to to support them.

A settlement activist, Addams co-founded the first settlement house in the U.S. in 1889; Chicago’s Hull House, famous for its innovative social, education, and artistic programs designed to welcome immigrants and support working class people, especially women.

An ardent feminist by philosophy, Addams believed women should make their voices heard in legislation and have the right to vote, but more comprehensively, that women should have aspirations and seek the opportunities to realize them.

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” – Jane Addams

2.) Mary Whiton Calkins (1863 – 1930)

An American philosopher and psychologist who became the first woman to serve as president of the American Psychological Association (1905) and the American Philosophical Association.

Calkins was a psychology professor at Wellesley College and opened the first female founded psychology lab there in 1891. In 1894, she would have been the first woman to receive her PhD in Psychology but was denied the degree by Harvard University solely due to her sex. Despite the prejudiced rejection, Calkins served as a faculty member at Wellesley College for forty years, published four books, and over a hundred papers in psychology and philosophy. She faced daunting adversity as a woman in the field and remained a firm supporter of social justice for women and the suffragist movement.

Calkins devoted a large part of her career to developing a system of scientific self psychology based on the conviction that psychology was a study of conscious functioning in relation to environment.

“The student trained to reach decisions in the light of logic and of history will be disposed to recognize that, in a democratic country, governed as this is by the suffrage of its citizens, and given over as this is to the principle and practice of educating women, a distinction based on difference of sex is artificial and illogical.” – Mary Whiton Calkins

3.) Melanie Klein  (1882 – 1960)

A pioneering child analyst from Central Europe and considered one of the founding figures of psychoanalysis through her work and study with young children. Klein was the first person to use traditional psychoanalysis with young children.

She was innovative in her both her techniques and her theories concerning infant development and credited with co-founding the object relations theory:

  • Developing a human psyche relies on relationships to others in a child’s environment
  • The way people relate to others and perceive situations as an adult is shaped by their experiences during infancy
  • The images of people and events from childhood turn into objects in the unconscious that are carried throughout life
  • These objects are used by the unconscious mind to predict behaviors in social relationships and interactions

Learn more about Melanie Klein’s work here: http://www.melanie-klein-trust.org.uk/.

“One of the many interesting and surprising experiences of the beginner in child analysis is to find in the even very young children a capacity for insight which is often far greater than that of adults.” – Melanie Klein

4.) Karen Horney (1885 – 1952)

A German psychoanalyst born in 1885 and credited with founding feminist psychology, which studies the way gender power imbalances impact the development of psychological theories and therefore mental health treatment.

Karen Horney, MD, was outspoken in her belief that the differences between men and women originate in socialization and culture rather than biology. This led to her critique of and departure from the dominant Freudian orthodoxy at the time, even forcing her to resign from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1941.

“The most comprehensive formulation of therapeutic goals is the striving for wholeheartedness: to be without pretense, to be emotionally sincere, to be able to put the whole of oneself into one’s feelings, one’s work, one’s beliefs.” -Karen Horney

She went on to co-found the Association of the Advancement of Psychoanalysis and the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, focusing on how culture shapes personality.  She also co-founded the American Journal of Psychoanalysis.

5.) Anna Freud (1895 – 1982)

An Austrian-British psychoanalyst, Anna Freud was the youngest child of Sigmund Freud. Her book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, laid the groundwork for the field of ego psychology and emphasized the importance of the ego and it’s ability to be manipulated socially.

“I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence but it comes from within. It is there all the time.” – Anna Freud

Anna Freud (and Melanie Klein) are considered the founders of psychoanalytic child psychology; Freud recognized that children require different psychological treatment from adults and studied how early abandonment and attachment influence developmental phases.

Much of Anna Freud’s life was spent moving back and forth between practice and theory, allowing for continued development, observation, and education within the realm of child psychology:

  • In 1937, she founded a nursery school for the poor in Vienna where she observed infant behavior. The school allowed children to select their own food and allotted the freedom to organize their own play – Freud noted the developmentindependence, and expression of these children as a result.
  • During WWII, she set up the Hampstead War Nursery to provide foster care for over 80 single-parent children and help them form attachments through relationships with helpers and visits with their mothers. This allowed her to document the impact of stress and separation on children.
  • Freud worked with and observed orphan survivors of Nazi concentration camps after the war, inspiring her to write about their ability to find substitute affection among peers.
  • In 1965, Freud published her theory that children go through normal developmental stages against which everyone can be assessed and through which personality emerges, a revolutionary idea at the time and a concept still used in child practices today.
  • Freud was one of the first to theorize that the development of personality begins with a child’s experience of interaction between internal forces (id,ego) and external or environmental forces.

For more information about Anna Freud, please visit the Freud Museum website.

6.) Mary Ainsworth  (1913 – 1999)

An American-Canadian psychologist best known for her study and development of the attachment theory.

“In hatred, as in love, we grow like the thing we brood upon. What we loathe, we graft into our very soul.” – Mary Ainsworth

Ainsworth designed the Strange Situation procedure in the 1960’s to observe early emotional attachment. She did this through observation and assessment of a caregiver and their child in a secure environment with the intermittent involvement of a stranger. Key elements of the child’s behavior were examined:

  • Exploration of surroundings
  • Reaction when the caregiver leaves the room
  • Any expressed anxiety with the introduction of the stranger
  • Assessment of child’s behavior while interacting with the caregiver

The results of this experiment led to Ainsworth’s presentation and publication of the specific attachment styles exhibited in early human relationships:

  1. Secure – A healthy, strong attachment to the parent. The child will explore and engage when the caregiver is present; however, when they are absent the child becomes agitated and will avoid contact with strangers.
  2. Anxious-Ambivalent – The child displays elevated anxiety around strangers even with the presence of a parent. They do not explore their surroundings and become extremely distressed when the parent exits. However, the child is unreceptive to caregiver attempts at interaction. This style is associated with a child whose needs are not reliably met by a parent.
  3. Anxious-Avoidant – The child ignores the parent and shows little emotion. They avoid exploration, respond to strangers in the same way as a caregiver, and have learned that efforts to get their needs met are largely ignored.

Ainsworth’s studies formed the basis of modern-day attachment theory (which has expanded to include other styles) and the applications of child attachment styles to adult relationships.

7.) Virginia Satir (1916 – 1988)

An American author and social worker recognized as a pioneer for her approach to family therapy and her work with family reconstruction. She cofounded the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, receiving a grant in 1962 allowing for the first formal family therapy training program in which she served as director. Satir founded both the International Human Learning Resources Network and the Avanta Network with the intention to provide resources and support to mental health workers.

Life is not what it’s supposed to be. It’s what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.” – Virginia Satir

Satir strongly believed that love and nurturance are the most important healing aspects of therapy, that superficial issues frequently mask deeper ones, and that mental health issues are often the product of negative family experiences and roles.

Satir’s Transformational Systematic Therapy emphasizes engaging the inner self and analyzing an individual’s situation and choices to facilitate responsible decision-making and to raise self-esteem. Elements used in the therapeutic process to incur transformational change are:

    • Experiential – The client experiences the impact of a past, negative event in the present while embracing the positive energy of their current state to allow for an energetic shift to take place.
    • Systemic – Therapy must work within the systems in which a client experiences their life. Transformational change occurs when a client alters their emotions, perceptions, and expectations (intrapsychic system) to impact relationships and experiences both past and present.
    • Positively directional – The therapist actively engages with the client to reframe perceptions in an effort to appreciate resources and anticipate growth instead of of pathologizing or problem solving.
    • Change focused – Questions asked throughout therapy are related to change in order to give the client opportunities to explore their intra-psychic system.
    • Self of the therapist – The congruence of the therapist, or their ability to be integrated, real, genuine, and authentic, is imperative for the creation of a positive client-therapist relationship.

8.) Mamie Phipps Clark (1917 – 1983)

An American social psychologist and community health pioneer whose master’s thesis, “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children,” was the beginning of historic research used to make racial segregation unconstitutional in American public schools. Clark’s thesis concluded that children became aware of their skin color at a very early age and became the foundation for her doll study, which played a key role in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1951.

“A racist system inevitably destroys and damages human beings; it brutalizes and dehumanizes them, blacks and white alike.” – Mamie Phipps Clark

Clark became the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University. While pursuing her doctoral research, she also studied racial preference in African-American children using the “dolls test.” The children were presented with four dolls – two with brown skin and black hair, and two with white skin and yellow hair – and asked to respond to the following requests by selecting one doll:

  1. Give me the doll that you like to play with best.
  2. Give me the doll that is a nice doll.
  3. Give me the doll that looks bad.
  4. Give me the doll that is a nice color.
  5. Give me the doll that looks like you.

Disturbingly, the experiment revealed a preference for the white doll for all the questions. Clark concluded that prejudice and segregation caused black children to develop a sense of self-hatred and inferiority.

Clark continued to expand her research using the dolls test as well as published another study on the dynamics of racial attitudes and identity in black children. Based on these results, she concluded that by age three children become aware of their racial identity and begin to develop a negative self-image as a black child.

In addition, Clark’s major life work centered around the Northside Center for Child Development, an organization she cofounded in 1946 in Harlem with her husband and directed for the rest of her career. Northside’s mission was to provide psychological and educational services to minority children and their families in the effort to overcome the effects of racism and discrimination.

9.) Eleanor Maccoby (1917 – )

An American psychologist recognized for her research and contribution to the field of child and family psychology. Her career focused on the study of developmental psychology with particular attention to the differences of the sexes, gender development, gender differentiation, and child development.

Maccoby was a professor at Stanford University where she both taught and conducted her research, one of the most recognized being published in her book, The Development of Sex Differences (1966). She was the first woman to serve as chair of the Psychology Department at Stanford, served as president of the Western Psychological Association, as well as president of the Society for Research in Child Development.

The Maccoby Award, first awarded in 1996, is given to an author whose books has a profound effect on psychology and psychological research, particularly in shaping the course of developmental psychology. Maccoby was afforded a rare honor in 2000 when she became the first recipient of an award named after her.

10.) Joyce Brothers (1927 – 2013)

An American psychologist, television personality and columnist credited with making psychology accessible to the general public. Brothers’ start in academia evolved into a career as a television psychologist in 1958 when she was given her first show on a national network.

“Accept that all of us can be hurt, that all of us can — and surely will at times — fail. Other vulnerabilities, like being embarrassed or risking love, can be terrifying, too. I think we should follow a simple rule: if we can take the worst, take the risk.” – Dr. Joyce Brothers

Long before the era of talk-show advice programs, Brothers was answering questions about relationships, parenting, marital issues, intimacy, and sexuality at a time when such topics were not openly discussed in U.S. culture. She brought important psychological concepts to mass media audiences and was rewarded with the gratitude of her viewers for providing information they could not find elsewhere.

In addition to her televised programs spanning more than four decades, Joyce Brothers also had a monthly column in Good Housekeeping magazine and a newspaper column she began in the 1970s which was printed in more than 300 papers. She also published several books, included the 1991 book, Widowed, inspired by the loss of her husband.

11.) Dr. Ruth Westheimer (1928 – )

A German-born, Jewish immigrant to the U.S., “Dr. Ruth” began her career as a famous sex therapist, media personality, and author in 1980 with the radio show, Sexually Speaking, which ran for ten years and branched out into multiple television shows she hosted from 1984 to 1993.

“When it comes to sex, the most important six inches are the ones between the ears.” – Dr. Ruth Westheimer

As a young girl, she was part of the Kindertransport refugee program which placed her in an orphanage in Switzerland and saved her life. She lost her entire family in the Holocaust and at 17 emigrated to Palestine where she trained as a scout and sniper to fight in the Israeli War of Independence. In 1950, she moved to France where she began her early career teaching psychology. After immigrating to the U.S., Westheimer earned degrees in both sociology and education, all helpful components in her later role as a sex therapist and educator in the media.

Dr. Ruth helped to revolutionize talk about sex and sexuality through her candid, light-hearted, but respectful persona, establishing herself as a household name in the U.S. Her frank and non-judgmental approach to sexual queries, and in the face of conservative critics who found her sexual openness threatening, provided a much-needed educational service to her listeners.

Visit DrRuth.com for more info about her.

12.) Insoo Kim Berg (1934 – 2007)

A Korean-American psychotherapist who pioneered the use of solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) and co-founded the Brief Family Therapy Center.

“That’s a way to see it and there is also another way to see it.” – Insoo Kim Berg

Berg gained international recognition as a therapist, author, and consultant for her therapy model which follows several key principles:

  • The client is the expert in their own life.
  • Solution-building instead of problem solving
  • Focus on the present and future rather than the past with an emphasis on when the positive outweighs the severity of an issue
  • Once something works, when the solution is happening, do more of it
  • If it’s not working, do something different
  • Embrace and recognize success, explore ways to repeat and develop them

Berg’s goal as a therapist was to ally herself with her client’s strengths and hopes to provide brief, strategic sessions exploring and expanding upon solutions. Earning worldwide recognition and training therapists on her model, Berg pushed past the cultural limitations originally imposed upon her by family in Korea – to be an obedient daughter – and instead pursued her interest in helping people, eventually becoming an entrepreneur in the social work field.

For more info about Insoo Kim Berg’s work, please visit: the SFBT Center.

13.) Carol Gilligan (1936 – )

An American psychologist best known for her work on ethics and feminism. A professor at both New York University and the University of Cambridge, Gillian first achieved large-scale recognition with the publication of her 1982 book, In A Different Voice, in which she challenges theories on morality and argues that psychology has been ignoring the experiences of half the human race. Her perspective, referred to as difference feminismhighlights the different qualities of men and women, but places no value judgement on them.

“This knotted dilemma lies at the center of women’s development. How can girls both enter and stay outside of, be educated in and then try to change, what for millennia has been a man’s world?” – Carol Gilligan

Gillian initiated the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development and in 1997 became Harvard’s first professor of Gender Studies. Continuing to expand her range of work, Gillian is prolific in publishing on a wide variety of topics and remains firm in her belief that psychology is integral to feminism.  She currently teaches seminars titled “Resisting Injustice” and “The Listening Guide Method of Psychological Inquiry” at the NYU School of Law.

For more info, please visit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carol_Gilligan.

14.) Marsha Linehan (1943 – )

An American psychologist and author who developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), originally created to treat suicidal behaviors and has since expanded to treat borderline personality disorder and other serious emotion dysregulation.

“Radical acceptance rests on letting go of the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.” -Marsha Linehan

Through her own suffering and a long history of severe depression, suicide, and self-destructive behaviors, Linehan finally adopted what she now refers to as radical acceptance – she accepted herself as she was. This became the basis for her work with patients: the acknowledgement that real change was possible through the use of behaviorism – that acting differently can, in time, alter underlying emotions.

Linehan is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, Director of the Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics, and founder of The Linehan Institute which seeks to advance mental health through support for research, education, and compassionate, scientifically-based treatment options.

Learn more about Marsha Linehan’s work here: http://www.linehaninstitute.org/

15.) Francine Shapiro (1948 – )

An American psychologist and educator who developed Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a form of psychotherapy used to treat and resolve symptoms of trauma and disturbing experiences. Shapiro founded her therapy model on her theory that when people experience trauma and it’s not fully processed, those feelings linger in the nervous system.

“The past affects the present even without our being aware of it.” – Francine Shapiro

There are eight phases of treatment in EMDR therapy:

  • History and Treatment Planning
  • Preparation – Learning techniques to deal with emotional disturbances that may arise and to establish trust between client and therapist.
  • Assessment – Target events or memories are reprocessed using visualizations and verbalizations.
  • Desensitization – Focus on the disturbing emotions and sensations from the client’s responses to targeted events to help reduce the intensity.
  • Installation – Goal to increase the strength of the positive belief identified to replace the original negative belief.
  • Body Scan – Original target event is brought to mind to seek out any residual reaction. EMDR is not considered successful until the client can bring up the original target without feeling any body tension.
  • Closure – Ends every treatment session to ensure the person leaves the end of the session feeling better than at the beginning.
  • Reevaluation – Opens every new session to make sure that the positive results of previous sessions have been maintained, to identify any new areas needing treatment, and continue reprocessing the additional targets.

Shapiro is a Senior Research Fellow Emeritus at the Mental Research Institute, Executive Director of the EMDR Institute, and founder of the Trauma Recovery EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs.

Learn more about Francine Shapiro’s work here: http://www.emdr.com/francine-shapiro-ph-d/.

16.) Tara Brach (1953 – )

An American psychologist, author, and teacher of Buddhist meditation. Tara Brach is a founder and practicing teacher at the thriving Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C.  A key takeaway of her work is the recognition that much psychological suffering stems from a combination of self-aversion and disconnection to others, what she calls “the trance of unworthiness“.

“Perhaps the biggest tragedy of our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns…We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small.” – Tara Brach

Brach specializes in the application of Buddhist philosophy and teachings to foster emotional wellness:

  • Using mindful, loving awareness for healing trauma and distress
  • Finding inner peace and wisdom in the midst of difficulty
  • Alleviating suffering in the larger world by practicing compassion in action

Co-founding the Meditation Teacher Training Institute, Brach’s synthesis of meditation and western psychological insights has evolved into groundbreaking work in training psychotherapists to integrate compassion and mindfulness strategies into their clinical work.  She is the author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha and True Refuge: Finding Peace & Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart.  

Learn more about Tara Brach here: https://www.tarabrach.com/

17.) Leda Cosmides (1957 – )

An American psychologist instrumental in developing the field of evolutionary psychology. In 1992, she collaborated with John Tooby to publish “The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture,” a volume designed to be a survey of the new field.

Humans and other animals reason, decide, and behave by virtue of computational devices embodied in neural tissue. Therefore, a complete causal explanation of any behavior — rational or otherwise — necessarily invokes theories about the architecture of these computational devices. The rationality of a behavior is irrelevant to its cause or explanation.” – Leda Cosmides

Evolutionary psychology attempts to understand and map the human mind by understanding the adaptive problems our ancestors faced during their evolution, contributing to the design of emotions, reasoning, and human motivation factors.

The recipient of numerous awards for her pioneering work, Cosmides is a Professor of Psychology at UCSB and cofounded and directs the Center for Evolutionary Psychology.

Learn more about Leda Cosmides here: https://www.psych.ucsb.edu/people/faculty/cosmides.

18.) Brene Brown (1965 – )

Brene Brown is an American scholar, best-selling author, and research professor at The University of Houston studying vulnerability, courage, shame, empathy, and authenticity.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” – Brene Brown

Brown is the founder and CEO of both The Daring Way and COURAGEworks – an online learning community offering classes and workshops on braver living and loving. She also founded Brave Leaders Inc. to make her latest research on leadership development and cultural change accessible to leaders and entrepreneurs.

Brown’s 2010 TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the top five most viewed talks in the world. In it, she breaks down what it means to be a “Whole Hearted” person that lives from a deep sense of self-worth. She maintains that we’re here for the ability to feel connected, that shame is the fear of disconnection, and that underpinning shame is excruciating vulnerability. What separates the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging from those who don’t? They believe they’re worthy!

From her research, Brene shares what “worthy” people have in common:

  • Courage – “They had the courage to tell the story of who they are with their whole heart … These folks had very simply the courage to be imperfect.”
  • Compassion – “They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first, and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.”
  • Connection – “They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be, in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that, for connection.”
  • Vulnerability – “They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable, made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating, they just talked about it being necessary.”

Learn more about Brene Brown here: http://brenebrown.com/

Note: this was a collaborative piece produced by HealthyPsych, with research, writing and editorial assistance from Elana Baumann-Carbrey and Kim Pratt, LCSW.


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