The women who made psychology

Ella Rhodes reports from the British Psychological Society's seventh annual Stories of Psychology event.

10 November 2017

Women make up a majority of members of the British Psychological Society (BPS), women have been instrumental in shaping what psychology is today, and women may be the face of the subject for many decades to come. Yet inequality remains steadfast. The History of Psychology Centre’s seventh annual Stories of Psychology event traced the history of women within psychology and celebrated 30 years of the Psychology of Women Section.

Sophie Bryant, Beatrice Edgell, Alice Woods, Caroline Graveson, Mary Smith, Nina Taylor, May Smith, Helen Verrall, Nellie Carey, Jessie Murray, Julia Turner, Jane Reaney, Laura Brackenbury, Ida Saxby, Susan Isaacs and Victoria Hazlitt – these were the first female members of the BPS. The Society, founded in 1901, was unusual for a scientific society in the early 20th century in that it allowed women to join. Emerita Professor Elizabeth Valentine (Royal Holloway, University of London) told a tale of the era using the experiences of these first 16 members all elected between 1901 and 1918.

Valentine said these women had strategies for dealing with the discrimination and segregation of the time. Some were members of suffragist movements, many gained an extraordinary number of qualifications, described as ‘quiet but deliberate overqualification’, which was often accompanied by quiet modesty. In this era women had to be not just better than men, but truly outstanding, to overcome the many societal barriers that stood in their way.

Their research, and many of them actively published papers, was in a diverse array of areas, from research methods and memory to vision, and industrial and developmental psychology. Around half achieved doctorates later in their careers. Despite the many barriers these women persisted, and the pioneers in the field were not restricted to the more ‘feminine’ parts of psychology.

Professor Jan Burns (Canterbury Christ Church University) traced the fascinating history of the Society’s Psychology of Women Section. Started by a group of passionate and concerned feminist psychologists in 1987, the Section now has one of the largest memberships in the Society. Burns, one of its founders, spoke of the frustration of getting the group off the ground, with many Society members concerned by its feminist aims.  

Since that time the group has continued to flourish and is proposing a name change to the Psychology of Women and Equalities Section to better represent its political position and its move to face towards women outside academia, to single mothers, minority ethnic groups and those living in poverty. Burns said inequality remains the world’s biggest issue, and within academia there is still a pay gap, and only a small minority of women who get the top jobs in the field.

Professor Katherine Johnson later posed questions to psychotherapist, writer and social critic Susie Orbach, who set up the Women’s Therapy Centre in 1976 New York alongside her friend Luise Eichenbaum, and wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue. She spoke first about setting up the centre and how it acted as a cross-cultural, cross-ethnicity place for women to be listened to and talk. However, Orbach said, we are in much more trouble now in terms of equality. Regarding body image, she said it was normalised for people to be troubled by their bodies, and many take for granted that they will be troubled by them for life. She said it was vital for us to realise how precious human beings are, and how early damage can be done to people. Another important area of focus, Orbach said, was on how we can learn to accept others without resorting to fundamentalist modes of thought out of fear. 

- See also this 2014 piece on women scientists in psychology, and a quest for the forgotten female psychologists.

Also, search #WomenInPsychology on Twitter.