Alexandra Schuh received her MA in Liberal Arts from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2019. She completed her undergraduate studies in history and education at Fairfield University in 2005 and has taught high school social studies for the past fourteen years. In her writing, she seeks to research stories of “forgotten individuals” who may have been left out of the traditional narratives of history.
EXCELLENCE IN INTERDISCIPLINARY WRITING AWARD – 2019
Maidie: The Life and Work of Mary Whiton Calkins and a More Inclusive Look at the History of Academia
Alexandra Schuh, University of Pennsylvania
In 1928, the British Psychological Association bestowed an honorary membership upon an American, Mary Whiton Calkins. Calkins, the first woman to receive the honor, had visited the association in the year before to give a speech on her work concerning her theory of “Self-Psychology.” The British Psychological Association was founded in 1901, with the aim of advancing “scientific psychological research and to further the co-operation of investigators within the various branches of psychology.” Although the organization focused on work within the UK, at times it recognized, through honorary memberships, individuals who had made critical contributions to the study of psychology. In awarding Calkins with the membership in 1928, the organization made an important public statement about her importance to the field.
Certainly Calkins was an ideal candidate for such recognition. A professor at Wellesley College, she had had an influence on countless students in her career and had conducted research and written publications that helped to shape the very understanding of the field. Her work had contributed to the discussion about how to define psychology at a time when not many people had a clear understanding of what it was.
At the turn of the twentieth century, psychology was very much a new field of study. In 1879, William Wundt conducted an experiment where he attempted to study “the atoms of the mind.” In using the scientific method to study the internal experience of consciousness, Wundt kicked off a field of thinking which separated the psychological science from the older study of philosophy. Psychology was still housed within philosophy departments at most universities, but it was during these years that psychology began to become a separate entity in and of itself.
Calkins had completed her training at Harvard University under the direction of world renowned researchers like William James, Josiah Royce, and Hugo Munsterberg. Her theory of Self-Psychology was one of the leading views of the day, and her research on memory and dreams influenced later thinkers as varied as Alfred Binet and Sigmund Freud. Furthermore, she helped to shape the future trajectory of the academic disciplines of both psychology and philosophy. Calkins’ significance was further recognized in that she was well respected by her peers, becoming the President of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association. Although Calkins’ career was exemplary by any standard, considering she was female and working at a time when academic and vocational opportunities for women were severely limited, her story is remarkable.
Before Calkins received recognition from the British, other early leaders were also awarded membership, including Sir Francis Galton, William James, Sigmund Freud, Edward Lee Thorndike, and Edward Bradford Titchener. Most modern students will recognize those names. However, currently much less is known about Calkins. A student interested in her work today would be hard-pressed to find more than a brief mention of her name in a modern textbook.
Today, Calkins is best remembered for her experience at Harvard University. Because she was female, Calkins was given permission to study at the college “as a guest; but not as a registered student of the University.” Despite having complete support from her mentors, completing all requirements for the Ph.D., and being the “strongest student of all who have worked in the laboratory,” Calkins was still denied the degree from the institution because of her gender.
In 1902, Maidie, Ethel Puffer, Kate Oelzner Petersen, and Lucy Allen Paton were officially offered the Radcliffe doctorate. Radcliffe had been developed as an alternative to Harvard, allowing the institution to meet the demand for female education while also refusing to allow them to study officially at Harvard. Calkins wrestled with her decision regarding whether to accept the degree. Previous mentors including, Hugo Munsterberg, urged her to take it, noting “everybody will know that [the] Radcliffe Ph.D. is given for the same work as the Harvard Ph.D. and it will have, therefore, exactly the same weight.” In the end, Calkins responded to the offer from Radcliffe politely explaining her decision:
I sincerely admire the scholarship of the three women to whom it is to be given and I should be very glad to be classed with them. I furthermore think it highly probable that the Radcliffe degree will be regarded, generally as the practical equivalent of the Harvard degree and finally, I should be glad to hold the Ph.D. for I occasionally find the lack of it an inconvenience; and now that the Radcliffe degree is offered, I doubt whether the Harvard degree will ever be open to women. On the other hand, I still believe that the best ideals of education would be better served if Radcliffe college refused to confer the doctor’s degree. You will be quick to see that holding this conviction, I cannot rightly take the easier course of accepting the degree.
In turning down the degree, Maidie made the first step in her lifelong dedication to the equality of education for women.
I first became interested in Calkins when I read about her experience with Harvard. I looked to find more about her work and, in doing so, began to wonder how it was that Calkins, a woman who reached the pinnacle of success in her career and whose work was so important during her time, is all but forgotten today.
This article presents a brief sketch of the life and work of Mary Whiton Calkins. With it, I analyze how a woman as significant as Calkins has been all but erased from modern histories of academica. Calkins, or Maidie as she was referred to by her close family and friends, had a unique upbringing that allowed her to become incredibly successful at a time when educational opportunities for women were restricted at best. She shrewdly navigated the educational norms of her time, and managed to recieve an education that rivaled any student, female or male, of the day. Through her work, Maidie became an example of a new version of what a woman could be, one who could have a successful and meaningful career; in doing so, she was a role model for the numerous students with whom she worked at Wellesley. Her publications helped to define psychology in its infancy and also shaped philosophical thought. Her research influenced the early years of psychology profoundly, particularly in the areas of memory, dreams, and the understanding of the self. These concepts are still relevant and often taught today, although they are not often credited to her name. Despite her scholarship being as significant as that of her male contemporaries such as William James, Hugo Munsterberg, John Watson, and Sigmund Freud, their names are remembered while her name is brushed over. If modern students of the field want to have a more complete understanding of its history, it is critical to examine her role in psychology’s formative years. In short, her story deserves attention today.
Maidie’s life story is also the story of her time. Her experiences as a child, as a graduate student, and as a professional weave together the historical complexities surrounding the role of women in society, the history of higher education in the United States, and the formative years of psychology as a discipline. Her work matters because she very much shaped the early understanding of academia. Her life story helps to explain why her labor and that of women like her has largely vanished in the years since she lived.
It is certain that there are other “forgotten individuals,” people whose work has fallen victim to the passing of time and whose influence is not credited when looking at twentieth-century academia. Calkins, however, was a person distinctive in the fact that although she received critical acclaim during her time, her work is almost completely overlooked today. In taking the care to analyze anew the early years of psychology and philosophy through the work and experiences of Mary Whiton Calkins, we gain a more fully fleshed out understanding of the history of both fields, an understanding that provides modern students a stronger foundation on which to lean as they continue to study and question the human experience.
Why is History Erased?
In the memorial booklet compiled to highlight the many facets of Maidie’s successful life, her colleague Thomas Hayes Proctor wrote: “In her were united the two sides of our department, since she was equally eminent as a philosopher and as a psychologist. Her contributions to either subject alone would have been sufficient justification for most lives.” He also summarized her many accomplishments in her professional life:
In 1927 she was invited to lecture in psychology at the University of London, and was afterward made an honorary member of the British Psychological Association. In this country she was the only woman ever elected to the presidency of both the Philosophical and the Psychological Associations of America—an honor shared with only two others in the history of American scholarship, Professor William James and Professor Munsterberg.
Considering that Maidie earned these accolades at at time when women were prevented from accessing the academic realms and professional jobs were limited, it is evident that she was a person like no other. Yet, today her story is missing from this history of both psychology and philosophy.
Modern scholars have acknowledged this oversight. In “The Other Philosophy Club: America's First Academic Women Philosophers,” Dorothy Rogers makes a striking comparison of the accomplishments and respective legacies of Maidie and Josiah Royce:
Both Royce and Calkins were well recognized and well respected among their peers. Each published high-quality work early in their academic careers and continued to be productive until the end of their lives. Their ideas were groundbreaking in their time and continue to be relevant today. Each taught at prestigious institutions: Harvard and Wellesley. Each was among a select group of academics to serve as president of both of the APAs—the American Philosophical Association and the American Psychological Association—Royce in 1901–02 (APsA) and 1903–04 (APhA); Calkins in 1905–06 (APsA) and 1918–19 (APhA).
Rogers goes on to explain that whereas Royce is still well known to modern students, Maidie has been all but forgotten, noting: “if we were to pool American graduate students today, a healthy majority would recognize Royce's name and a respectable percentage would have read something by him…a minority—and I fear a small one—would even have heard the name ‘Mary Whiton Calkins.’” The question that thus remains is: if Maidie was comparable in significance to other individuals such as Royce, James, and Munsterberg, why then has her legacy been erased from history?
The easiest and most obvious answer to this question is sexism. Without question, Maidie and other women of her time faced barriers to academic and professional opportunities because of the societal norms surrounding gender in their lifetime. However, Maidie’s story and the exclusion of her legacy in both the psychological and philosophical worlds is complex and can be seen to have been influenced by more subtle factors as well. These other details include the complexities surrounding women’s colleges, the duty of family, the shifting classifications of academic subjects in the twentieth century, and the ways in which leaders in these two fields recognized other individuals both in person and in print. By analyzing these factors, it is evident that although Maidie’s legacy was indeed damaged by the sexism she faced in her lifetime, her erasure from modern historical analysis in both fields is more complex.
Wellesley was a community that provided Maidie and other women in academia opportunities like no other. It is arguable that without the tremendous support and stability she received from the Wellesley faculty, she would not have been as successful in her academic pursuits. Nonetheless, Maidie’s connection to Wellesley, a college built solely for the education of women, also meant that she did not receive some of the benefits male scholars did while working in traditional or coeducational institutions. To start, women’s colleges during Maidie’s lifetime were not seen as being equal to male colleges. Despite the production of quality work, a collective view persisted that the scholarship coming out of a women’s college was somehow different from (and frequently seen as subpar to) that produced by male students. That misconception proved a characterization impossible for Maidie to escape.
Maidie did, however, earn the respect of her contemporaries, female and male alike, through the quality of her ideas and scholarship. Wellesley College recognized her significance and, thankfully, archived her papers. Yet, she lacked the benefits men often reaped by working in an institution that taught male graduate students. As Rogers points out, “the majority of women’s institutions did not establish graduate programs until well into the twentieth century, so they failed to provide the professional mentor-disciple system that grew organically out of academic relationships at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, and Michigan.” Though Maidie was a tremendous teacher, her students were undergraduates, all of whom, like her, would struggle to find a place in the professional world. Males who taught at the same point in history had the opportunity to work with high-level graduate students who would go on to shape the next generation’s line of thinking. As Rogers explains, “Men who taught at the most elite male institutions could multiply their influence exponentially, simply because of their impact on graduate students who would then go on to teach at other graduate institutions, talking and writing about their mentor’s work.” In short, when Maidie passed away, there was no one left to argue her ideas. Her male colleagues, including James, Royce, and Munsterberg, all had graduate students who carried on their legacies.
Maidie’s legacy also suffered because of the gender norms surrounding the role of women during her lifetime. Unlike many of her male contemporaries, she often had to consider the impact her professional choices would have on her family. Although she had brothers, it was Maidie’s responsibility to live with and care for her parents as they aged. Because of this obligation and duty, she willingly sacrificed professional opportunities, particularly the positions she was offered at Barnard and Columbia, to stay home and care for her family. It is important to recognize that there is no evidence that Maidie regretted this choice or any other that she made. For her, family came before everything. Males working during her time, though, overwhelmingly had wives or sisters to help with the care of family, meaning they could be more aggressive in pursuit of professional advancement. In Maidie’s case, she needed to balance every professional choice she made with how it would impact her situation at home.
During the time coinciding with Maidie’s academic and professional career, both the fields of psychology and philosophy, as noted above, went through some “growing pains.” Because of these disciplinary dilemmas, individuals wrestled with how best to classify each school of thought and how to get attention for their own work. Maidie was remarkably well-suited to have her ideas heard. By aligning herself with James, Sanford, Munsterberg, and Royce, Maidie shrewdly assured that she was in close contact with and taken seriously by the most influential voices of her time. Although the disciplines of psychology and philosophy included hundreds of individuals working in many countries, the conferences, organizations, and publications of both disciplines were controlled by a small group of leaders. This meant that certain voices dominated academic debate. Maidie was lucky to be one of those voices, whereas others were not so fortunate.
After Maidie’s death, the worlds of psychology and philosophy became even more specific. This meant that in psychology in particular, authors started to focus on significant contributions made by just a few individuals at the expense of providing a clear history of all those early leaders in the field, Maidie included. To illustrate, in 1929, E. G. Boring published a textbook entitled, A History of Experimental Psychology, in which he described the discipline as comprising different schools of thought; for example, structuralism, functionalism, behaviorism, and psychoanalysis were each considered different and unique schools. As noted in “Beyond the Schools of Psychology 1: A Digital Analysis of Psychological Review, 1894–1903,” subsequent authors agreed with Boring’s understanding of the schools of thought and used them to discuss the history of the field. Modern historians continue this trend. Although Maidie is sometimes credited as having worked under William James, that view of her contribution to psychology is extremely limited, for it fails to acknowledge any of her independent contributions to psychology. Considering that her work is all but missing from modern histories of philosophy, her historical legacy is also somewhat inaccurate.
In their fascinating digital analysis of the Psychological Review, Green et al. highlight a more subtle reason Maidie and others have been written out of history. These scholars point out that analyzing psychological publications from the early twentieth century is difficult, “because citation conventions in the nascent discipline were quite open and fluid.” Furthermore, a common practice was to give credit to the laboratory from which the study came, meaning that the director of the laboratory got recognition, but the individuals working with them did not. A study, for example, may have come out of the laboratory at Harvard, thus giving Munsterberg credit for the work, but would fail to acknowledge the many graduate students, or other colleagues, working with him. Amazingly, in the analysis done by Green et al., Maidie’s name surfaces several times. As she was the director of the laboratory at Wellesley for a significant portion of the years covered in the study, her position explains her getting recognition for her work outright. However, a quick glance at other names found through the analysis reveals many of the individuals Maidie worked under while conducting critical research, including James, Munsterberg, and Royce. By extension, this citation means that although she may not be given full credit for the work in the publication, she often was there conducting the research that led to the respective articles. When considering all of the laboratories in which Maidie worked as well as the numerous publications she produced during her career, it is clear that she was as influential as any man working during the time.
Overall, Maidie was extraordinary in the way she broke through gender barriers to gain access to the best education available. She was able to learn from and support the work of some of the brightest minds of the day, including William James, Josiah Royce, Hugo Munsterberg, and Edmund Sanford. Maidie developed her own independent psychological research on dreams and memory, which influenced later schools of thought as varied as behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Her theory of self-psychology helped to bridge the gap between psychology and philosophy and has influenced modern understandings of the self. Along the way, her work earned the respect of her peers, as evidenced by her presidencies of the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association, as well as her honorary membership in the British Psychological Association. Over her long career, her numerous publications shaped the formative years of both psychology and philosophy. When her achievements are viewed through the lenses of the societal gender norms of her generation, her story is nothing short of remarkable.
As historian Dorothy Rogers points out, “Women began contributing to American thought before ‘American thought’ was even a term.” Yet today, women frequently are missing from the historical analysis of American academia. Maidie was an individual whose life story exemplifies the challenges that women have faced since the inception of colleges in this country; although she achieved the pinnacle of success in her day, she is forgotten in modern understandings of the history of both psychology and philosophy. This missing piece of the history may help to explain why modern women still struggle to get recognition for their scholarship and access to professional opportunities. Indeed, this issue is addressed in “Renewing the Push for Equality,” in which Amy Novotney describes the challenges women face yet today in psychology writing: “even though women now dominate psychology in sheer numbers—within the educational pipeline and the workforce—they lack equity with their male colleagues when it comes to power, status and money.” Although conditions have improved since Maidie’s time, women today are, as Novotney explains, often underrepresented in leadership positions:
Women in psychology also face disparities in advancement and leadership positions. For example, far fewer women in psychology achieve full professorships compared with men. In addition, even though 58 percent of APA’s members are women, they constitute just 30 percent of APA fellows.
By analyzing the contributions of forgotten individuals such as Maidie, modern students are presented with a more complete history of academic scholarship in the United States. Mary Whiton Calkins’ story stands as an essential piece to the overall historical understanding of both psychology and philosophy. Allowing modern students to recognize that women like Maidie contributed significantly to the formative years of both disciplines helps us have a more accurate understanding of the past. It may also help contemporary students to reimagine the gender gap that exists today. When stories like Maidie’s are written out of history, it makes it seem as though women are only now starting to influence these fields. Instead, accurate inclusionist histories of the disciplines acknowledge that women have always been influential. Rectifying these oversights is even more imperative given the disparity that still persists today around recognizing women’s work. A comprehensive re-evaluation of our past can point towards a more equitable future in academia, for despite facing serious barriers, women have been part of the disciplinary foundations since the very beginning.
Geoff Bunn, “A Short History of the British Psychological Society,” British Psychological Society, accessed February 24, 2019, www.bps.org.uk/about-us/history-psychology-center.
David Myers, Psychology: Tenth Edition in Modules (New York: Worth Publishers, 2013) 3.
Laurel Furumoto, “Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930),” Psychology of Women Quarterly 5, no. 1 (1980): 63.
“Honorary Members,” British Psychological Society, accessed February 21, 2019, https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/bps.org.uk/files/History %20of%20Psychology/Honorary%20Members%20(1904-1945).pdf
Charles Eliot, “Letter to Miss Mary Whiton Calkins.” Scrapbook (Mary Whiton Calkins Papers, 3p Wellesley College Archives).
Hugo Munsterberg, “Letter to the President and Fellows of Harvard College, October 23, 1894” (Harvard University Archives, Harvard University, 1894).
“Minute Book (1882–1913)” (Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University), 89–92.
Elizabeth Scarborough and Laurel Furumoto, Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 48.
Mary Whiton Calkins, “M. W. Letter to Dean A. Irwin-May 30, 1902” (Radcliffe College Archives), 1902.
In researching primary sources, I came across many spellings of Maidie, including Mady, Madie, and Maidy. However, because Calkins used Maidie when signing her own letters and to keep consistency in this essay, I will use the Maidie as the spelling throughout.
“Memorial Service Booklet” (Smith College Special Collections, Smith College).
Ibid. Josiah Royce, like Mary Whiton Calkins, also earned the distinction of being elected president of both the American Philosophical and Psychological Associations.
Dorothy Rogers, “The Other Philosophy Club: America’s First Academic Women Philosophers,” Hypatia 24, no. 2 (Spring, 2009), 168.
For more information on the challenges Maidie and other women faced both professionally and academically, see Laurel Furumoto and Elizabeth Scarborough, Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Women Psychologists (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).
Maidie is exceptionally lucky in this regard. The work of other female scholars was often overlooked, leaving gaps in our collective understanding of academia.
Clearly, Maidie was not the first nor last woman to deal with this issue of commitments in the domestic sphere. However, working at a time when so few women were afforded opportunities outside of the home exacerbated these choices for Maidie.
For a fascinating and somewhat amusing story on the complexities of gaining recognition for one’s work during this time period, see Martin Seligman’s account of Edwin Burket Twitmyer’s frustrations, noted in “When William James got Hungry,” The Penn Gazette, www.thepenngazette.com/ when-william-james-got-hungry/.
Christopher D. Green, Ingo Feinerer, and Jeremy T. Burman, “Beyond the Schools of Psychology 1: A Digital Analysis of Psychological Review, 1894–1903,” Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences 49, no. 2 (Spring 2013), 168.
Amy Novotney, “Renewing the Push for Equality,” Monitor on Psychology (April, 2019), 38.
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