Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mary Whiton Calkins: Denied a Degree

Mary Whiton Calkins (died 26 February 1930)

Although she could not study psychology formally at Harvard University, Mary Whiton Calkins not only became a psychologist, she eventually became the first woman president of the American Psychological Association.

Born in 1863, Calkins graduated from Smith College with a degree in classics and philosophy. Her later interest in psychology led her to pursue courses at Harvard--where she faced opposition because the presence of a woman in the classroom would obviously be much too disruptive. Although she could not register formally as a student, she enrolled in classes at the Harvard Annex (which became Radcliffe College) and, ultimately, was allowed to sit in on regular Harvard psychology classes. She began attending lectures in 1890, and in 1892 was--grudgingly--admitted to Harvard as a "guest." She completed coursework, exams, and research needed for a doctoral degree. Her dissertation, "An Experimental Research on the Association of Ideas," was presented in 1895 to a committee that included the noted scholar William James, and although members of the committee unanimously approved, Harvard refused to award Calkins a Ph.D.

In 1902, she and three other women who had done graduate work at Harvard were offered doctoral degrees from Radcliffe College. Calkins refused. As Jacy L. Young reports, this effort was "followed in 1927, by a petition to Harvard by thirteen prominent alumni, including of psychologists R. M. Yerkes, E. L. Thorndike, and R. S. Woodworth, requesting that Calkins be granted her degree. Asserting that there was no adequate reason to do so, the university once again refused Calkins a doctoral degree. Efforts to have Harvard grant Calkins her degree posthumously continue to this day. In 2002, psychologist Karyn Boatwright and her students at Kalamazoo College petitioned Harvard to grant Calkins her degree, and established a website, Justice for Mary Whiton Calkins, to gather support for that effort."
Calkins published books on both psychology and philosophy. After her 1905-6 term as APA president, Calkins was elected to the presidency of the American Philosophical Association in 1918.

Jacy Young's excellent profile of Calkins, from Psychology's Feminist Voices, gives an overview of her life and work in addition to providing a bibliography and a list of resources for further reading.

For a podcast about Mary Whiton Calkins from York University's This Week in the History of Psychology, click here.