Margret Floy Washburn, 20th Century Psychologist
Margret Floy Washburn prevailed in the scientific community at a time when women were actively denied equal educational and professional opportunities to their male counterparts. Not only was she a pioneering psychological researcher, but she was also a prolific writer and beloved teacher. Through her hard-earned professorship, she mentored and brought many of her undergraduate students, all of whom were women, into her labs and included their names in any publications. Through her actions, she granted these young girls the educational opportunities she had to fight tooth and nail for, thus, establishing feminist foundations in the scientific community and pushing back against the male-dominated environment. Not only was she one of the first few women to enter the field of psychology, but she also conducted pioneering research into motor skills and consciousness, helping to unify two competing schools of thought at the time: introspectionism and behaviorism.
Born into a wealthy family in New York as an only child, Washburn had the economic opportunities to pursue higher education, as well as the support of her parents. She started at Vassar College at age 16, and it was in this facility that she discovered a passion for philosophy and psychology. After graduating college in 1891, she wanted to continue her higher education at Columbia University, however, gender prejudice at the time prohibited her from enrolling as a conventional student, and she was reluctantly allowed to audit her graduate classes — after three months of relentlessly convincing faculty. At her professor James McKeen Cattell’s recommendation, she studied under Edward B. Titchener at Cornell University. Titchener was an English psychologist most famous for the creation of a new branch of psychology: structuralism, which attempted to describe the structure of the mind. Washburn became his first graduate student, a remarkable achievement for a young woman at the time. She went on to earn her master’s degree in 1893, then only a year later, her Ph.D. in psychology, making her the first woman to officially do so.
Throughout her lifetime, Washburn left a profound impact on both the field of psychology as well as on the educational facilities where she taught. During her career, she published more than 200 papers and was ranked among the top 50 psychologists in the United States. Competing against all male competitors, she still secured a firm intellectual standing and reputation. She was an expert on animal behavior, achieved through her experimental approach to the subject as opposed to the more prominent anecdotal one, as well as sensation and perception. Her efforts in studying the cognitive behavior of over 100 species of animal, not just rodents as was commonplace, culminated in one of her best known books titled: The animal mind. This became one of the most successful textbooks in comparative psychology and helped to standardize terminology. Another one of her defining contributions to the field was the development of her ‘motor theory of consciousness’ as consciousness was not a topic that was active in psychology at the time. Her work centered around the idea that thought is based on movement, thus linking consciousness to motor activity, and she published her findings in another well renowned book: Movement and mental imagery. Outside of her research, she taught at several renowned institutions. Immediately after completing her degree, she taught at Wells University as a psychology professor for six years, and after a brief stint as an advisor at Cornell University, she then went on to become an assistant professor at Cincinnati University, where she was the only female faculty member. However, she did eventually return to Vassar College, where she continued to work until a stroke prompted her to retire in 1927. Thanks to her genuine passion for mentoring and teaching, she turned Vassar College into a leading hub in undergraduate training and psychological research.
At the turn of the 20th century, women had very few worthwhile educational or professional opportunities outside of the home. Margret Floy Washburn rejected this idea at its very core by overcoming many gender-based hurdles and leaving a lasting mark on her field, which is only amplified by her position as a woman. She defied stereotypes by refusing to marry, as married women were expected to forego their paying careers to become primary caregivers for their children. Instead, she went on to become a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences and a member of the American Psychology Association, being the second woman in history to achieve such prestige in both cases. Her life and legacy serve as a model for young women everywhere, showing that hard work and resilience can overcome any adversity.
by Laura Jewsbury
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