Leta Stetter Hollingworth

Leta Stetter Hollingworth


In celebration of international women’s day, I want to take some time to discuss one of the early female pioneering psychologists, Leta Stetter Hollingworth.

 Leta was born 25 May 1886 in Nebraska, USA. Leta underwent many hardships growing up including the death of her mother as a young child, an absent father, later an abusive father and step mother. It was through this adversity that Leta started to excel in school as she found it the only refuge from the hostile environment.

Leta excelled in school and at an early age started writing articles for the local paper. Leta went to study literature and writing at the University of Nebraska but was unable to progress in her writings as none were published due to her being a woman. This gender inequality plagued Leta throughout her career and eventually shaped her interests in the field of Psychology.

Leta went onto get married and move to New York where she was hoping to teach at this time. Unfortunately, laws at the time prohibited married women from being teachers in New York. Leta became depressed as despite all her education she was restricted to housework duties purely base don her gender. Leta then wanted to graduate in education and sociology, however, again was barred from graduating due to gender inequality laws.

Finally, Leta was given a break as her husband gained a grant from the Coca-Cola company which allowed Leta to graduate. Leta’s career started off with administering intelligence tests where she quickly excelled and after not to long found herself at the prestigious Bellevue Hospital as chief of the Psychologist lab.    

Leta was massively influential in the fields of clinical psychology, developmental psychology, intelligence testing, psychopathology and fostering excellence in children. Notably today, however, Leta was also influential in the psychology of women. Dr Hollingworth was one of the first psychologists to argue against the prevailing Variability hypothesis at the time. The Variability hypothesis stated that women were destined for mediocrity while men displayed extreme variability on differ spectrums of traits. The underlying assumption was that men were biologically superior as they had a great skill range and set which accounted for the many roles they played in society and explained why women held such a limited spectrum of roles.

Dr Hollingworth who was at odds with her supervisor argued that that the Variability hypothesis was rubbish and that the current climate was due to the societal roles placed on men and women. Dr Hollingworth accounted for women being restricted to housekeeping while men were able to involve themselves sin a range of different roles. Therefore, being able to gain experience and skills which women had no access. Dr Hollingworth took part in research which examined 1,000 male babies and 1,000 female babies at birth. Results stated that the male babies on average were slightly anatomically larger. However, no other significant differences were shown.    

Dr Hollingworth also disintegrated a popular belief at the time that women were intellectually impaired by their menstrual cycle. Dr Hollingworth measured men and women’s cognitive, perceptual and motor skills over a 3-month period. No significant difference was found between healthy females and men during the menstrual period.

Dr Hollingworth not only resisted institutionalised gender inequality to become a proficient Clinical Psychologist in her own right but she also paved the way for so many. Dr Hollingworth’s work contributed to a standardised approach to clinical psychology, intelligence testing and working with children. However, a standout accomplishment is Dr Hollingworth’s ability to break the sexism that plagued society at the time by scientifically disproving popular beliefs. This contributed to a revolution of the perception of women and eventually a push for women’s rights.

Dr Hollingworth was able to change the thinking of some of the biggest Psychologists at the time including her supervisor Thorndike from a shift of nature being the dominant force of development to understanding the contribution of nurture, cultural norms and society expectations. Dr Hollingworth also developed child centred therapy and nurtured her student Carl Rogers to further develop a Humanistic Psychology.

An amazing Psychologist and one we all owe so much. I will finish with a quote from Dr Hollingworth which she made about the importance of direct contact with research participants;

“The adding machine has tremendous advantages over the child as an object of intimate association. It has no parents; it does not lose its pocket-handkerchief; it does not kick or yell. All this we grant. Those who study children — those who would study any individuals— must be prepared to take pains."