Time Capsule

In her 1910 review of the research on the psychological differences between men and women, Helen Thompson Woolley wrote, “There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting a prejudice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel, have run riot to such an extent as here.”

Who was this woman and by what authority did she make such a statement? Woolley was the first person to carry out a systematic, experimental investigation of gender differences in psychological characteristics. Her dissertation research at the University of Chicago compared the performance of 25 men and 25 women students on a variety of sensory, motor and intellectual tasks. Rather than reporting average performance, she described the complete distribution of scores on each test for each sex. (The title of the dissertation, “Psychological Norms in Men and Women,” aroused interesting newspaper coverage: The use of the word “norm” was unfamiliar; one newspaper reported that her work was a study of “psychological worms” in men and women.)

‘The Mental Traits of Sex’

Woolley found that men had the advantage in most tests of motor skills, while the women overall showed finer sensory discrimination. On the tests of intellectual faculties, women performed slightly better at memory and association tasks and men better at tests of ingenuity.

In her conclusions, Woolley departed considerably from the accepted theories of the day, which accounted for male-female differences based on the characteristics most beneficial evolutionarily for the active, agile sperm and the large immobile egg (Geddes and Thomson, 1890). With great restraint, she pointed out the illogic in the biological analogies, which assigned the opposite intellectual characteristics of excitability and incapacity for sustained attention to women, and impartial reason and calm concentration to men. She pointed out that other explanations were as logical as genetic ones — namely environmental differences: “The psychological differences of sex seem largely due ... to differences in the social influences brought to bear on the developing individual,” citing as evidence differences in toys, games and emphasis on physical activity (Thompson, 1903).

Her work was eventually published as “The Mental Traits of Sex” (1903) and received mixed reviews. Two critics, while acknowledging the importance of such careful experimental work, questioned whether Woolley’s sample of women was representative of their gender, claiming that the college woman is not comparable to the college man. The college woman, they said, seeks to attend college due to “ambition or poverty or incompatibility of temper,” whereas the man goes to college as a matter of course. Another reviewer found her conclusions momentous and suggested that similar findings about race differences might also hold true.

She completed her PhD in 1900, summa cum laude, making her one of the first women to earn a PhD in psychology. Chicago graduate and behaviorist John B. Watson had a similar course of study at the university during the same period, but graduated only magna cum laude. He was told that his performance was inferior to hers and confessed feeling jealous for years. (Watson, however, would go on to distinguish himself, serving as APA president in 1913 and delivering his well-known “Behaviorist Manifesto,” which called for psychology to reject the study of consciousness and the use of introspective methods and turn instead to the study of behavior. Later, scandal over an illicit romance with his graduate assistant Rosalie Rayner would drive him from the profession, but not before he was assured of a significant legacy as one of the fathers of behaviorism. Woolley is much less widely known, in part because of the challenges of her gender.)

Love and marriage

Thompson married Paul Gerhardt Woolley in 1905 and settled with him and their daughter, Eleanor, in Cincinnati. Most academic jobs were not open to her as a married woman. Even highly educated married women were expected to devote themselves to their families. So, she turned to applied research, becoming one of the first U.S. psychologists to be employed by a public school. Woolley served as the first female president of the National Vocational Guidance Association in 1921. Later, she became assistant director of the Merrill-Palmer School in Detroit, one of the first U.S. laboratory nursery schools. From there she served as director of the Child Welfare Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Woolley would probably not be surprised that questions about gender differences remain more than 100 years since her investigation. In her final review of sex differences research, she was somewhat more subtle in her conclusions about the state of the research literature than she had been in 1910, but not more optimistic. She asserted about claims of sex differences, “The truest thing to be said at present is that scientific evidence plays very little part.”

Katharine S. Milar, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Earlham College and historical editor for “Time Capsule.”

Suggested reading

  • Milar, K.S. (2004). Breaking the silence: Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley. In R. Evans & T.C. Dalton (Eds.). The Life Cycle of Psychological Ideas: Understanding Prominence and the Dynamics of Intellectual Change (pp. 301–328). Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

  • Thompson, H.B. (1903). The mental traits of sex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Woolley, H.T. (1910). A review of recent literature on the psychology of sex. Psychological Bulletin, 7, 335–342.