March is Women’s History Month

Dr. Ruth Winifred Howard, the first (or second) African American woman to earn a doctorate degree in Psychology, is recognized by the Women’s Programs Office during Women’s History Month.

In observance of Women’s History Month, the Women’s Programs Office recognizes Dr. Ruth Winifred Howard, the first (or second) African American woman to earn a doctorate degree in Psychology.

There is much debate about who was the first African American woman to complete a doctorate degree in psychology. Some believe it was Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser, who earned her doctorate in Educational Psychology in 1933.  Others believe it was Dr. Howard.

Dr. Howard received her PhD in Psychology and Child Development from the University of Minnesota in 1934. She had a long career that encompassed social work, nursing education, and developmental and clinical psychology (Saltzman, 2001). Born in 1900, Dr. Howard was the youngest of eight children. Her father was a Protestant minister whose position in the community and attitude toward others shaped her desire to work with people (Young, 2010). In 1921, she received her BS in Social Work from Simmons College in Boston.

Her first job as a social worker was with the Cleveland Urban League as a counselor and community program coordinator. It was, she wrote, an education in social psychology (Saltzman, 2001).  Howard then took a position with the city's Child Welfare Agency, focusing on children living in negligible family situations and in foster homes. Her work with members of other agencies exposed a lack of understanding and empathy for cultural groups outside their own. This, Howard believed, was a barrier to understanding the feelings, attitudes, and behaviors of these children (Young, 2001). Because of this she decided to study psychology. Through a Laura Spelman Rockefeller Fellowship for Parent Education, Howard studied at Columbia University’s Teachers College and School of Social Work before transferring to the University of Minnesota, where she completed her doctorate.

She was active in numerous professional and community organizations; she helped organize the National Association of College Women, and joined the American Psychological Association, the International Psychological Association, the International Council of Women Psychologists, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Friends of the Mentally Ill. Additionally, she was a longtime volunteer for the Young Women’s Christian Association and Bartelme Homes, named for Judge Mary Bartelme, a judge in Chicago’s Juvenile Court (Saltzman, 2001).

Dr. Howard married fellow psychologist, Dr. Albert Beckham, upon her graduation from the University of Minnesota. They opened a private practice together in Chicago. “Dr. Howard characterized the marriage as happy and bonded by both the personal and the professional” (Young, 2010). After the death of her husband in 1964, Dr. Howard stayed in Chicago continuing her private practice work in addition to working as a psychologist at the McKinley Center for Retarded Children (1964-1966), at Worthington and Hurst Psychological Consultants (1966-1968), and at the Chicago Board of Health, Mental Health Division (1968-1972). She would credit women psychologists with “contributing to human progress through the discipline of psychology and noted that so-called minority groups have also shared in this progress” (Saltzman, 2001). Ruth Howard died on February 12, 1997 in Washington, D.C.

Saltzman, A. L. (2001). Ruth Winifred Howard (1900-1997). The Feminist Psychologist, 28.
Young, J. L. (2010). Profile of Ruth Howard. In A. Rutherford (Ed.), Psychology's feminist voices multimedia internet archive.