There’s More to Life than a Harvard Degree

American philosopher and psychologist, Mary Whiton Calkins, is yet another heroine to be added to my list of favorites.  As a pioneer in both her field and her gender, she crossed uncharted territory.  With the support of her father, Mary received degrees in both philosophy and the classics at a time when women generally did not attend university—the late 1800s.  She became a Greek language tutor and later was offered a teaching position at Wellesley College, where she instructed the all-female classes in Greek, philosophy, and psychology.  Due to her excellence in teaching, Mary was appointed to a newly created position in the experimental psychology department, despite her lack of training in psychology, and looked to expand her knowledge in the subject.
She found that there were virtually no options for women at the time to attend classes in psychology, and a woman receiving a PhD was unheard of.  Mary decided to take classes through Harvard Annex, but was encouraged by her professor there, Josiah Royce, to take regular classes through Harvard with William James, another professor of renown, despite that it was a solely male student body.  However, the president of Harvard, Charles Eliot, did not like the idea of a woman studying in the same room as a man.  Eventually, with added pressure from Mary’s father and both Royce and James, Eliot finally allowed her to attend classes as long as she was registered as a guest—not as a student.
Shortly after, Mary, continuing both her education as well as her teaching job, helped to set up a psychology laboratory at Wellesley and introduced scientific psychology to their curriculum.  She excelled in her studies, hopefully to the shock and shame of the few men who had actually dropped the classes in protest when she began attending.  She completed every requirement for a PhD, and although her Harvard professors enthusiastically supported her, she was denied the honor of actually receiving it.  She was then offered the degree by Radcliffe, Harvard’s college for women, but politely turned it down, stating that she had done the work at Harvard.
Mary didn’t let the unfortunate actions of others deter her from continuing teaching and researching, however.  Her contributions to psychology included the invention of the paired-associate technique for studying memory, groundbreaking research on dreams, and the development of a form of self-psychology.  To top it off, she became the first female president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association.  Although students petitioned for her to receive her degree in 1927, they were denied.  I am still trying to find out if she ever received a degree posthumously.

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I admire this woman and her principles—continuing on her merry scholarly way despite an exasperating power struggle and an absent degree.  I also admire the men in her life who tried to help her attain her academic goals, thus paving the way for women’s equality in academia.  After a bit of reflection, I realize there’s a lot in my own education that I take for granted—I could have been born in a time where women were not allowed to study.  But here I am, surrounded by incredible experiences, with some truly amazing opportunities ahead of me.  And there’s still much to be done where equality is concerned.  I just hope that I can keep this snowball rolling forward at a pace that’s fast enough to make dear Mary proud.

—by ASF

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2 thoughts on “There’s More to Life than a Harvard Degree

  1. GoodReason says:

    Wow! How do these amazing women seem to vanish from the history books? Who’s writing those books, anyway??

    I am also adding Mary Calkins to my personal list of heroines! Thanks so much for bringing her to our attention.

  2. JSS says:

    Fabulous story! There are so many women whose stories have been hidden and I am always grateful when one is brought to light. And kudos, also, to the men who broke with tradition and helped these great women push the envelope.

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