Hollingworth, Leta Stetter (1886–1939)

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Hollingworth, Leta Stetter (1886–1939)

American psychologist, specializing in women, education, and gifted children, who statistically took on erroneous gender assumptions and wrote the highly regarded Psychology of the Adolescent. Born Leta Anna Stetter near Chadron, Nebraska, on May 25, 1886; died in New York, New York, on November 27, 1939; buried in Wyuka Cemetery, Lincoln, Nebraska; daughter of Margaret Elinor (Danley) Stetter and John G. Stetter; attended Valentine High School, Valentine, Nebraska, 1902; granted A.B., University of Nebraska, 1906; A.M., Columbia University, 1913; Ph.D., Columbia University, 1916; married Harry L. Holling-worth, New York, New York, on December 31, 1906.

Death of her mother (1889); moved to Valentine, Nebraska (1898); moved to New York City (1908); took position with the New York Clearing-House for Mental Defectives (1913); took position with the New York City Civil Service (1914); studied infants at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (1914); studied effects of menstruation on women (1915); became instructor, Columbia University Teachers College (1916); studied gifted children in association with the New York school board (1920); appointed professor of education, Columbia University (1930); served as research director of the Speyer School (1936); awarded honorary doctorate of law, University of Nebraska (1938).

Selected writings:

"Functional periodicity: An experimental study of the mental and motor abilities of women during menstruation," in Teachers College Contributions to Education (no. 69, 1914); "Variability as related to sex differences in achievement," in American Journal of Sociology (no. 19, 1914); "Phi Beta Kappa and woman students," in School and Society (no. 4, 1916); "Social devices for impelling women to bear and rear children," in American Journal of Sociology (no. 22, 1916); "Differential action upon the sexes of forces which tend to segregate the feeble minded," in Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (no. 17, 1922).

Leta Stetter Hollingworth, who was destined to become one of the leading psychologists in the United States, was born May 25, 1886, on a farm near Chadron, Nebraska; her mother Margaret Stetter died three years later. Because her father John Stetter, a cowboy, entertainer, and peddler, could not care for her, Hollingworth's maternal grandmother was largely responsible for her upbringing. Like many children born on the prairies, Leta Hollingworth received her early education in a one-room school. She excelled academically and, years later, characterized her education as "excellent in every respect. We had small classes (twelve pupils in all), all nature for a laboratory, and individualized instruction."

In 1898, Hollingworth was reunited with her father in Valentine, Nebraska. At age 15, she graduated from Valentine High School, where she showed promise in creative writing. Psychologist Lewis Terman described one of Hollingworth's early poems as comparing "favorably with the best juvenilia this reviewer had seen." In 1902, she enrolled at the University of Nebraska, where she took classes in literature and creative writing. As well, she was literary editor of the Daily Nebraskan and, during her final year, served as associate editor for the Sombrero, a student publication.

After graduation, Hollingworth attempted to fashion a literary career, devoting a great deal of time to short-story writing. It was difficult, however, to find a market for her efforts. To earn a living, she taught high school in DeWitt, Nebraska, where she also served as assistant principal. In 1908, she traveled to New York City where, on December 31, she married former university classmate Harry Hollingworth. Her husband was studying under the eminent psychologist James McKeen Cattell at Columbia University. Leta applied for a teaching position in the New York public-school system, only to discover that they did not hire married women. At loose ends, she spent much of her time in the traditional role of housewife. In order to supplement the family income and save money to further his wife's education, Harry began working in the field of applied psychology. He was a consultant to various advertising agencies, an occupation he disliked, but one which entailed considerable financial reward.

Leta enrolled at Columbia University, and in 1913 she was awarded a master's degree in educational psychology. Her research focused on the status of women in American society. Why, she asked, were females regarded as inferior? Was it biology which dictated their status, or was it the discrimination of a male-dominated society? Hollingworth undertook an extensive survey of the literature. Psychologists such as a Cattell, Edward L. Thorndike, and G. Stanley Hall had all published works which asserted that woman were inherently inferior, and yet Hollingworth could find no scientific evidence to support their claims. Thorndike wrote of:

The patent fact that in the great achievements of the world in science, art, invention, and management, women have been far excelled by men…. In particular, if men differin intelligence and energy by wider degrees than do women, eminence in and leadership of the world's affairs of whatever sort will inevitably belong oftener to men. They will oftener deserve it.

Thorndike's work, and the work of others like him, was based on that of Charles Darwin. Darwin argued that male intelligence varied more widely than female intelligence. Thus, men were more likely to be either intellectually gifted or defective, while females were inherently less variable, and therefore intellectually mediocre. While the intellectual life of men was dominated by high levels of perception and reasoning, the mental universe of women was filled with emotions and sensory experiences. The emotional nature of women made them suited for domestic tasks and child care. In sum, the variability argument was based on social prejudice, rather than concrete scientific observation.

Such ideas were commonly asserted in the educational, psychological, medical, and sociological literature of the day. A lone voice in the wilderness was the British psychologist Karl Pearson, who in 1897 published research refuting the variability theory. Until Leta Hollingworth's entry into the field, Pearson's work was the only scientific study to challenge conventional wisdom.

In 1913, Hollingworth took a temporary position at what was then known as the New York Clearing-House for Mental Defectives. There she assisted with the mental testing program. In 1914, her skill and expertise led to an offer of permanent employment with the newly created New York City Civil Service. As the first female psychologist hired by the city, she had the opportunity to put the variability argument to the test, while visiting schools, courts of law, and hospitals. Hollingworth discovered that there was a variation in age between men and women who were admitted to mental institutions. She argued that social factors played an important role in the phenomena:

At present it suffices to point out that the fact that females escape the Clearing-House till beyond the age of thirty years three times as frequently as males, fits very well with the fact that more males than females are brought to the Clearing-House, on the whole. The boy who cannot compete mentally is found out, becomes at an early age the object of concern to relatives, is brought to the Clearing-House, and directed towards an institution. The girl who cannot compete mentally is not so often recognized as definitely defective, since it is not unnatural for her to drop into the isolation of the home,

where she can "take care of" small children, peel potatoes, scrub, etc…. Thus they survive outside the institutions.

As Hollingworth noted in a subsequent study: "A girl must be relatively more stupid than a boy in order to be presented for examination and she must be still more stupid, comparatively, to be actually segregated as unfit for social and economic participation."

In 1914, Hollingworth began to use infants as a case study, since she argued they were relatively free from the environmental factors which might account for variability in children and adults. She explained the variation of female and males by the differing social and economic roles which the two sexes played in contemporary society. As she pointed out:

A woman of natural herculean strength does not wash dishes, cook meals, or rear children much more successfully than a woman of ordinary muscle. But a man of natural herculean strength is free to abandon carpentry or agriculture and become a prize-fighter or a blacksmith, thus exercising and enhancing his native equipment.

Hollingworth employed the files of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children to collect her data. Each infant born had its weight, circumference of shoulders, length, and cranial measurements recorded. In a survey of 2,000 infants, she concluded that while male babies were larger than females, there was no inherent variability between the sexes. Her results challenged the variability thesis on a scientific basis.

For several decades menstruation, and the behavioral changes associated with it, were used to characterize women as unstable. Holling-worth planned a study of menstruation for her doctoral dissertation at Columbia University. Her supervisor was Edward L. Thorndike. She tested 23 females and two males for motor skills and mental tasks over a period of three months. Her results revealed that neither motor coordination nor mental ability were impaired by menstruation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Hollingworth proved that women were neither unreliable or inefficient during menstruation.

In 1916, already the author of one book and numerous scientific articles on the psychology of women, Leta Hollingworth was awarded a Ph.D. from Columbia University. In the same year, she published an article which explored the social control of women in child bearing and rearing. The article was prompted by the commonly held assumption that only abnormal women did not have children, and that normal women found ultimate fulfillment through child care. Hollingworth surveyed the social-control mechanisms imposed by law, medicine, education, and public opinion which underpinned attitudes toward maternity:

It seems very clear that "the social guardians" have not really believed that maternal instinct is alone a sufficient guaranty of population. They have made use of all possible social devices to insure not only child-bearing, but child-rearing. Belief, law, public opinion, illusion, education, art … have all been used to reenforce maternal instinct. We shall never know just how much maternal instinct alone will do for population until all the forces and influences exemplified above have become inoperative. As soon as women become fully conscious of the fact that they have been and are controlled by these devices the latter will become useless, and we shall get a truer measure of maternal feeling.

Through her research, Hollingworth attempted to dispel the myth of the vocational limitations of women. An effort by the Phi Beta Kappa Council to limit female membership led Holling-worth to launch a spirited attack on the proposed policy.

She published her last work on the psychology of women in 1927. In it, she postulated an evolutionary thesis of the development of gender roles. As she wrote:

The woman question is and always has been simply this: How to reproduce the species and at the same time win satisfaction of the human appetites for food, security, self-assertion, mastery, adventure, play, and so forth. Man satisfies these cravings by competitive attack, both physical and mental upon the environment. As compared with man, woman has always been in a cage, while those satisfactions are outside. The cage has been her cumbersome reproductive system.

Shortly after receiving her Ph.D., Leta Hollingworth accepted a position at Columbia University Teachers College, replacing Naomi Norsworthy , who had recently died. Hollingworth's early work on the testing of various aspects of women's psychology led her to study the phenomena of both the challenged and the gifted child, an area of inquiry pioneered by Norsworthy. Over the years, Hollingworth published seventy articles and eight books on the subject.

Her contributions to the field of child psychology and education were many and varied, and constitute her best-known work. While her early research concentrated on intellectually challenged children, by 1920 her work shifted towards gifted children. In particular, Holling-worth was interested in discovering the best way to meet their educational needs. She sought to counter the long held belief that gifted children did not require special programs because of their intellectual precociousness. At Columbia, she created a guidance laboratory to undertake educational and psychological counselling.

In 1920, Hollingworth arranged with the New York School Board for a segregated group of gifted children to be studied over a period of 20 years. She became one of the chief advocates of special classes for the gifted. By 1930, her research had determined that intellectual superiority does not preclude serious maladjustment problems, often caused by the social isolation gifted children experience.

For many years a course on Mental Adjustments and Adolescence had been offered at Columbia. Hollingworth argued that emotions and attitudes played as great a role as poor adjustment in adolescent behavior. In 1928, she published The Psychology of the Adolescent, which became a standard text in the field for many years. In 1930, Hollingworth was appointed professor of education at Columbia University.

In 1936, the New York School Board created an experimental school known as P.S. 500, or the Speyer School, with Hollingworth acting as research director. Both gifted and challenged children made up the student body, and innovative teaching methods and subjects were employed to test their effects. Perhaps Hollingworth's most ambitious organizational project was a philanthropic institution known as the Superior Foundation. Its purpose was, in her words, "to achieve a substantial endowment, to be directed toward the discovery, education and conservation as natural resources of the gifted young." As well as those areas mentioned, Leta Hollingworth's research interests varied considerably from the age at which children develop racist attitudes to a physiognomic study of the profiles of gifted and challenged children.

In 1938, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of law by the University of Nebraska. During her visit to Lincoln, Hollingworth made what seemed to her husband a strange request. He recalled that she persuaded him to visit Wyuka Cemetery:

Where we purchased for ourselves a tiny plot of ground on the eastern slope of a grassy mound. L.S.H., in a mood that was strangely foreign to her up to that time, had become seriously concerned over the provision for our final resting place, and she expressed a desire to make such an arrangement now. The prescient nature of this act was then, by me at least, wholly unsuspected, and I little dreamed that in another eighteen months I would be bringing her there to rest forever in the spot she had chosen.

Leta Hollingworth died of abdominal cancer at the age of 53. At the time of her death, she had many works in progress, as well as plans for future research projects. Some of her research was published posthumously, but the volume of her unfinished work underscores the loss which clinical psychology suffered upon her passing.

Although she had lived more than half her life in New York, Leta Hollingworth's heart never left Nebraska. In a letter to the Nebraska State Journal two years before her death, she wrote: "One more thing I would say. Sometime I shall come back to Nebraska for good. I was born there. I was reared there. I was educated there. I shall take the last long sleep there. The East is too alien for the purpose of eternal sleep." After her death, Harry Hollingworth donated $51,000 to create the Leta Stetter Holling-worth Fellowship at Columbia University. The fellowship was to be awarded yearly to a female graduate student who had studied in Nebraska.

Leta Hollingworth was well known in New York feminist circles. She spoke frequently on the topic of women's suffrage and was a member of the Woman's Suffrage Party. As well, Holling-worth participated in suffrage marches and served as an observer at polling stations. Although she considered political reform important, a reform of social attitudes towards women was central to her thinking. A firm advocate of clinical psychology, Leta Hollingworth was instrumental in founding the American Association of Clinical Psychologists. Whatever she undertook, she did so with determination and conviction. As Stephanie A. Shields noted: "Pervading each of these areas of interest was a deep sense of personal commitment. Only her closest associates knew that although she had applied for research funds, none were ever granted for the support of her work."


Benjamin, Lucy T., Jr. "The Pioneering Work of Leta Hollingworth in the Psychology of Women," in Nebraska History. Vol. 56. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska State Historical Society, 1975.

Dorr, Rheta Childe . A Woman of Fifty. NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1924.

Poffenberger, A.T. "Leta Stetter Hollingworth: 1886–1939," in The American Journal of Psychology. Vol. 23. NY: Johnson Reprint, 1940.

Roemelle, Victoria S. "Hollingworth, Leta Anna Stetter," in Notable American Women: 1607–1950. Edward T. James, ed. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1971.

Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Shields, Stephanie A. "Ms. Pilgrim's Progress: The Contributions of Leta Stetter Hollingworth to the Psychology of Women," in American Psychologist. Vol. 30, no. 8. Washington: American Psychology Association, 1975.

suggested reading:

Hollingworth, Harry L. Leta Stetter Hollingworth: A Biography. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1943.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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Hollingworth, Leta Stetter (1886–1939)

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