Mary Whiton Calkins

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Mary Whiton Calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins, is best known for two things: becoming the first woman president of The American Psychological Association and being denied her doctorate from Harvard. However, these two aspects only make up a small portion of what she accomplished in her life. Her entire life was dedicated to her work, especially the development of her Psychology of selves. She founded an early psychology laboratory and invented the paired-associate technique. She passionately dove into the new field of Psychology but also was highly active in the field of Philosophy. She was not deterred by being a woman and used her struggles to gain a voice to speak out against women's oppression. (5)


Mary Whiton Calkins was born on March 30, 1863 in Buffalo, New York. Her father was Wolcott Calkins and a Presbyterian minister. She was from a close knit family, especially to her mother, and the eldest of five children. In 1880, when she was seventeen, she moved to Newton, Massachusetts where her family built a home that she lived in the rest of her life. Her father, knowing the education that women received, decided to design and supervise Mary's education. This enabled her to enter Smith College in 1882 with advanced standing as a sophomore. However, in 1893, an experience that permanently influenced her thinking and character, was the death of her sister, Maude. The following academic year she stayed home and took private lessons. She reentered Smith College in the fall of 1884 as a senior and graduated with a concentration in classics and philosophy (7).

In 1886 her family went to Europe for sixteen months. This is where she broadened her knowledge of the classics. Upon returning to Massachusetts her father arranged an interview for Mary with the President of Wellesley College, a liberal arts college for women that was a few miles from their home. She was offered a position there as a tutor in Greek and began teaching in the fall of 1887. Mary remained in the Greek Department for three years. However, a professor in the Department of Philosophy noticed her talent of teaching. He discussed with Mary the position needed to teach the new field of Psychology, which was still a sub-discipline of Philosophy. Due to the scarcity of women in that area, it made it realistic to see her potential and offer her the position.


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...k at Harvard, but were not eligible for a Harvard degree on account of their sex were recommended by Radcliffe and approved by Harvard as candidates for the degree of Ph.D. from Radcliffe College. Although she was urged by several colleagues to take the degree, she declined. She writes,

"I sincerely admire the scholarship of the three women to whom it is to be given and I should be very glad to be classed with them. I furthermore think it highly probably that the Radcliffe degree will be regarded, generally, as the practical equivalent of the Harvard degree. Finally, I should be glad to hold the Ph.D. degree for I occasionally find the lack of it an inconvenience; and now that the Radcliffe degree is offered, I doubt whether the Harvard degree will ever be open to women. On the other hand, I still believe that the best ideals of education would be better served if Radcliffe College refused to confer the doctor's degree. You will be quick to see that, holding this conviction, I cannot rightly take the easier course of accepting the degree" (2).

To this day Harvard has not issued any degree in honor of Mary Whiton Calkins and feels that there is "no reason to" award the degree.

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