Women in Psychology (Mary Whiton Calkins)

History without context is little more than the recitation of unrelated events, and history without specific events is little more than a fanciful narrative; therefore, history exists as an interrelated duality between specific events and context. It is through the eyeglass of this apparent duality that the great accomplishments of science come firmly into view and the haziness of opinion and speculation are carried out of focus. Accordingly, Mary Whiton Calkins’s life and research is best understood within the context of her upbringing and the zeitgeist of the time towards women, within the framework of self-observation, the method of natural science, and associationism; and as the original thinker behind paired-associate learning and the partial resolution of the structuralism/functionalism controversy.

Mary Calkins was 57 years old before she was legally able to vote in the United States of America. Up until the early 20th century, the role of a woman was universally agreed to be exclusively as a wife, mother, and caretaker for the elderly in the family (Goodwin, 2005). In fact, it was widely agreed that any intellectual pursuit beyond primary school could be physically harmful to women. However, by the time Calkins was 25 she was fluent in English, German, French, and Greek; well-traveled and well-read, and a graduate of Smith College in western Massachusetts. Mary Calkins was the eldest of five siblings and the daughter of a Congregationalist minister. The friction between her academic upbringing and the gender stereotyping of her time started shortly after she began her first academic position teaching Greek at the all-girls Wellesley College. Wellesley College, in keeping with the laboratory psychology and experimental psychology blossoming in Europe and America, wanted to begin to offer courses consistent with the new psychology. To that end, Calkins found herself given the opportunity to develop a set of courses with the expectation that she would first obtain graduate-level education in the field of psychology. This latter expectation brought with it the first gender-related shut-door to her academic success and coincidentally, in the end, the key to unlock that door. Despite not being officially a student, Calkins completed a year of studies at Clark University and Harvard, which satisfied Wellesley’s requirements. It was a man by the name of Edmund Sanford that is most credited with her partial acceptance into Harvard as an unofficial “guest”. Calkins also later acknowledged that Sanford was most responsible for the psychology lab that was subsequently set up at Wellesley; volunteering his time, advice, and apparatus. However, while at Harvard Calkins was afforded the occasion to learn alongside and under the tutelage of William James as well. Additionally, after her one-year of psychology instruction, she was able to work in William James’s lab at Harvard for an additional two years. During this added two years she was able to complete her doctoral thesis consisting of a series of experimental studies on association. Surprisingly, Calkins continued her professorship at Wellesley College during these years, while still maintaining a presence in the labs at Harvard 10 miles away. During these and successive years of study and academic advancement, Calkins documented and analyzed a wide variety of psychological and sensory phenomena. Coincidentally, she was never awarded a Ph.D. from Harvard or Clark, but she was elected president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association in later years. She remained at Wellesley the rest of her academic career, retiring in 1929, and dying shortly thereafter. During her academic life, Calkins added significantly to the body of knowledge in the fields of both psychology and philosophy. Still, before her specific contributions to psychology can be considered the theoretical framework of her predecessors and how their perspectives affected her own work in human behavior and sensory perception must be taken into account.

The grass is green. The sky is blue. The ground is hard. The tree is tall. It is no deep mystery that we store memories through associations such as green-grass, blue-sky, hard-ground, etc… The great unknown, however, is exactly how the associations work and how memory affects those associations. Of particular interest to many psychologists is the manner and method by which we flesh out these rules of association. William James, a contemporary and colleague of Calkins, proposed that self-observation by means of introspection was the only way to find these answers. The great downfall of this method is that it is impossible to simultaneously create memories and introspect memories. Therefore, the aforementioned associations, according to James, can only be accessed through the filter of our memories. A further difficulty is that there is no way to scientifically verify personal introspection, thereby moving psychology into the realm of personal belief and subjectivism. Alternatively, Ebbinghaus put forth the method of natural science which sought to isolate independent variables in the association of memories. He accomplished this by creating what he called nonsense syllables or, “…three-letter units comprised of two consonants with a vowel in the middle…” (Goodwin, 2005, p. 102). He would then memorize these random arrangements of letters in an effort to try and understand how memory works and through what associations it works. Through this method, Ebbinghaus was able to sidestep the perception and subjection laden nature of memory and study the associations themselves free from mental bias. It is at this point that Calkins’s own research picks up later on. However, incumbent on the understanding of the method by which we examine associations is the theoretical framework from which associations themselves are understood. James Mill, for example, believed that complex ideas could be understood by reducing these ideas to simpler ideas, known as structuralism. As a result, a house is made of walls, floors, roof; which are in turn made of bricks, wood, and shingles, respectively. Through this method, James Mill believed that mental associations and complex ideas could be seen as an irreducibly complex system of simpler ideas. Conversely, James Mill’s son, John Stuart Mills, believed that the idea of the house is irreducibly complex, carrying on the tradition of functionalism because once all of the pieces of the house have been put together the house exists as a complete idea irrespective of its simpler pieces. To John Mills, the wall cannot be viewed outside the context of the house because it would not exist except as part of the house. To summarize, James Mill believed that the sum of the parts is equal to the whole and John Mills believed that, “…the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (Goodwin, 2005, p. 47). It is within the structure of these complementary, and often conflicting, theories of association that Mary Calkins formulated her greatest works of psychology and philosophy.

Ebbinghaus’s influence, through his research in auditory stimuli and the method of natural science, can be seen throughout Calkins’s psychological and philosophical experimentation. It was more than likely Ebbinghaus’s contribution to James’s Principles that convinced her to utilize audition, rather than visual, tactile, or olfactory perception when developing paired-associate learning. The gist of what would eventually be called paired-associate learning is the stimulus-response pairing of color with a number. The experimental procedure entails showing a participant a color for four seconds, a number for four seconds, and then studying, through different manipulations, how the associations form. Through different combinations and sequences of this procedure, Calkins was able to isolate the causal factors of frequency, recency, primacy, etc… in the formation of associations. Her final conclusion was that frequency was the most critical factor affecting mental associations. Notwithstanding, on par with her empirical study of associations is the partial resolution of James Mill’s structuralism and John Stuart Mill’s functionalism. Calkins believed that it was possible to reconcile structuralism and functionalism by means of separate, narrow emphasis. In her mind the self is the fundamental starting point and should, therefore, be studied as a reducibly complex set of elements, thereby satisfying structuralism. She also postulated that the functionalist could find their mark studying the relation of the self to the environment. To refer to the abovementioned analogy of the house, she believed that the house needed to be understood as a complex idea made of simpler ideas, but that the idea of the house, as a whole, should also be seen as a complete idea in relation to its environment. Through this dualistic approach, Calkins sought to reconcile the chasm that had developed between these two opposing views of human mental life.

In conclusion, Mary Calkins’s professional and academic career represents a great leap forward in our understanding of human behavior and mental associations. In a time when she could have used her gender as a handicap, she chose instead to use it as a step stool to greatness. It is in the context of Calkins’s liberal upbringing and the zeitgeist of the time towards women, James’s introspection and Ebbinghaus’s method of natural selection, and James Mill’s structuralism and John Stuart Mill’s functionalism, that Calkins’s work in associations comes clearly into view.


Goodwin, C. J. (2005). A history of modern psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.


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