An abridged version of this article appeared as the RetroReview feature in the Spring 2005 issue of The General Psychologist,
the newsletter of the General Psychology Division (1) of the American Psychological Association.



“The Woman Problem”

A Retroreview


Alexandra Rutherford

York University



Match each of the following statements with the correct author:


It seems likely that opportunities will not be lacking for women psychologists who take their profession seriously, who are willing to compete with men on an equal basis without demanding special consideration….  Women must cease to rationalize about lack of professional opportunity and demonstrate their competence by actual achievement.  Opportunities will expand for those who exert the necessary propulsive force. 


            a) Edwin G. Boring

            b) Larry Summers

            c) Florence Goodenough


When the professional woman starts out on her career, she can be imagined as having two choices to make….  She can not, of course, choose her level of intelligence, but she might perhaps attempt a decision about job concentration and whether to work with particularities or generalities, in technology or in science.  If she chooses less job-concentration in order to be a broader person, a better wife or a better mother, then she is perhaps choosing wisely but she is not choosing the maximal professional success of which she would be capable.  She is in competition with fanatics-the 168-hour people-and she had better accept that bit of realism about job concentration.


            a) Edwin G. Boring

            b) Larry Summers

            c) Florence Goodenough


[T]he most prestigious activities in our society expect of people who are going to rise to leadership positions in their forties near total commitments to their work….. And it is a fact about our society that this is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been prepared to make than of married women…it seems to me that it is very hard to look at the data and escape the conclusion that that expectation is meeting with the choices people make and is contributing substantially to the outcomes that we observe.


            a) Edwin G. Boring

            b) Larry Summers

            c) Florence Goodenough


If you chose c, a, and b – Florence Goodenough (1944), Edwin Boring (1951), and Larry Summers (January 14, 2005), current president of Harvard University, congratulations!  You might be thinking, if you have had a chance to read the full transcript of Larry Summers’ recent remarks to the National Bureau of Economic Research conference on “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce,” that the “woman problem” has certainly not gone away, in psychology or in other sciences.  In this, the inaugural article of the RetroReview series, I have been asked to put Boring’s 1951 article in its historical and contemporary context – a timely task in light of Summers’ speech, which as Nancy Russo has pointed out, practically “plagiarized Boring.” 


So what, in 1951, was the “woman problem”?  As Boring wrote, in terms of their positions in APA “professional women acquire less prestige than professional men ‘in proportion to their numbers’” (p. 679).  In his short, expository essay published in the American Psychologist, he ventured that two of the primary reasons for women’s underrepresentation were 1) a natural predisposition on the part of women to prefer “particularistic” tasks (i.e., understanding single cases, as in clinical work) over the work of generalization that was the true calling of the scientist, and 2) that women suffered from the aforementioned “job concentration” difficulties.  Since, he reasoned, the culture tends to reward scientific work (large theories and broad policies) and fanaticism, it is no wonder that women would experience conflict between professional success and family orientation.  Finally, he tackled the question of whether a woman could become such a fanatic, and still remain marriageable.  He concluded that indeed she could, but that she must be “abnormally bright to combine charm with sophistication” (p. 681).


What might not be initially apparent is that Boring’s single-authored article was actually the culmination of a long and somewhat complex collaboration with his colleague, Columbia psychologist Alice Bryan, that started in the 1940s.  Bryan was an executive secretary of the American Association of Applied Psychology (AAAP), a member of the governing board of the National Council of Women Psychologists, and this group’s elected representative to the Emergency Committee in Psychology (ECP) which had been formed in 1940 to assume responsibility for the mobilization of psychologists in WWII (for more detail on Bryan’s life, see Bryan, 1983).  When it became clear that the all-male ECP was unprepared and unwilling to involve women psychologists in the war effort, about 30 women members of the AAAP confronted Robert Brotemarkle, the AAAP representative to ECP, with their concerns.  Although sympathetic, Brotemarkle admonished the group to be “good girls” – to be patient, and to wait quietly until plans could be made that would include them (Schwesinger, 1943).  When, almost two years later, nothing had been done to include women, a group of about 50 New York women psychologists began meeting to discuss how they could use their professional skills in the national emergency.  In November, a subgroup of these women met in Alice Bryan’s Manhattan apartment to draw up a charter for a national organization of women psychologists.  Although the ECP then formed a subcommittee to investigate women’s roles in the war, it was too little too late.   Momentum had grown, and on December 8, 1941, one day after news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the National Council of Women Psychologists (NCWP) was formed.  Florence Goodenough, a respected psychological scientist, was selected as president.  Although not particularly sympathetic to the “woman problem,” Goodenough was willing to lend her name to a group that would apply their expertise to needed areas.  By the middle of 1942, 234 doctoral-level women psychologists had joined the NCWP (Capshew & Laszlo, 1986). 


From the start, there was some tension within the group.  Although fully aware that they were being edged out of military positions because of their sex, and that they were not being invited to fill the academic positions that their male colleagues were leaving vacant, women were reluctant to make the NCWP simply a clearinghouse for charges of sex discrimination.  As Bryan remarked, in the devastating aftermath of Pearl Harbor, “Winning the war had to be given first priority” (Bryan, 1986, p. 184).  As Capshew and Laszlo (1986) have shown, male psychologists and leaders in the ECP used subtle strategies to undermine the women’s feminist resolve.  Many male psychologists denied that sex discrimination existed in psychology, and suggested that in drawing attention to gender issues at a time of national emergency, women were either being self-indulgent, or were undermining their status as scientists for whom, presumably, pure merit would determine professional success (a position held by some women as well, see Goodenough’s statement above).  Nonetheless, the formation of the NCWP marked the first time women had come together with the explicit aim of professional advancement (for a summary of the group’s contributions to the war effort, see Capshew & Laszlo, 1986, p. 169; Napoli, 1981, pp. 123-124). 


In 1942, Robert Yerkes asked Alice Bryan to serve on the ECP Subcommittee on Survey and Planning, which was charged with reorganizing the APA.  She was the only woman in the group.  Here, she met Edwin Boring.  Along with other male psychologists, Boring was becoming increasingly provoked by Bryan’s repeated assertions that women did not hold proportionate representation in APA offices.  Always the empiricist, Boring suggested that he and Bryan collaborate on a study of the problem.  Their study resulted in three articles published in the Psychological Bulletin and the American Psychologist between 1944 and 1947 (Bryan & Boring, 1944, 1946, 1947).  In his autobiography, Boring characterized their collaboration as one in which Bryan, with her feminist convictions, and he, with his conviction that women, for both biological and cultural reasons, “determined most of the conditions about which she complained” (Boring, 1961, p. 72), could potentially moderate each other’s positions and reveal the truth.  What actually happened was that in an effort to work together amicably, the pair sidestepped their ideological differences and presented their results – which clearly vindicated Bryan’s suspicions that women were underrepresented – in largely descriptive format (for more information on the collaboration and its results, see Capshew, 1999, pp. 84-88). 


Boring’s 1951 article, written in response to an article by Mildred Mitchell in which she revisited the gender disparity revealed by Bryan and Boring’s study (see Mitchell, 1951; for accounts of Mitchell’s life and her relationship with Boring, see Capshew & Laszlo, 1986, pp. 161-162; Mitchell, 1983), conveys Boring’s interpretation and explanation of their empirical findings in unadulterated and idiosyncratic glory.  While acknowledging that gender disparity did exist, Boring was unwilling to attribute that disparity to discrimination, despite the fact that he had, on many occasions, been blatantly sexist in his treatment of women students and colleagues (for several poignant examples, see Mitchell, 1983; for a historical analysis of Boring’s treatment of Jewish psychologists, see Winston, 1998).


Ultimately, as Capshew and Laszlo have pointed out, the post-war period of the 1950s did not provide a hospitable environment in which to sustain feminist activism.  When the war ended, the NCWP was re-named the International Council of Women Psychologists.  The re-organized group adopted a distinctly apolitical mission statement, eventually began to admit more men, and was re-named the International Council of Psychologists.  Neither did women psychologists necessarily benefit from the post-war economic boom – men quickly filled both the academic positions they had previously dominated and the newly-prestigious clinical positions that had previously been at least partly relegated to the “women’s sphere.”  It was not until the second-wave of the feminist movement in the late 1960s that organized psychology would again be called upon to re-examine its professional treatment of women and confront issues of sex discrimination (for accounts of the formation of the Association of Women in Psychology and Division 35 of the APA, see Mednick & Urbanski, 1991; Russo & Dumont, 1997; Tiefer, 1991).


So what relevance does Boring’s article continue to have for us today?  It seems that despite many advances in the status of women, the “woman problem” is still with us.  Although women now fare better in terms of representation in the APA and in the profession as a whole (see Pion, et al. 1996), salary disparities continue to disadvantage women purely on the basis of their sex.  And while it may be tempting to conclude that we have now eliminated much of the discrimination that obviously worked against women’s professional advancement at mid-century, it is clear, if we use Summers’ remarks as any indication, that expectations about appropriate roles for men and women in our society have not changed all that much.  Biological and cultural determinism are still alive and well - especially at Harvard. 




Boring, E. G. (1951). The woman problem. American Psychologist, 6, 679-682.


Boring, E. G. (1961). Psychologist at large.  New York: Basic Books.


Bryan, A. I. (1983). Alice I. Bryan. In A. N. O’Connell and Nancy Felipe Russo (Eds.), Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology (pp. 69-86). New York: Columbia University Press.


Bryan, A. I. (1986). A participant’s view of the National Council of Women Psychologists: Comment on Capshew and Laszlo. Journal of Social Issues, 42, 181-184.


Bryan, A. I. & Boring, E. G. (1944). Women in American psychology: Prolegomenon. Psychological Bulletin, 41, 447-454.


Bryan, A. I. & Boring, E. G. (1946). Women in American psychology: Statistics from the OPP Questionnaire. American Psychologist, 1, 71-79.


Bryan, A. I. & Boring, E. G. (1947). Women in American psychology: Factors affecting their professional careers. American Psychologist, 2, 3-20.


Capshew, J. H. (1999). Psychologists on the march: Science, practice, and professional identity in America, 1929-1969. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Capshew, J. H. & Laszlo, A. C. (1986). “We would not take no for an answer”: Women psychologists and gender politics during World War II. Journal of Social Issues, 42, 157-180.


Goodenough, F. L. (1944). Expanding opportunities for women psychologists in the post-war period of civil and military reorganization. Psychological Bulletin, 41, 706-712.


Mednick, M. T. & Urbanski, L. L. (1991). The origins and activities of APA’s division of the psychology of women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15, 651-663.


Mitchell, M. B. (1951). Status of women in the American Psychological Association. American Psychologist, 6, 193-201.


Mitchell, M. B. (1983). Mildred B. Mitchell. In A. N. O’Connell and Nancy Felipe Russo (Eds.), Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology (pp. 121-139). New York:       Columbia University Press.


Napoli, D. S. (1981). Architects of adjustment: The history of the psychological profession in the United States.  Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press.


Pion, G. M., Mednick, M. T., Astin, H. S., Hall, C. C. I., Kenkel, M. B., Keita, G. P., Kohout, J. L., Kelleher, J. C. (1996).  This shifting gender composition of psychology: Trends and implications for the discipline. American Psychologist, 51, 509-528.


Russo, N. & Dumont, B. A. (1997). A history of Division 35 (Psychology of Women): Origins, issues, activities, future. In D. A. Dewsbury (Ed.), Unification through division: Histories of the divisions of the APA, Volume II (pp. 211-238). Washington, DC: APA.


Schwesinger, G. C. (1943). Wartime organizational activities of women psychologists: II. The National Council of Women Psychologists. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 7, 298-299.


Summers, L. (January 14, 2005). Remarks at the NBER conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce.  The Office of the President, Harvard University.  Retrieved March 1, 2005, from


Tiefer, L. (1991). A brief history of the association for women in psychology (AWP): 1969-1991. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15, 635-650.


Winston, A. S. (1998). “The defects of his race”: E. G. Boring and antisemitism in American psychology, 1923-1953. History of Psychology, 1, pp. 27-51.