abridged version of this article appeared as the RetroReview feature in the Spring 2005 issue of The
the newsletter of the General Psychology Division (1) of the American Psychological Association.
“The Woman Problem”
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
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
[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
If you chose c, a, and b – Florence
Goodenough (1944), Edwin Boring (1951), and Larry Summers (
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,
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
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
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.
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Boring, E. G. (1961). Psychologist at large.
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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.
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B. A. (1997). A history of Division 35
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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.