Leta Stetter Hollingworth was a trailblazing psychologist and champion of women’s rights. But a century after the 19th Amendment, equality has a long way to go.
In May 1886, Margaret Danley Stetter gave birth to a child in a shelter dug into a hill in Western Nebraska. She came from a long line of homesteaders, who tried to tame the prairie into farmland, some with more success than others. Her husband, John, was away earning his living as a cowboy and it took several telegrams to finally persuade him to come home to meet his first-born daughter, Leta. His reaction was less than paternal. Upon seeing her, he reportedly said, “I’d give a thousand dollars if it was a boy.”
The sentiment was not uncommon at the time. Women were widely regarded as physically and mentally inferior to men. But that little girl, Leta Stetter Hollingworth, would grow up to be a trailblazing psychologist who spent her life trying to prove equality between the sexes.
One of the first women to scientifically debunk men’s alleged superiority, Hollingworth’s research lent credibility to the burgeoning feminist movement in the early 20th century.
Hollingworth’s early experiments during her graduate work at Columbia University surely would have made her frontiersman father blush. For centuries, men had been mystified by menstrual cycles, claiming women weren’t fit for higher education or the workforce because they were too unstable for a week out of every month. Even more pernicious, doctors had identified a physical condition, later deemed a mental illness, for women who became overly emotional—hysteria, whose root originates from the Greek word for uterus. And the diagnosis was serious, often leading to dubious treatments and, at worst, being institutionalized.
To disprove female fragility, Hollingworth conducted an extensive series of daily tests on six women and two men over several months, ranging from how fast they could tap a brass plate 400 times in a row to their skills with a typewriter. The result? Women performed equally well across all tasks, even during their periods.
Ballot of the Sexes: Hollingworth married a progressive man in 1908. The two often marched together for women’s suffrage.
As Hollingworth wrote in her 1914 dissertation, which directly contradicted the views of her male thesis advisor: “Men to whom it would never have occurred to write authoritatively on any other subject regarding which they possessed no reliable or expert knowledge” had not hesitated to make unproven claims about the intellectual and physical abilities of women during their monthly cycles. Hollingworth had hoped other female scientists would continue to experiment, so they could rewrite the “psychology of woman based on truth, not on opinion; on precise, not on anecdotal evidence; on accurate data rather than on remnants of magic.”
But a century later, not much has changed. The kind of questions Hollingworth was asking and the answers she found are still being debated. Through her work, she was also involved in the fight for women’s suffrage, which resulted in the ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote in August 1920. (At least on paper. Many women, especially Black women, continued to be disenfranchised.) And even though women have had the vote for a century, men in power continue to use bogus assumptions to demean and diminish women.
In 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump suggested Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever,” after she asked him about a series of misogynistic comments during a Republican debate. (Trump later backtracked, saying he had meant blood coming out of her “nose” and blamed “politically correct fools.”) Trump would also often attack Hillary Clinton, saying “she doesn’t have the stamina.” After winning the election, he would go on to say Clinton “got schlonged,” a not-so subtle reference to male genitalia.
Hollingworth believed the powers of social suggestion and public opinion were just two of the many ways that men tried to exert “social control” over women. In a radical paper published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1916, she suggested that the government tried to compel women to bear children by making it illegal to spread information about birth control: “While affirming the essential nature of woman to be satisfied with maternity and with maternal duties only,” Hollingworth wrote, “society has always taken every precaution to close the avenues to ways of escape therefrom.”
Hollingworth’s passion was driven by the discrimination she had encountered upon arriving in New York and being forced to stay home.
She eventually found her own escape route through science, but it was more of an accidental path than a carefully plotted breakout. After graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1906, she worked as a teacher in two local towns. In December 1908, she married her college classmate Harry Hollingworth, joining him in New York City, where he was studying for a PhD in psychology at Columbia. There, she soon discovered that married women were barred from teaching jobs.
The prevailing wisdom at the time was that women couldn’t be both homemakers and professionals, because they would fail in their primary duties to their husbands and families. After three years of sitting in an apartment waiting for her husband to come home from his poorly paid teaching position at Barnard, the women’s college affiliated with Columbia, liberation came in the form of a corporate benefactor: Coca-Cola.
In 1911, the U.S. government was suing the Coca-Cola Company for selling an “adulterated beverage” with added caffeine. Harry Hollingworth took on the assignment, which his mentors had rejected, to research the effects of caffeine on mental function. Industry work was stigmatized as corrupting the scientific process, but Harry desperately needed the money. While the total amount of the contract is unknown, it was enough for him to hire Leta full-time as assistant director of the study, as well as cover some of the cost for her to attend graduate school. Over the course of their experiments, they recorded 64,000 measurements—all by hand—finding caffeine, especially at the doses used in Coca-Cola, was not harmful.
This appears to be the last time Leta Hollingworth ever benefited from institutional funding—corporate or otherwise—as she would have to finance her research in proceeding decades out of her own paycheck, according to Linda Kreger Silverman, a psychologist and director of the Colorado-based Institute for the Study of Advanced Development.
Equal Time: 1915 articles explored Hollingworth’s theory that women were just as brilliant (and stupid) as men.
It was during her graduate studies that Hollingworth began to focus on the “woman question.” Her passion was driven by the discrimination she had encountered upon arriving in New York and being forced to stay home. “[It] was the pivotal experience that led her to say, ‘I’m fighting you guys. I’m in 100 percent,’” says Silverman.
Over the next few years, Hollingworth published a series of studies poking holes in one of the prevailing misconceptions at the time: male variability in intellect. Steeped in Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, the accepted belief was there was a wider range of intelligence among men, meaning there would be more male idiots but also more male geniuses. Women, on the other hand, were thought to cluster around an average level of intelligence.
Hollingworth believed the fundamental concept was absurd. To her first-rate mind, women were just as brilliant (and stupid) as men. She found temporary work administering intelligence tests to developmentally disabled children and adults at New York’s Clearing House For Mental Defectives. She also began analyzing all of the admissions to the institution. Her findings, published in 1913, showed that males were admitted at higher rates from ages 2 to 16, but then the numbers crossed paths and the female rates were much higher.
She attributed the difference between men and women to social forces. Given that women were not in “competitive” society, it took longer to recognize when there was a problem, especially if they were only expected to complete basic domestic tasks. “A female with a mental age of 6 years survives in society about as well as a male with a mental age of 10 or 11 years,” Hollingworth wrote. Establishing that women could be just as variable as men when it came to lower levels of intelligence, meant the flip side was also likely true—women could be equally as smart.
Hollingworth continued to conduct experiments examining the issue of variability from newborns to college students. The studies concluded that females exhibit as much physical and mental variability as males, but social forces were preventing women from reaching their full potential. Her research was immediately championed by first-wave feminists—including Marie Jenney Howe and Henrietta Rodman—who were looking for science to back up their case for women’s equality and the right to vote.
On account of Hollingworth’s research, “women are beginning to understand themselves as no male scientist can ever understand them.”
In 1914, Rodman and Hollingworth sent a letter to President Woodrow Wilson, along with other members of the Feminist Alliance, asking him to support a constitutional amendment that “no civil or political right shall be denied to any person on account of sex,” according to The Sun newspaper.
In 1915, Lucy Stone League activist Doris Fleischman called Hollingworth “the scientist among feminists” in a review in the New York Tribune. Later that year, Hollingworth was profiled in The New York Times Magazine by Rheta Childe Dorr, editor of The Suffragist, in a feature titled “Is Woman Biologically Barred From Success?” “The world needs geniuses,” Dorr explained. “Some of this genius, half of it perhaps, lies latent in women, and the problem that confronts women today is how to free that latent genius without robbing the world of its mothers.”
On account of Hollingworth’s research, Dorr concluded: “Women are beginning to understand themselves as no male scientist can ever understand them, and they face their great problem confident that nothing in nature stands in the way of its solution.”
Hollingworth presented her findings to fellow members of Heterodoxy, an influential feminist group in Greenwich Village, which counted the educator Elisabeth Irwin and her partner, the writer Katharine Susan Anthony, among its members. Hollingworth marched in suffrage parades (along with her husband) and was designated a poll watcher for the Woman Suffrage Party in her district.
In 1916, shortly after earning her doctorate from Columbia’s Teachers College, Hollingworth was hired by the university as an instructor of educational psychology. It was at this point her research focus began to shift to the other great pillar of her career—studying gifted children. Following the discovery of Child E, an 8-year-old boy with an IQ of 187, Hollingworth continued to examine issues of gender among the gifted (as well as the developmentally disabled) throughout her career.
Kid Wise: Beyond her feminist studies, Hollingworth also did pioneering research about gifted children.
While Hollingworth held progressive views about women, she didn’t always hit the mark. As was the custom of many scientists of the time influenced by Sir Francis Galton’s theories of inheritance, Hollingworth supported positive eugenics, mainly that adults with high IQs should procreate with one another.
Over the next two decades, Hollingworth, who never had children, would publish groundbreaking textbooks on adolescent psychology, intellectual disabilities and giftedness, establishing two programs in New York City for gifted children. But her work would be cut short.
In 1939, Hollingworth was hospitalized with severe pain and exhaustion. A few weeks later, she died of abdominal cancer, which she had kept a secret from Harry for more than a decade. Following her death, Harry wrote a biography of his wife, cataloging her work for the first time.
Reviewing the book, Hollingworth’s friend and contemporary Lewis Terman, a psychologist at Stanford, wrote: “Comparable productivity by a man would probably have been rewarded by election to the presidency of the American Psychological Association or even membership in the National Academy of Sciences.”
But these honors eluded Leta Hollingworth, as Terman suggests, because of her gender.
“Women are written out of the history books. The only people really in the history books are the white men,” says Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women. “Because even when women make the accomplishments, the men take that away from them and claim it for themselves.”
Over the past century, progress has been incremental. While there have been many important legal wins, such as the passage of Title IX in 1972, which protects against sex discrimination in education, the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee legal equality for women in the Constitution, remains stuck in legislative limbo nearly 50 years after the bill was proposed.
Women now outnumber men in earning every degree from associates to doctorates and make up half of the workforce, yet they still make less money, hold fewer corporate leadership and elected roles and confront “good old fashioned bias” at every turn, says Kimberly Churches, CEO of the American Association of University Women. “We haven’t eradicated the problems that exist that have nothing to do with the girls or women that are just deeply embedded in our society in a patriarchal way,” says Churches.
Hollingworth wasn’t bound by such limitations. Shortly before she died, she would break one last glass ceiling, taking her rightful place among the greatest scientists of her generation. Leta Hollingworth was listed in a highly prestigious professional directory that no doubt would have made her father proud: American Men in Science.