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Women in Psychology: Assessing the Contributions of Margaret Floy Washburn Essay

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Updated: Nov 30th, 2019

Introduction

The contributions of women in the field of psychology have often been subject to underreporting and misreporting throughout the subject’s history. In the 19th and 20th centuries, women were widely discriminated against and perceived as inferior to men, not mentioning the fact that they enjoyed little standing in society (O’Connell & Russo, 1990). Women, despite this setback, have contributed immense knowledge to the field of psychology, and rightly qualify to be offered a special place of remembrance in the annals of history.

It is a well known fact that psychology would never have been the same were it not for the outstanding contributions of women psychologists such as Mary Whiton Calkins, Christine Ladd-Franklin, Mary Ainsworth, Margaret Floy Washburn, Melaine Klein, Karen Horney, among others (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987). It is the object of this paper to critically evaluate the contributions made by Margaret Floy Washburn to the field of psychology.

Background

Born July 25, 1871 in the outskirts of New York City, Margaret Floy Washburn was the only child of Francis and Elizabeth Floy. Young Washburn spent most of her formative years at Ulster County, New York, and graduated from high school in 1886 (Green, 2000). Her interest in psychology started when Washburn was enrolled at Vassar College as a preparatory student when she was barely fifteen years old.

While studying at Vassar, Washburn gained membership of Kappa Alpha Theta alliance for women, and finally graduated from college in 1891. The young lady was determined to further her studies at a time when women were viewed as inferior to men. She was enrolled as an auditor in the newly created psychological laboratory at Columbia University since the institution had not started admitting women for graduate studies (Green, 2000; O’Connell & Russo, 1990).

Under the guidance of James McKeen Cattell, Washburn proved her detractors wrong and performed extremely well in her studies, prompting Cattell to encourage her to further her studies at the newly re-organized Sage School of Philosophy, Cornell University (Green, 2000).

At the institution, Washburn was the first and only graduate student majoring in psychology under the guidance of E.B. Titchener. The budding psychologist undertook an experimental study on tactual perception, qualifying for a Master’s degree award in 1893 from Vassar College, albeit in absentia.

Washburn later did her doctoral thesis on the effects of visual imagery on judgments of tactile sensitivity, and was lucky to have her work published in 1895 in Philosophische Studien when Titchener sent the thesis to Wilhelm Wundt, the Journal’s publisher (Green, 2000; O’Connell & Russo, 1990). Earlier on in 1894, Washburn made history by becoming the first woman globally to earn a PhD in psychology.

Career-wise, Washburn took up various teaching posts in prestigious institutions such as Wells College, Vassar College, Sage College, and the male-dominated University of Cincinnati (Green, 2000).

She was elected to American Psychological Association (APA) presidency in 1921, and went further to become the co-edit the widely read American Journal of Psychology for years before finally been elected to the exalted National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in the decade of the 1930’s. She remained a Professor of Psychology at Vassar College until 1937 when ill health forced her to retire. The celebrated psychologist died on October 29, 1939.

Theoretical Perspective

Margaret Washburn, fascinated with studying the minds and behavior orientations of humans and animals, was persuaded that experimental psychology could offer the appropriate methodology and approaches for investigating the topic (Woodworth, 1948). The psychologist was overly interested in studying the behaviors of people and animals to a point of developing the motor theory of consciousness.

Washburn, however, was best known for her concerted efforts in the field of comparative psychology, culminating in publishing a book in 1908, which went on to remain the preferred comparative psychology resource book for the next two decades. In discussing her theoretical perspective, it is imperative to remember that Washburn schooled at Cornell University under the instruction and guidance of E.B. Titchener, a structuralist in major ways (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).

In later days, structuralism came to be referred as functionalism. Being a student of Titchener, Washburn was influenced by the functionalist orientations, and was known to base her rationale and theory on the tenets of functionalism (O’Connell & Russo, 1990).

The major theoretical orientation of being a functionalist is that every entity is perceived to have a function. Indeed, functionalism is a broad perspective in the field of social science which makes reference to social structures and organisms as whole entities in terms of the intricate function of their constituent components (Woodworth, 1948).

According to Levin (2009 ), “… functionalism in the philosophy of mind is the doctrine that what makes something a mental state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system in which it is a part” (para. 1).

In the presentation of motor theory of consciousness, Washburn endeavored to mediate between the structural-functionalist psychological orientations of Wilhelm Wundt and E.B. Titchener on the one side and the opposing behaviorist perspective on the other (Woodworth, 1948; O’Connell & Russo, 1990).

These competing psychological perspectives had dissociated consciousness from behavior, with the structural-functionalists showing interest on consciousness, while the behaviorists were of the opinion that the field of psychology should only concern itself with the study of behavior.

Washburn’s theory of consciousness served to reconcile the two theoretical perspectives stated above by investigating the ways in which individual thoughts and perceptions generate motor reaction (O’Connell & Russo, 1990).

It is said that Washburn “…realized that Titchener’s strict structural psychology theories had several limitations and started to work in her own theory about motor system and mind processes” (Margaret Floy Washburn, n.d., para. 7). She derived her desires and energy to develop a new theoretical perspective about motor skills and mind from her constant refusal to recognize most of the perspectives forwarded by major schools of psychology concerning the issues of consciousness and behavior.

Consequently, she came up with a doctrine underlining that “…thinking requires tentative movements…mental phenomena–for example, feelings and sensations, colors and tones–were not only legitimate but necessary topics to examine; psychology is the study of behavior and consciousness” (O’Connell & Russo, 1990, p. 345). Her theoretical perspective served to link the structural psychological orientation to the behaviorist perspective.

Contributions

Washburn was known principally for her seminal work in animal psychology, which was basically incorporated in her 1908 publication ‘The Animal Mind’ (Woodworth, 1948). In her work, the psychologist was of the opinion that human beings and animals had a certain level of consciousness and emotional attachment, otherwise known as empathy.

It was also her considered opinion that every single creature in the universe has a meaning. Her works on consciousness and empathy ignited later day psychologists to refine the topic and develop critical theories that are still in use today. These theories have made it possible for psychologists to learn and understand the intricate relationship between the mind and behavior (Green, 2000).

Washburn’s educational contributions cannot escape mention; having taught philosophy and psychology in a number of institutions, including the prestigious Well’s College, Vassar College, Sage College, and the male-dominated University of Cincinnati (Green, 2000). She must have influenced a great number of psychology students, especially due to her dedication and methods of investigation.

If Washburn is remembered for her educational contributions, she is even remembered more for her seminal works in comparative psychology (Green, 2000). The works are best captured in her book ‘The Animal Mind,’ where she gives vivid illustrations of how animals, just like humans, experience pain and pleasure.

The psychologist can be credited for critically evaluating animal psychiatry the same way human psychiatry had been done before, and attempting to relate the two through assessing some psychological thoughts and concepts such as dementia, distraction, feelings, behavior, deliriums and fixated ideas (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).

Washburn contributed outstanding knowledge on senses and how they are used by a variety of animals for survival. Specifically, she studied the mollusk in different environments to assess how it senses its food and how the food stimuli functions to change the behavior of the mollusk (Green, 2000).

This behavioral approach to studying psychology can be equated to Ivan Pavlov’s operant conditioning. Of importance is the fact that her t observation in the snail’s consciousness and behavior after food stimuli was introduced still remains relevant today as it demonstrates how animals employ their autonomic nervous system for survival.

A large body of knowledge was discovered when she compared her animal studies to how humans react and behave under similar conditions. One particular observation was that animals behave like humans in both pleasurable and painful situations. Also, the psychologist noted that animals and people are similar psychologically, and both require some basic necessities of food, shelter, and safety for survival (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987).

Conclusion

Margaret Floy Washburn, despite the social stigma and discrimination against female professionals that was so prevalent during her time, contributed so much such that she left an indelible mark in the field of psychology. Her contributions on animal behavior and her motor theory of consciousness contributed to the better understanding of the interrelationship between consciousness and behavior in ways that were previously unknown within the realms of psychology (Green, 2000).

Constant rejections and prejudice did not curtail her determination to bring a more acceptable theoretical perspective between the behaviorists and the structuralists. Indeed, the field of psychology owes much to Washburn’s confidence and diligence.

Reference List

Green, C.D. (2000). Autobiography of Margaret Floy Washburn. Web.

Levin, J. (2009). . In: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

Margaret Floy Washburn. (n.d.). Web.

O’Connell, A., & Russo, N. (1990). Women in psychology: A bio-bibliographic sourcebook. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Inc.

Scarborough, E., & Furumoto, L. (1987). Untold Lives: The first generation of American women psychologists. New York: Columbia University Press.

Woodworth, R.S. (1948). . National Academy of Sciences. Web.

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