Women’s History with Mental Health

It’s International Women’s Day! Too often, women’s contributions have been overlooked or attributed primarily to a male colleague. I’d like to take today to highlight some of the most influential women and their contributions to the mental health field. Women have not always been treated well in terms of mental health. Throughout history, a large number of women’s mental health issues were attributed to their uterus, menstrual cycle, and their ‘naturally emotional state.’   

Hysteria: A Mental Health Diagnosis?

Hysteria was a mental health issue entirely attributed to women for over 4000 years. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth-century hysterical neurosis was clinically studied and considered a mental disease. The condition was even listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental disorders until its deletion from the DSM-III in 1980, (Tasca et al., 2012).

Throughout history, the ‘condition’ was treated with herbs, sexual activity, abstinence from sexual activity, and various religious practices, (as the condition was largely attributed to women’s susceptibility to being influenced by demons and other supernatural creatures). Women’s mental health was seemingly tied to their uterus and ability to create children. Hysteria was an especially common diagnosis among elderly and single women, (Tasca et al., 2012). These ill-conceived beliefs have a sexist basis.

20th Century Ideas

The women’s suffrage movement and women’s fight for their freedoms prompted mental health professionals to take them seriously. Instead of receiving the generic diagnosis of hysteria, women began to be diagnosed with conditions like; anxiety and depression. This allowed them to be prescribed medication that assisted in managing their conditions. As women’s roles and responsibilities in society increased, men came around to the conclusion that their mental health was not tied to their uterus and other reproductive organs. (RTOR, 2022)

Despite this and the countless research studies that defend women’s strength of mind, women are often accused of exaggerating their symptoms, being too emotional, or being ‘crazy.’ 

6 Prominent Women in Mental Health

Women have contributed to mental health education in so many ways. It would be impossible to name all of the women who’ve contributed to the mental health field, so I am going to highlight a few prominent women and their contributions to modern mental health and psychology.

Anna Freud (1895-1982)

When you read this first name, the first thought that came to your head was likely whether there was any relation to Sigmund Freud. The answer is yes, she was his daughter and youngest child. She began her career as a primary school teacher. While recovering from tuberculosis, Anna read the works of her father and his colleagues, solidifying her interest in becoming a psychoanalyst. After recovering, she began working alongside her father, (Anna Freud, n.d).

Published Works 
  • Introduction to the Techniques of Child Analysis – 1927
  • The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense – 1936
  • Normality and Pathology in Childhood – 1965
  • Beyond the Best Interests of the Child – 1973
  • Before the Best Interests of the Child – 1979
Famous Studies 
  • ‘Young Children in War Time’ – 1941
  • ‘Infants without Families’ – 1944
Positions Held
  • Secretary of the International Psychoanalytical Association, (IPA) – 1925
  • Honorary President of the International Psychoanalytical Association – 1973
Major Contributions
  • Defense Mechanisms
  • Child Psychology
  • Founding of the Jackson Nursery in Vienna for Extremely Deprived Toddlers – 1937
  • Founding the Hampstead War Nurseries – 1941
  • Created the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic, (Anna Freud Center) – 1959
  • Participated in the Yale Law Faculty Initiative 

Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930)

Mary Whiton Calkins was an educated woman ahead of her time. After graduating from Smith College in 1882 with an undergraduate degree in classics and philosophy, she began teaching at Wellesley College. In the late 1880s, Mary Whiton Calkins obtained special permission to attend classes and seminars at Harvard University, although she was never officially enrolled. 

Mary Calkins was an exceptional student, she had fulfilled all of Harvard’s requirements for a Ph.D. and completed a dissertation on memory. However, despite the professor’s reviews, the school would not grant her a doctoral degree because she was a woman, (Lehigh Center, 2022). Several years later, she was offered a degree from the women’s college which bore association with Harvard; Radcliffe College, (Mary Whiton Calkins, n.d.).

Published Works 
  • An Experimental Research on the Association of Ideas,- 1895
  • A First book in Psychology,- 1909
  • An Introduction to Psychology,- 1901
  • The Good Man and the Good: An Introduction to Ethics – 1918
  • Over 100 published works
Famous Studies 
  • Dream Study with Edmund C. Sanford
Positions Held
  • First female president of the American Psychological Association, (APA) – 1905
  • 12th on a List of the 50 Most Eminent Psychologists in the U.S – 1903
Major Contributions
  • Paired Association Technique
  • Self-Psychology
  • Defined Personalistic Introspective Psychology
  • Founded the First Female Psychology laboratory in the U.S.

Mary Ainsworth (1913- 1999)

Mary Ainsworth was born in Ohio in 1913, the oldest of three daughters. Mary and her family moved to Toronto, Canada in 1918 and became Canadian citizens. At the age of 15, Mary Ainsworth explored William McDougall’s Character and the Conduct of Life. The 1927 book sparked her interest in psychology. 

She went on to complete an honors degree in Psychology at the University of Toronto. In 1937, upon the completion of her Ph.D. Ainsworth was denied a position due to her gender. In 1939, her alma mater offered her a staff position, teaching in the psychology department, (Mary Ainsworth, n.d.). 

Published Works 
  • Publication of ‘The Strange Situation’ Findings -1969
Famous Studies 
  • The Strange Situation Classification – 1970s
  • Uganda Studies – 1967
  • Baltimore Studies – 1971-1978
Positions and Awards
  • Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in the Science of Psychology from the American Psychological Foundation
Major Contributions
  • Secure Attachment
  • Ambivalent-Insecure Attachment
  • Avoidant-Insecure Attachment
  • Caregiver Sensitivity Hypothesis

Leta Stetter Hollingworth (1886-1939)

Leta was the oldest of three sisters. Her mother died shortly after giving birth. Leta and her sisters spend their younger years living with their grandparents before residing with their father and his new wife. She grew up in Chadron, NE, and was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. When Leta was 15, she began studying at the University of Nebraska. In 1911, she enrolled at Columbia University to study education and sociology. In 1916, she completed her Ph.D. and accepted a position at Columbia Teachers College, (Leta Hollingworth, n.d.). 

The majority of Leta Hollingworth’s publications and studies were conducted about gifted children, but she was a powerful feminist figure throughout her professional life. One such contribution Hollingworth made to female psychology was the study she conducted on the cognitive, perceptual, and motor capabilities of both men and women. Her findings from this study indicated that there was no evidence to support society’s claim that men were superior to women in these aspects, (Lehigh Center, 2022). 

Published Works 
  • The Psychology of Subnormal Children – 1920
  • Special Talents and Defects – 1923
  • Gifted Children – 1926
  • The Psychology of the Adolescent – 1928
  • Children Above 180 IQ – 1942
Famous Studies 
  • The Gifted Children Study – 1922-1926
  • Created the Speyer School – 1936
Positions and Awards
  • Chief of Bellevue Hospital’s Psychological Lab
  • Member of the Heterodoxy Club
Major Contributions
  • Gifted Children
  • Intelligence
  • Equality for Women in Psychology

Kay Redfield Jamison (1946 – Current)

Kay Redfield Jamison is a psychologist and authority figure for bipolar disorder. Jamison experienced her first mental break at 17 years old, during which she seriously contemplated suicide. A little know fact about Kay Jamison is that she, herself has bipolar disorder, (Fox et al., 2019). 

After recovering, Dr. Jamison earned her bachelor’s in psychology. In 1971, she completed a master’s degree and in 1975, she earned her Ph.D. at UCLA. She has utilized her experience with bipolar disorder, depression, and mania to advocate for open communication among families concerning mental health. 

Published Works 
  • ‘Manic Depressive Illness’ – 1990
  • ‘Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament’ – 1993
  • ‘An Unquiet Mind’ – 1995
  • ‘Nothing Was the Same: A Memoir’ – 2009
  • ‘Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character’ – 2017
Famous Studies 
  • Exuberance: the Passion for Life – 2004
Positions and Awards
  • Co-Director, Mood Disorders Center
  • MacArthur Award
  • Sarnet Prize from the National Academy of Medicine
  • Lewis Thomas Prize
Major Contributions
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Awareness for Suicide

Elizabeth Packard (1816 – 1897)

Elizabeth Packard differs from the others on this list because she was not educated in psychology. Elizabeth’s contributions to the world of mental health were primarily based on her experiences and how she overcame them. 

When she was 19 years old, her father had her committed to an asylum due to the symptoms she was experiencing ‘brain fever.’ These symptoms included high fever, headaches, and delirium. She was released and declared sane after a six-week involuntary stay, (Fox et.al., 2019). 

After marrying a man of proximity to her father, she began questioning their shared faith and its teachings. In addition to this, her behavior and lifestyle did not align with the traditional behaviors expected of her as a wife and mother. Instead, Packard developed an interest and participated in missionary work which led her to travel on her own, (Fox et.al., 2019).

This behavior and the questioning of his beliefs upset her husband. Due to her non-traditional behavior, he began to judge her sanity. In 1860, Mr. Packard had his wife committed to the Illinois Hospital for the Insane. This involuntary stay lasted a little over three years. When she was released, the hospital deemed her incurably insane. Mr. Packard, unhappy with the decision to release her, imprisoned Elizabeth in their home. 

Elizabeth obtained her freedom by sneaking a letter out of the home. This letter was brought before Judge Charles Starr. When the couple went to stand for trial, a jury deemed Elizabeth sane after seven minutes of deliberation. Upon conclusion of the trial, Elizabeth’s husband moved away to Massachusetts, leaving her with no home and no money, (Fox et.al., 2019).

Despite the difficult events that lead up to this moment, Elizabeth did not allow herself to break. She became a social reformer and advocate for married women. She spent the remainder of her life campaigning for change and the rights of married women and those accused of insanity. Her campaigns lead to changes in laws across four states. 

Major Contributions
  • Women’s Rights
  • Rights for those Considered Insane
  • Custody Rights for Divorced Women
  • Property Retention for Married Women
  • Founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society


5 women who made an impact in mental health. Lehigh Center. (2022, March 25). Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://www.lehighcenter.com/history/5-women-who-made-an-impact-in-mental-health/ 

Anna Freud. Anna Freud | Institute of Psychoanalysis. (n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://psychoanalysis.org.uk/our-authors-and-theorists/anna-freud 

Crosby, J. (2022, March 22). Women’s History Month: Honoring 5 famous female psychologists of the 20th century. Thriveworks. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://thriveworks.com/blog/womens-history-month-5-famous-female-psychologists/ 

Fox, K. R., Wang, S. B., Boccagno, C., Haynos, A. F., Kleiman, E., & Hooley, J. M. (2019, May). Comparing self-harming intentions underlying eating disordered behaviors and NSSI: Evidence that distinctions are less clear than assumed. The International Journal of eating disorders. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6611160/ 

Leta Hollingworth. Feminist Voices. (n.d.). Retrieved March 9, 2023, from https://feministvoices.com/profiles/leta-hollingworth 

Mary Ainsworth. Feminist Voices. (n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://feministvoices.com/profiles/mary-ainsworth 

Mary Whiton Calkins. (n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/mary-whiton-calkins 

Tasca, C., Rapetti, M., Carta, G. M., & Fadda, B. (2012). Women and hysteria in the history of Mental Health. Clinical practice and epidemiology in mental health : CP & EMH. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480686/ 

The history of Women’s Mental Health Awareness. Resources To Recover. (2022, August 17). Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://www.rtor.org/2021/03/08/the-history-of-womens-mental-health-awareness/ 


Published by alswartz

I am an aspiring novelist working on my first book. I have an interest in mental health and each of my works is related to mental health in some way.

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