Leta Stetter Hollingworth (May 25, 1886 - November 27, 1939) was an educator, feminist, and psychologist. She began her career as a teacher, but after her marriage was not able to obtain employment due to her status as a married woman. This led her to question the role of women in society.
Her work as psychologist began during her years as a graduate student under Edward Lee Thorndike, where she was allowed to investigate issues in the psychology of women. At the same time, she was involved in intelligence testing of children, Thorndike's interest, and part of her job as a clinical psychologist. She later developed a great interest in those of the highest IQ, the gifted, pioneering educational programs for such children.
Hollingworth also pioneered empirical research into the psychology of women, dispelling myths of the inferiority of women and their psychological impairment during the menstrual cycle. Her work in this area was incomplete, and in fact the questions she raised regarding how women can best fulfill their maternal role in the family and use their talents and abilities to serve society have yet to be answered.
Leta Anna Stetter was born on May 25, 1886, on her grandparents' farm outside of Chadron, Nebraska. She was the first child of Margaret Elinor Danley and John G. Stetter. Two more daughters, Ruth Elinor and Margaret Carley, were born in quick succession, her mother dying after the birth of Margaret. For ten years, Leta and her sisters were raised by their grandparents, their father having left upon the death of his wife. When Leta was 12, her father remarried and she and her sisters moved to Valentine, Nebraska, where they suffered under an alcoholic and ofter absent father and a resentful stepmother.
Leta found comfort in writing poetry and her journal. Her mother had written a detailed biography of Leta's infancy, and this, combined with her father's skill at story-telling, encouraged Leta that she should become a writer. She published her first poem at age 14, in the local newspaper. In 1902, she graduated from Valentine High School and at the age of 16 entered the University of Nebraska where she pursued her passion for creative writing. She met Harry Levi Hollingworth, also a student there, and they became engaged. When Harry graduated and moved to New York City to do graduate work at Columbia University, she remained in Nebraska to complete her undergraduate studies.
After graduating in 1906, she hoped to pursue a writing career, but financial considerations led her to take a teaching job in her home state. When Harry obtained a position as an assistant professor, she moved to New York to join him and they were married on December 31, 1908. Once married, Leta Hollingworth was unable to gain employment because married women were not hired as teachers in New York City. This left her frustrated at her inability to be more than a housewife and questioning the role of women in society (Shields 1991).
Eventually, the Hollingworths were able to save enough money to allow Leta to attend graduate school, and in 1911, she began graduate work in educational psychology at Columbia under the supervision of Edward Lee Thorndike. There she pursued her interest in the psychology of women while developing from Thorndike new interests in intelligence and giftedness.
She received her Masters degree in 1913 and her doctorate in 1916, with a dissertation entitled, “Functional periodicity: An experimental study of the mental and motor abilities of women during menstruation,” which found no evidence of changes in performance associated with phases of the menstrual cycle, refuting a common belief of the time (Shields 1991). Although her numerous publications moved away from this area into educational psychology, particularly as it related to the instruction of mentally challenged and gifted children, Hollingworth planned for years to write a book on the psychology of women for which she had chosen the title, Mrs. Pilgrim’s Progress, but she died before she could complete this work. She was, however, active in women's suffrage and a member of the Women's Suffrage Party (Benjamin 1990).
Hollingworth is best known for her work on gifted children, her 1926 publication, Gifted Children, being the standard reference in the field for many years. Her longitudinal study of children with exceptionally high IQ, begun in 1916 and completed by her husband and published in 1942, as Children above 180 IQ, remains as the most comprehensive study of children in this range of intelligence. Her book, The Psychology of the Adolescent (Hollingworth 1928) replaced G. Stanley Hall's as the standard text in the field.
Hollingworth held a teaching position in the Education Department at Columbia University from 1916, becoming a full professor in 1929. She was a member of several professional organizations, including the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Psychological Association (APA). She also served as editor of The Journal of Genetic Psychology.
Leta Hollingworth died of abdominal cancer on November 27, 1939, aged 53.
Embarking on a career in psychology since she was unable to obtain a position as a teacher due to her status as a married woman, Leta Hollingworth was initially most interested in issues relating to the psychology of women. She recognized that the literature of her day regarding women was largely non-scientific, although it was often presented as if it were.
Hollingworth realized that it was important to distinguish between what she referred to as "the literature of opinion," namely "all written statements, made by scientific men and others, not based on experimental evidence," and the "the literature of fact," which is "based on experimental data, which have been obtained under carefully controlled conditions, and which may be verified by anyone competent to understand and criticize them" (Hollingworth 1916). Her work, beginning with an investigation of the claims of female inferiority, greatly contributed to the "literature of fact."
Having experienced impediments to personal achievements as a result of her gender, Hollingworth set out to empirically investigate the factors that were thought to make women inferior to men. Her doctoral dissertation, supervised by Edward Lee Thorndike, investigated the commonly held idea of "functional periodicity," namely that women suffer psychological impairment at certain phases of their menstrual cycle. She tested women, and two men as "controls," on a variety of perceptual and motor tasks over a period of three months. Her data revealed no cyclical differences in performance, refuting the idea (Hollingworth  1972).
Continuing her work in this area, Hollingworth challenged the "variability hypothesis," an element of the Social Darwinism of the period and the basis for many claims of female inferiority. Following Charles Darwin's emphasis on the importance of variation from the average for the evolutionary process, the variability hypothesis suggested that men are inherently more variable in their physical and mental abilities, men providing the progressive element and spurring further evolution. Thus, men were thought to vary greatly in their abilities, while women were assumed to be basically the same in their abilities, with the distribution of women being "represented by a narrower bell-shaped curve" (Shields 1991). The greater number of men at both ends of the intellectual spectrum (as patients in institutions and as great intellectual achievers) was taken as evidence of man's greater innate variability.
A job opportunity at the Clearing House for Mental Defectives allowed Hollingworth to collect data, which she found did not support this "variability hypothesis." By examining case records Hollingworth determined that although men outnumbered women, the ratio of men to women decreased with age. Hollingworth explained this as the result of men facing greater societal expectations than women, leading to the earlier detection of deficiencies in men, women being able to stay in the home for longer before their low level of functioning became noticeable (Benjamin 1975, 1990).
To avoid the effects of intervening social and cultural factors, and since the greater variability of males was thought to be physical as well as mental, Hollingworth gathered data on birth weight and length of 1,000 male and 1,000 female neonates. This research found virtually no difference in the variability of male and female infants (Benjamin 1975, 1990). Along with anthropologist Robert Lowie, Hollingworth published a review of literature from anatomical, physiological, and cross-cultural studies in which no objective evidence was found to support the idea of innate female inferiority (Hollingworth and Lowie 1916).
Although she did not continue research or publishing in the area of the psychology of women, her work made Hollingworth a significant figure in its history. She wrote about the "New Woman," one that is free from the "cage" in which her maternal role had confined her. Unfortunately, her planned publication, Mrs. Pilgrim's Progress, remained unwritten at her death.
In 1916, Hollingworth accepted a position in educational psychology at Columbia University Teachers College, where she taught for the rest of her life. Her early research there continued the work she had been doing in clinical psychology, namely intelligence testing. Like the psychology of women, the study of intelligence was fraught with misconceptions. Hollingworth tried to bring an objective, scientific approach to dealing with the special needs of those of subnormal and exceptional intelligence, publishing two books based on this effort (Hollingworth 1920, 1923).
Hollingworth soon realized that many of the children she worked with were not intellectually limited, but rather suffered from emotional or social difficulties. This was particularly common among adolescents. She published The Psychology of the Adolescent in 1928, which contained her insights and served as the standard text in this field for many years.
Hollingworth often encountered gifted children who were having difficulty in school. The prevailing assumption was that those of high intelligence needed little help as they would be able to take care of themselves, while those of exceptional intelligence, the "gifted," were often clumsy, eccentric, and socially inept. Hollingworth approached this area with her usual determination to obtain empirical data, and found that gifted children were not inherently maladjusted but that inept teachers and lack of intellectual stimulation were major contributing factors to their problems.
She was not interested in merely defining giftedness, nor did she accept that it was wholly genetic in origin. Hollingworth believed that educational and environmental factors were significant in its development. Her work focused on how to educate gifted children, nurturing their abilities so that they could more fully achieve their potential.
She began teaching courses in gifted education and initiated one of the most famous experimental programs for gifted children at the Speyer School in New York City. Since these children were fascinated with all aspects of their world, she devised an enrichment curriculum that included learning about such diverse things as food, shelter, clothing, transportation, tools, and so forth. This type of study proved more beneficial to gifted students than introducing them to advanced academic courses (H. L. Hollingworth 1943).
Leta Hollingworth's 1926 publication, Gifted Children, was a valuable contribution to the field and long served as its standard text. She also carried out a major longitudinal study of twelve gifted children, beginning in 1916, and being completed after her death by her husband, Harry Hollingworth, who published it in 1942, as Children Above 180 IQ.
Leta Hollingworth is best known for her pioneering work on gifted children. She taught the first courses on gifted education and developed an innovative curriculum that enabled children in this category to receive a more balanced and meaningful education.
Hollingworth also pioneered empirical research into the psychology of women, dispelling myths of the inferiority of women and their psychological impairment during the menstrual cycle. She challenged societal views of the role of women, finding herself the victim of discrimination when she was unable to obtain a teaching position as a married woman. She envisioned a "New Woman," able to choose to follow her interests, whether career, homemaking, or both. Her work in this area was incomplete, and in fact the questions she raised regarding how women can best fulfill their maternal role in the family and use their talents and abilities to serve society have yet to be answered.
In all her work, Hollingworth struggled with the issue of individual differences in the context of the group. In areas such as education and the role of women, clearly the needs of the whole are of paramount importance. Yet, as is evidenced by the problems encountered by the gifted, the uniqueness of each individual, with their talents, interests, and challenges, is also of vital importance. How then, can both aspects be brought into balance? Hollingworth did not solve this question, but her efforts raised awareness of this and other issues.
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