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Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson Woolley demonstrated that biology doesn’t define gender

The annals of science journalism weren’t always as inclusive as they could have been. So PopSci is working to correct the record with In Hindsight, a series profiling some of the figures whose contributions we missed. Read their stories and explore the rest of our 150th anniversary coverage here.  Imagine a world where your sex cells determine your entire…

The annals of science journalism were not always as inclusive as they should have been. So PopSci is working to correct the record with In Hindsight, a series profiling some of the figures whose contributions we missed. Read their stories and explore the rest of our 150th anniversary coverage here.

Imagine a world where your sex cells are the determinant of your personality. You must also be active and eager to succeed if you have a lot of sperm in your testes. If you have a small basket of eggs that are motionless and inactive, you will probably be more passive and obedient.

Were it not for the work of psychologist Helen Thompson Woolley, some version of such a presumptive existence–the one into which she was born in 1874–might still exist. Throughout the Western world of the late 19th century, men enjoyed active participation in all aspects of civil and intellectual life, while women were expected to confine their attention to domestic matters. The thinking of the day was codified in The Evolution of Sex, a tome published two male scientists: John Arthur Thomson, a naturalist, and Patrick Geddes, a biologist. Comparing humans to cochineal insects, threadworms, and some parasites–species in which the females are rather motionless egg-carriers–they concluded that across life, “on an average the females incline to passivity, the males to activity.” (That book was praised as “splendid” in a 1911 Popular Science essay titled “The Constitutional Conservatism of Women.”)

However, Woolley was born in Chicago, Ill. Her family encouraged her education, and she, like many others during the so-called Progressive Era, developed a conviction that science could solve social ills. In 1893, thanks to a scholarship, she enrolled at the newly founded University of Chicago, where she gravitated toward the burgeoning field of experimental psychology. A graduate fellowship set the stage for her dissertation, The Mental Traits of Sex: An experimental investigation of the normal mind in men and women, published as a monograph in 1903. Her research had one goal: To be the first to “obtain an exhaustive and systematic statement of psychological likenesses of the sexes using the experimental method”. She boldly stated that Thomson’s perspectives were not supported by empirical evidence.

In her experiments, Woolley put 25 female and 25 male university students through a range of tests to measure characteristics like motor skills, sensory abilities, intellectual capacity, memory, and personality. There were slight differences: Women scored higher on tests of sensory discrimination, and men performed better in motor skills tests. These observations were not typical. These observations were outliers.

She argued that

Biology could not account for the differences between men and woman. It was also important to consider how they were treated and raised. She wrote that boys were encouraged to exercise and play while girls were discouraged from doing things not considered “ladylike.” Though such conclusions may seem obvious now, they directly challenged the “rampant biological essential

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