Graphic of a woman with the words "Mental Health" written above her head.

Historical Women and Their “Firsts”: Mental Health

Historical Women and Their “Firsts”: Mental Health

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen mental health awareness increase dramatically, and women can truly be found at the heart of this movement. From behind the scenes in psychiatric research to utilizing social media platforms to share information and resources, women have and continue to advocate for the destigmatizing of mental health in our society. Karen Horney, Mary Whiton Calkins, Inez Beverly Prosser, Martha Bernal, and Brené Brown are a handful of women throughout history who have had amazing careers in psychology or social work and successfully encouraged often difficult conversations about mental health. Let’s explore some of the accomplishments of these incredible women! 

Dr. Karen Horney, a German psychologist in the 1900s, earned her M.D. and worked in psychiatric clinics and hospitals before ultimately joining the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute. Horney’s points of research were quite controversial, as she went against widely-accepted Freudian beliefs by challenging the male-dominated perspectives of psychology. One of her later publications, Feminine Psychology, highlights the voices and experiences of women in the context of social issues and mental health. 

Whether found as a reliable citation or in research databases, the American Psychological Association (APA) is a household name for many college students, and in 1905, Dr. Mary Whiton Calkins was the first woman to serve as President of this organization. A first-generation American, Calkins got her Ph.D. from Harvard University but refused to accept her degree because Harvard did not accept women in the early 1900s. After graduating, Calkins studied memory, introspectiveness, and consciousness, making many advancements in psychological research. 

Despite challenges she faced as a woman of color in Texas in the 1900s, Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser was the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in psychology in 1933. In her final dissertation, she compared the experiences of African-American middle-school children in segregated and integrated schools. Despite facing adversity, Prosser became one of the leading forces in psychological research. 

Dr. Martha Bernal also received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and she studied early development and behavior. Bernal was the first Latina to receive a Ph.D. in psychology, and she often even spoke out about societal injustices and diversity standards. Part of Bernal’s research was to ensure that people of color had access to graduate level education and better opportunities, highlighting her ability to intertwine social activism and mental health.

The last leader in this group of powerful women is a professor, author, and podcaster many Women’s Network members may be fans of, Brené Brown. Her website has links to blogs about creativity, resilience, empathy, and leadership, and it promotes so many more important conversations that women both contribute to and are constantly learning from. Further, Brown’s podcasts, Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead, cover even more personal and professional topics that offer a slew of information and entertainment - there truly is something for everyone! 

While these are only a handful of examples, female leaders in psychology and research have paved the way for many of the open topics about mental health we have today. As members of the Women’s Network, we are striving to emulate these women. By contributing to these collaborative conversations and encouraging each other to pursue career fields that may seem daunting or unattainable, we carry on the legacy of emphasizing the importance of female voices to be heard.