Florence Levin Denmark
Florence L. Denmark helped found the field of women’s psychology and built crucial support for it in academic circles. Denmark earned a PhD in social psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and taught at Queens College, where she met her longtime collaborator, Marcia Guttentag. Together they investigated the effects of racial integration in preschools, the consequences of psychiatric labeling on immigrants, and the impact of college reentry on mature women. Denmark helped get the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Mental Health to fund the first research conference on the psychology of women. She coauthored Woman: Dependent or Independent Variable?, one of the earliest texts in the field. In 1980 she was elected president of the American Psychological Association, and she was one of the founders of their Division on the Psychology of Women.
The existence of several autobiographies and biographies attest to the importance of Florence L. Denmark’s contributions to American psychology. However, none of these published materials mention the fact that she is Jewish, probably because she has never felt that her Jewish heritage is particularly salient to her. Nevertheless, like the work of other Jewish women of her generation, Denmark’s contributions to psychology have been socially activist in nature. She is a founder of the field of the psychology of women and has contributed much to it, in terms of both scholarship and organizational leadership.
Family and Education
Florence Harriet Levin was born on January 28, 1931, in Philadelphia, where she grew up as part of a large extended family. Her father, Morris Levin, was a lawyer, and her mother, Minna Sharkis Levin, was a musician and music teacher. Her elder sister, Shirley Louise Levin Jacobs, became a physician. Denmark has described her mother as the driving force behind her accomplishments.
Florence Levin graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania in 1952 with honors in two majors—history and psychology. She married Stanley Denmark, an orthodontist, within a year after she received her B.A., but she continued her graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a Ph.D. in social psychology from that institution in 1958. After graduation, Denmark and her husband moved to New York City and had three children (a daughter, Valerie Ann, and a set of twins, Pamela Denise and Richard Harrison). Her marriage to Dr. Denmark ended in divorce. In 1973, she married Robert W. Wesner, a publisher, and acquired three step-children: Kathleen, Michael, and Wendy. Denmark and Wesner traveled the world together and shared a love of sports (especially football). Wesner died in 2010.
Establishing a Field: Psychology of Women
Denmark began her career as an adjunct professor at Queens College, where she met Marcia Guttentag (another young mother) and began to collaborate on studies with her. Their research looked at the impact of college reentry on mature women, the effects of racial integration in preschool education, and the consequences of psychiatric labeling on immigrants. In 1964, after six years of postdoctoral experience, Denmark was appointed an instructor at Hunter College. She was promoted to full professor in 1974 and was named the Thomas Hunter Professor of Psychology. For seven years she served as Executive Officer of Doctoral-level Psychology Programs for all of the City University of New York schools. In 1988, she moved to Pace University to become the first Robert Scott Pace Distinguished Professor. She also became chair of Pace’s Department of Psychology, a position she held until her official retirement in 2001. She remains active at Pace as Professor Emerita, where she teaches graduate courses, including History of Psychology.
Denmark was instrumental in establishing the psychology of women as a recognized and legitimate scholarly field. She helped to get funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Mental Health, and the Ford Foundation for the first research conference in this field (held in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1975), which brought senior and junior women together for extensive dialogue. The book that developed from this conference, The Psychology of Women: Future Directions in Research, was considered an important resource for scholars. Denmark also coauthored one of the earliest text/readers in the field, Woman: Dependent or Independent Variable? She has written extensively about the disadvantaged status of women in psychology and has worked to help the field to recognize women’s neglected contributions to it. She has a strong interest in older women, especially in their empowerment, their role as mentor, and their potential for late-life career success. Among her many publications are a co-edited book entitled Women and Aging: An International, Intersectional Power Perspective and a special issue of the journal Women & Therapy entitled “Women, Power, and Aging.”
Service to the Profession
Denmark’s organizational skills are superb. She was one of the founders of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Division 35 on the Psychology of Women and its third president in 1975–1976. In 1980, she was elected the fifth woman president of the APA (the first Jewish woman to hold this office). She has held many offices in national and international organizations, including the presidencies of the New York State Psychological Association, the Eastern Psychological Association, the International Council of Psychologists, Psi Chi (the International Honor Society of Psychology), and two other Divisions of the APA (General Psychology and International Psychology). She has received numerous awards, including the three highest honors awarded to scholars and practitioners in the field of the psychology of women: the APA Committee on Women in Psychology’s Senior Leadership Award (1985), the Association for Women in Psychology’s Distinguished Career Award (1986), and the Society for the Psychology of Women’s (APA Division 35) Carolyn Wood Sherif memorial lectureship. She is a Fellow of the APA, which has awarded her its Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement in promoting psychology in the public interest, and she has received six honorary doctorates.
Since her “retirement” in 2001, Denmark has worked actively at the United Nations headquarters in New York with its NGO community, as a representative of the American Psychological Association and the International Council of Psychologists. There she has worked to promote psychology’s contributions to solving social problems and encourage the inclusion of psychological well-being among the organization’s goals. She has focused her efforts on issues concerning girls and women, families, and aging. Denmark has served as chair of the NGO’s Committee on Ageing and as co-chair of the Family Committee.
Denmark believes “in empowering other women.” Her support is appreciated by her many colleagues and former students, whom she has taught to aspire greatly and collaboratively.
“Autobiography.” In Models of Achievement: Reflections of Eminent Women in Psychology, edited by Agnes N. O’Connell and Nancy F. Russo, Vol. 2, 279-293. New York: Routledge, 1988.
“Feminist and Activist.” In Feminist Foremothers in Women’s Studies, Psychology, and Mental Health, edited by Phyllis Chesler, Esther D. Rothblum, and Ellen Cole. New York: Routledge, 1995.
“Working – The More You Do.” In Leading the Way, Leaving a Legacy: Pioneering Women in Psychology in Their Own Words, edited by Jamila Bookwala and Nicola Newton (in press).
Psychology of Women: A Handbook of Issues and Theories, edited with Michele A. Paludi. New York: Greenwood, 1993.
The Psychology of Women: Future Directions of Research, edited with Julia A. Sherman. Psychological Dimensions, 1978.
Woman: Dependent or Independent Variable?, with Rhoda K. Unger. Psychological Dimensions, 1975.
“Empowerment: A Prime Time for Women over 50.” In Women over 50: Psychological Perspectives, edited by Varda Muhlbauer and Joan C. Chrisler. New York: Springer, 2015.
“Living Life to the Fullest: A Perspective on Positive Aging.” with Talia Zarbiv. Women & Therapy (2016), vol. 39: 315-321.
Denmark, Florence L. Correspondence with Rhoda Unger, February 1997, and with Joan Chrisler, March 2021.
Paludi, Michele A., and Nancy F. Russo. “Florence L. Denmark.” In Women in Psychology: A Bio-Bibliographic Sourcebook, edited by Agnes N. O’Connell and Nancy F. Russo, 75-87. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Stevens, Gwendolyn, and Sheldon Gardner. The Women of Psychology. Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1982.