Psychology in the United States

by Rhoda K. Unger
Last updated

Social psychologist Marie Jahoda.
Courtesy of Lotte Bailyn.
In Brief

Although Jewish women in psychology have often deemphasized their Jewish identities in favor of identifying their work with scientific objectivity and universal human paradigms, they have been well represented in the field as theorists, researchers, and pioneers. They have made their most important contributions in two areas—clinical psychology and the social psychology of intergroup relations, especially as it involves groups marginalized in our society. Many of the earliest Jewish women psychologists in the United States were intellectuals fleeing Nazism who spoke openly about their Jewishness and antisemitism. Women who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s were less likely to mention their Jewish identities, while those who began their careers in the last decades of the twentieth century were more willing to identify themselves as Jewish.


Although both Jewish men and women have made significant contributions to American psychology from its earliest beginnings, they generally deemphasized their Jewish identities in favor of identifying their work in psychology with scientific objectivity and universal human paradigms. In the United States especially, psychologists tended to consider religious identity and social class as irrelevant to the science and service of the profession. Evelyn Torton Beck provided some insight as to why Jewish women in particular may have absorbed the tenet of universalism in their professional lives when she wrote, “To be visible as a woman, a feminist, and a Jew makes you multiply vulnerable to attack on those counts. No wonder major Jewish theorists are stripped of their Jewishness in histories of psychology.”

Despite the difficulties that universalist impulses in the profession pose for the historian seeking to understand the role of Jewish women in American psychology, Jewish women have been well represented in the field as theorists, researchers, and pioneers.

Generational differences account for some of the differences in Jewish identifications in the field of American psychology. Those women who came to the United States as part of the wave of intellectuals fleeing Nazism in the mid- and late-1930s spoke openly about their Jewishness and the antisemitism they sought to escape. The American-born women of their generation also mentioned antisemitism as part of their professional lives. However, women who began their professional lives in the 1960s or 1970s, when antisemitism had diminished or become less overt, were less likely to mention their Jewish identity, while younger women, who began their careers in the multi-cultural 1980s and 1990s, were generally more willing to identify themselves as Jewish. More likely to self-identify as feminists, Jewish women have also been more interested in addressing the psychology of women as a unique category of experience.

Often raised in working-class communities, Jewish women working in psychology tend to speak about their Jewishness in terms of their sense of class and experience with ethnic marginality. Some attribute their activism to their parents’ values. Sandra Tangri spoke for these women in her tribute to her father on his ninetieth birthday, “I got more than love from my father. I got my most important values and the basis for my politics from him. I got my sense of place, of belonging to an historic stream of thinkers and ‘tooers’ (activists), and the confidence to be my own person from him.... His passionate commitment to the idea of social justice planted in me the seeds of my feminism.”

The Early Pioneers

Like their male counterparts, the first generation of American women psychologists (educated in the nineteenth century) were almost all native-born Protestants. In contrast, the first major Jewish women contributors to psychology were trained in Europe more than a generation later and fled to the United States to escape the Nazis in the mid- or late-1930s. Like their male counterparts, many of these women made their most important contributions in psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theory, most notably Margaret Mahler, whose work involved object relations theory, and Helene Deutsch. Psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann exemplified the European model of neuroses that Jewish analysts brought with them from Europe and that they managed to broaden to other psychological sub-fields in the United States Fromm-Reichmann made her most incisive contributions to the treatment of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Another Jewish émigré, analyst Else Frenkel-Brunswick, contributed to the expansion of the field into the theory of personality and social character.

In her autobiography, Erika Fromm (1910–2003) described herself as the oldest of eight children born in Germany of an Orthodox Jewish family with intellectual and artistic interests. She received her PhD in psychology from the University of Frankfurt in December 1933 and two weeks later left Germany for Holland. She immigrated to the United States with her husband in 1938, narrowly avoiding the Holocaust. Fromm believed that sexism hindered her career and delayed for nine years the attainment of a full professorship that had been promised her at a well-known university. She has nevertheless had an important impact on psychoanalysis through her work on dream interpretation and on hypnosis as a key to the unconscious.

The careers of Jewish women in the field often depended on their connections to Jewish male colleagues. Eugenia Hanfmann (1905–1983) who, as a child, moved with her family to Lithuania and later Germany because of the Russian revolution, was supported by a network of male Jewish mentors that allowed her to forge ahead despite overwhelming odds where many other women were sidetracked. She reported that a mentor sent her to work with Kurt Koffka at Smith College in 1930 and that she then remained underemployed until another Jewish man helped her to get a clinical position at Worcester State Hospital, where she did research with Tamara Dembo on new patients’ reaction to the hospital. Her major contributions to clinical psychology during this period involved the study of conceptual thinking in schizophrenics and of the role of projective tests in the assessment of personality.

Hanfmann worked for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and was later appointed a lecturer in clinical psychology at Harvard University. Like a number of women in her cohort, she was unable to obtain a permanent faculty position after World War II. In 1952, Abraham Maslow invited her to start a counseling service for students at the newly formed Brandeis University, a position she described as her last and longest lasting.

Tamara Dembo (1902–1993) made important contributions to both clinical and social psychology. She was educated at the University of Berlin, where she soon became a member of the study group that formed around Kurt Lewin. Her early career closely paralleled that of Eugenia Hanfmann. She came to the United States to work with Kurt Koffka (an important Gestalt psychologist) at Smith College and, as conditions in Germany deteriorated, remained and worked at the Worcester State Hospital from 1932 to 1934. After moving through a number of temporary positions, she finally became a full member of the faculty at Clark University. Dembo made her major contributions in the field of rehabilitation psychology, where she advocated adapting environments to people rather than the other way around. She taught the field to see that disabilities are in the environment rather than in the person. She worked with a large range of handicapped individuals, including children with cerebral palsy and veterans who had lost limbs or been blinded in World War II, as well as institutionalized retarded patients.

These female (and male) refugees from Nazism helped to change the focus of American social psychology by giving it a more “outsider” perspective. Psychology was no longer the domain of a privileged white male establishment. This increased ethnic diversity helped shift the field from an emphasis on the differences between individuals and groups to an emphasis on the social forces that induce the perception of such differences.

The Indigenous Pioneers

The four American-born Jewish women whose contributions to psychology began shortly after the end of World War II were less influenced by European psychoanalytic models than the women discussed above. Mary Henle was seemingly interested in the old European paradigms but remained committed to experimental and theoretical issues involving Gestalt psychology throughout her graduate studies at Bryn Mawr. In her autobiography, Henle made an explicit statement about the sexism and antisemitism that were prevalent in psychology during the Depression of the 1930s and later. “It is hard to say whether, as a woman, I had special difficulty in finding employment, though I suppose I did. In addition to the scarcity of positions, antisemitism was prevalent and often explicit. Thus, if I did not get a job for which I applied, I could not know for sure whether I lacked the qualifications, or whether it was because I was a woman or Jewish.”

Thelma Alper (b. 1908) described herself in her autobiography as having grown up in a very achievement-oriented, but not at all college-oriented, Jewish family in Massachusetts. In 1939, she applied to the Ph.D. program in psychology at Harvard University. Her account of her interview with the department chair is illustrative of the difficulties women in psychology faced during this period. “It was not without trepidation,” wrote Alper, “that I asked for an appointment with the chairman of the psychology department, Dr. Edwin G. Boring. Set up for thirty minutes, the interview lasted almost three hours. Dr. Boring was polite but not very encouraging. He told me that the department did not really welcome female graduate students, that they had accepted very few over the years and that only a handful had survived. But at the end he agreed that if I was ready to ‘throw myself to the lions,’ the department would accept me on my terms as a part-time student, beginning in the fall of 1939.”

Alper persevered and in 1943 became the eleventh woman (and the first Jewish woman) to be granted a PhD in psychology from Harvard. She was appointed a lecturer (due, partly, to the scarcity of men available for non-war-related positions) and remained the only woman in the department until she was joined by Eugenia Hanfmann in 1946. However, Harvard was not prepared to offer tenure to women, and eventually both left. Alper finally accepted a tenured position at her alma mater, Wellesley, in 1952, where she remained for the rest of her career.

Alper’s research combined elements of clinical and social psychology. Her social psychological research was greatly influenced by Kurt Lewin, whose class she had taken at Harvard, and focused primarily on memory for completed and uncompleted tasks.

Bernice Levin Neugarten (1916-2001) was born in a small town in Nebraska where her father, who had emigrated from Lithuania, bought and sold goods from farmers and ranchers. She moved to Chicago at age seventeen to attend the University of Chicago and never left—receiving all of her degrees there. Despite taking eight years off to raise two children, Neugarten wrote or edited eight books and wrote more than 150 professional articles and monographs. She pioneered the field of adult development and aging and originated the important concepts of “social clocks” and “age norms.”

Jane Loevinger (b. 1918) received an offer of an assistantship at the Institute of Child Welfare of the University of Minnesota, but this was later withdrawn. In her autobiography, Loevinger indicates that having politically radical sympathies and being Jewish were probably more important to this decision than her gender. Loevinger finally completed her graduate work at Berkeley where, she noted, she was never aware of any prejudice against Jews, women, or sympathizers with left-wing movements.

During World War II, Loevinger had a series of teaching appointments at first-class universities. When the war ended, however, women were expected to retire from their careers to leave room for the returning men to resume theirs. Unable to obtain an academic position in St. Louis where her husband was on the faculty of Washington University, Loevinger conducted a variety of research studies supported by grants to others and, eventually, to her. In 1971, twenty-five years after she had arrived in St. Louis, Loevinger (at her own request) finally became a tenured professor at Washington University. Loevinger’s work involved the areas of measurement and psychoanalysis. She published work on the construction of projective tests as well as on the meaning and measurement of ego development.

A Generation of Social Activists

Although the first generation of women often mentioned antisemitism in their accounts of their lives, there are fewer comments about anti-Jewish prejudice in later women’s accounts. This group of women (born in the 1920s or early 1930s) embarked on their careers after World War II when discrimination against Jews had become less overt. Instead of their Jewishness, social activism appears to have been the important focus for their professional lives. As the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s made positions of leadership for women more acceptable, Jewish women joined the historic ranks of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues as presidents. For example, Marcia Guttentag (1932–1977) became the second female president of SPSSI in 1971, fifteen years after the election of its first female president, Marie Jahoda. Guttentag’s work focused on mental health evaluation and gender inequity in education.

The election of June Louin Tapp (1929–1992) in 1979 marked what James Capshew called the beginning of an “informal affirmative action” program within SPSSI. Between 1978 and 1988, six of the seven women elected president (about 30 percent of the membership during this period were women) were also Jewish, including the eminent psychologists Cynthia Deutsch (b. 1928), Clara Weiss Mayo (1931–1981), Martha Mednick, Lois Wladis Hoffman (b. 1929), and Phyllis Katz (b. 1938). Tapp’s research on psychology, law, and public policy became a model of the socially active woman psychologist not only within the SPSSI but in other American psychological associations. Tapp herself was a model for this change, becoming a leader within several divisions of the American Psychological Association (APA). She was one of the founders of the Psychology-Law Society (now a division of APA). During the 1960s, Tapp worked with Saul Alinsky and studied African-American men in Woodlawn (one of the most impoverished communities in Chicago), and in the 1970s, she worked with a team of graduate students on the Wounded Knee Trial (as adviser as well as researcher-scholar).

In a similar vein, Frances Degen Horowitz (b. 1932) coupled her academic career at the University of Kansas, where she rose from professor of psychology to the dean of the Graduate School before she served as president of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York since 1991, with a broader leadership role as president of the APA Division of Developmental Psychology in 1977–1978 and president of the Society for Research on Child Development in 1996–1997.

Likewise, Judith Seitz Rodin (b. 1944) combined her academic career with administrative leadership. Rodin did important work on obesity, aging, and social control while a professor of psychology at Yale, where she also became dean of the Graduate School before moving to the presidency of the University of Pennsylvania in 1994, and of the Rockefeller Foundation a decade later. She has been an important contributor to research and policy issues involving women’s health.

It is sometimes difficult to decide where to place women chronologically, since their professional careers are frequently interrupted. Thus, the year of birth of Sylvia Scribner (1923–1991) should place her among an earlier generation of contributors to psychology. But Scribner’s career was frequently interrupted by her political activities. After graduating with honors from Smith College in 1943, Scribner worked as a union organizer and an indefatigable antiestablishment activist for many years. While she worked as assistant to the director and operational research analyst for the Jewish Board of Guardians in New York City (1958–1962), she enrolled as a graduate student at the New School for Social Research. She finally received her PhD in 1970 under the direction of Mary Henle. Scribner’s scholarly contributions were primarily in the area of cross-cultural psychology. During the 1970s, she traveled frequently to Liberia to study the relationship between culture and thought. Her body of scholarship is a remarkable accomplishment for someone who received her only full-time faculty appointment at the age of fifty-nine.

A Generation of Feminist Activists

While many women were involved in the study of social issues during this period, in the 1970s and 1980s many activist women focused their energies on the study of women and gender and on feminist organizational activities within APA. One such leader in the development and legitimization of the psychology of women is Florence Denmark. Her career also shows some of the discontinuities familiar from other women’s life histories. Despite a somewhat late start, however, Denmark has held virtually every elected office in the profession of psychology. In 1980, she was the first Jewish woman to be elected president of the American Psychological Association.

A disproportionate number of Jewish women have been active scholars and practitioners in the field of the psychology of women. For example, the 1996 APA membership directory lists 209 fellows of this division (a status conferred by APA as a whole through evidence of unusual or outstanding contribution or performance in the field of psychology). By name, fifty-six of these individuals appear to be Jewish, and this figure does not include deceased individuals or those who are no longer members of APA.

From 1985 through 2003, the Committee on Women in Psychology gave distinguished contributions to psychology awards to forty-four women; fifteen of these awards were given to Jewish women. Jewish women (not all of them psychologists) have also received seven of the twelve distinguished career awards conferred by the Association for Women in Psychology since the inception of the award in 1978. Twelve Jewish women and one Jewish man have received the Society for the Psychology of Women’s (Division 35 of APA) most prestigious award—the Carolyn Wood Sherif memorial lectureship. This represents about half of all recipients of the Sherif award since the Society conferred the first one in 1985.

Activist Scholars

Barbara Strudler Wallston (1943–1987), a fine feminist scholar who died young, was the recipient of many awards. Wallston possessed awesome organizational skills and rose to early leadership in organizations fostering women’s careers within psychology and the development of the psychology of women. She was a leader in the Association for Women in Psychology as well as the sixth president of the APA’s Division on the Psychology of Women. Wallston also made important contributions to psychological research. She developed a health locus of control scale with her then husband, Kenneth Wallston, which is used internationally to measure people’s beliefs about what controls their health status. She also worked in the area of dual-career couples, stereotyping, and feminist methodology in psychology.

A number of other Jewish women have also served as president of the APA’s division on women. Annette Brodsky (b. 1938) followed Florence Denmark and Martha Mednick as its fifth president (1977–1978). She originated the feminist therapists’ roster for the Association for Women in Psychology in 1970. Brodsky was the coeditor of the first book on psychotherapy and women and has conducted important research on sexual contact between therapists and clients.

Rhoda Kesler Unger (b. 1939) was the eighth president of the division (1980–1981). Like many of the other women in this group, she was born of working-class parents and educated in New York City. She taught for a few years at Hofstra University, where her interests changed from physiological to social psychology. During this period she met Florence Denmark and coauthored an early text on the psychology of women with her. From 1972 to 1999, she was a professor of psychology at Montclair State University in New Jersey and director of the All-College Honors Program. Unger’s primary work was on the relationship between ideological values, theory, and methodology within psychology.

Hannah Lerman (b. 1936) was the twelfth president of the Division of the Psychology of Women (1984–1985). Unlike many of the women discussed in this article, Lerman was in private practice as a therapist for all of her working career (mostly in the Los Angeles area). She is a cofounder of the Feminist Therapy Institute. Unusual among psychologists in private practice, Lerman has contributed extensively to the research literature on psychotherapy.

Another important contributor to the psychology of women who has also been president of the APA Division on the Psychology of Women (1990–1991) is Bernice Lott (b. 1930). Lott began her professional activities on behalf of women somewhat later than usual because she did not obtain a full-time tenure track position (at the University of Rhode Island) until 1977—twenty-four years after she had received her doctorate in social psychology from UCLA. Lott’s autobiography contains striking similarities to other important Jewish women psychologists’ accounts of the social activism of their parents and in their own social activism. Lott’s career also shows discontinuities similar to those of other women who are/were married to prominent men in the field. She taught in the extension division of the university where her husband had a regular appointment and then as a special education teacher in junior high school. Following her second marriage, to Albert Lott, she began to publish research regularly both in collaboration with him and by herself. Her work focused on prejudice and discrimination against women and on the social learning of gender.

Laura Brown (b. 1952) has also served as president of the Division of the Psychology of Women and is one of the few women in this group to discuss explicitly what being Jewish means for her: “Feminist therapy has joined at the root with my Jewish heritage so that, an hour at a time, a life at a time, I can participate in the revolutionary activity of ‘Tikkun olam’ healing the world through the transformative work of feminism that takes shape for me in the practice of feminist therapy.” Brown describes herself in her autobiography as coming from a large family of Jewish women in which women’s intellect and education were specifically valued and encouraged. In 1991, Brown became the first openly lesbian licensed psychologist in Seattle. Before becoming president of the Division on the Psychology of Women, Brown was also president of APA’s Division on Gay and Lesbian Psychology. Brown has been a precocious and prolific contributor to the professional literature on psychotherapy and women. She has written a compelling book in this area, Subversive Dialogues (1994).

Judith Worell (b. 1928), a former president of the Division on the Psychology of Women and later co-chair of the Division’s Feminist Professional Training and Practice Committee, is another New York City–born woman who has contributed extensively to this field as well as to counseling psychology. In addition to her active administrative responsibilities and scholarly work, Worell completed a five-year term as editor of the Psychology of Women Quarterly. Worell’s research interests focus on the development of a feminist model for counseling psychology. She coauthored a widely used textbook in this area and is a leading figure in the pursuit of a feminist transformation of psychological education, research, and practice. She has also conducted extensive research on women’s roles throughout the lifespan and on their satisfaction with their close relationships.

Many other women born during the late 1930s and early 1940s made important contributions to psychology. Some of them identify themselves as Jewish in biographical statements, while others do not. Very few have been directly involved with Jewish religious issues or Jewish cultural life. Phyllis Chesler —who wrote the challenging book Women and Madness (1972) during the early days of the feminist movement—is an exception in this respect.

Sandra Schwartz Tangri (1937–2003) also wrote about her Jewish ethnicity. She described herself “as a highly educated daughter of Jewish immigrants one of whom was a Yiddish poet and wallpaper-hanger, and neither of whom finished high school....” She also noted that as a child she always knew that being Jewish meant being different and that California in the 1940s and 1950s was not a land of unbounded tolerance. Her parents, however, worked to make her working-class Jewish identity a source of pride. Until she finished high school, she attended a Jewish school three days a week, learning to read, write and speak Yiddish as well as a little Hebrew and a lot of Jewish history. While a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Tangri met Martha Mednick, with whom she collaborated on important research in the psychology of women. Between academic posts, she was director of the Office of Research for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for four years and senior research associate at the Urban Institute for three years. She eventually returned to academia and retired as a professor of psychology at Howard University shortly before her death. She conducted longitudinal research on women’s career development for her PhD dissertation and returned to the original group several times during her career to examine long-term changes. She also studied sexual harassment in the federal work force and ethical issues in population programs.

Other important Jewish contributors to the psychology of women have been less involved in organizational activities. However, these women have contributed much to the field. Indeed, the first and still classic article in this area is “Psychology Constructs the Female” (1968) by Naomi Weisstein (b. 1940). Weisstein was born into a passionately antiauthoritarian family in New York City—she has, in fact, described herself as a “red diaper baby.” She received her PhD in cognitive psychology from Harvard University in only three years in spite of that university’s enormous sexism, which she described wittily in the article “How Can a Little Girl Like You Teach a Great Big Class of Men?” (1977). Sexism within psychology led her to “the only position I could find”—a lectureship at the University of Chicago, which she described as “a position tailored for overqualified faculty wives” that did not even carry library privileges. She finally joined the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1973, where her research life was cut short by chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome. Despite her relatively short life as a researcher, Weisstein contributed to the understanding of the neuropsychology of visual perception as well as to feminist scholarship.

Sandra Lipshitz Bem (b. 1944) is another important figure in the study of the psychology of women. Bem was born to an Orthodox working-class family in Pittsburgh and attended an Orthodox Jewish day school throughout her childhood. She and her husband, Darryl Bem did early collaborative work on the internalization of gender stereotypes as a source of gender inequality, which served as evidence in a major sex discrimination case. She also originated the concept of androgyny as a measure of personality that views “masculine” and “feminine” traits as independent of each other. Her book The Lenses of Gender (1993) examines the way gender is constructed by societal constraints.

Michelle Fine (b. 1953) has contributed an astonishing body of work on psychology and education in the past decades. Although some of Fine’s work is on women, it is probably better characterized as being on social justice. Fine is especially challenging and exciting when she looks at marginality and the way issues of race, class, and disability “braid” with one another. Fine was the Goldie Anna Charitable Trust Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, but she resigned that position, in part because of the unwillingness of that institution to offer tenure to qualified women. She is currently professor of psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Fine is a passionate social activist. She has coedited a book on women and disability, written a book on African-American and Latina high school drop-outs, and coedited a book on problematizing whiteness. Her book of essays, Disruptive Voices (1992), provides a comprehensive view of her articles in the professional literature—ranging from analysis of theory and method to hands-on descriptions of rape and rape counseling.

Some Conclusions

Jewish women in psychology have made their most important contributions in two areas—clinical psychology and the social psychology of intergroup relationships, especially as it involves groups marginalized in our society. Their interest in psychodynamic issues is consistent with findings on psychologists as a whole, which suggest that those who identify themselves as Jewish are more likely to have a subjectivist theoretical orientation than other psychologists. Recent immigrant status (parents or grandparents) has also been found to be associated with social rather than biological explanations for group differences. And various forms of social marginality appear to be related to researchers’ interest in “real-life” aspects of power rather than laboratory-based demonstrations of social influence.

The marginality of women within psychology has been ameliorated by the important influence women have had on one another. Many mentor/student relationships exist. As the field of the psychology of women became an organized structure within psychology, collaborative efforts appear to have multiplied exponentially.

Feminist women in the field of psychology tend to value environmental over biological explanations for behavior, the important role of historical and cultural circumstances, and the significance of subjectivity in psychological research. Since many of these feminist women are also Jews from working-class immigrant backgrounds, their social activism as well as their concentration in certain areas of psychology make a great deal of sense. Psychology would be poorer without their perspective.


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How to cite this page

Unger, Rhoda K.. "Psychology in the United States." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 24, 2024) <>.