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Leta Hollingworth was born the oldest of three daughters in Nebraska on May 25th 1886. Leta was the first born followed by two other girls, Ruth Elinor and Margaret Carley. She had a sad and difficult childhood. Her parents were Margaret Elinor Danley and John G. Stetter. Her mother died in childbirth immediately after the birth of Margaret Carley and her father abandoned the family with their maternal grandmother until Leta was 12. At that time he remarried, but the household was plagued with alcoholism.
In 1902, she graduated from Valentine High School. At sixteen, she entered the University of Nebraska. In addition to having an outstanding four-year academic record, she also gained an accomplished reputation for her creative writing. Leta welcomed the escape to the University of Nebraska, where she met her husband, Henry Hollingworth. They both became engaged while at the University. In 1906, she received her Bachelor of Arts degree along with a State Teacher's Certificate. After Leta and Henry married, Leta moved to New York, where her husband taught at Barnard College and began graduate school at Columbia University. Even though she was happily married, the first few years in New York were hard for Leta Hollingworth. Due to her now being married, she was unable to secure a teaching job. She kept herself busy with housework and writing fiction. She was unable to publish her short stories. Finally in 1911, they were able to budget some tuition money for Leta to take some "bare bones" graduate courses in the field of literature.
After earning a Master's degree in Education in 1913, Leta began work as the first psychologist under Civil Service in New York. Her job was to administer Binet intelligence tests, which having no prior experience, she quickly taught herself to do. In 1914, the Civil Service began supervising the administration of these mental tests and it became necessary for examiners to take competitive exams in order to establish eligibility. Leta Hollingworth was the top scorer and worked at Bellevue Hospital where she was later offered the position of chief of the soon to be established psychological lab. She administered testing and supervised the psychology laboratory at Bellevue Hospital. While continuing in this position of consulting psychologist, she completed her Doctorate work at Columbia University under Edward L. Thorndike. She received her Ph.D. in June of 1916; she was offered a teaching position in educational psychology at Columbia Teacher's College. She accepted and remained in that position for the rest of her life. Five years later she was cited in the American Men of Science for her contributions to the psychology of women.
Role of women
During her graduate work, Leta Hollingworth examined the role of women in society. At that time, women were considered inferior due to their biology, but Hollingworth questioned this assumption and hypothesized that women were disadvantaged due to the established social order of male domination. She also challenged the concept of an innate instinct for motherhood, questioning the idea that women could find satisfaction only through bearing children. She also dismissed the idea that women’s desires to achieve other fields, outside of marriage and family were somehow abnormal or unhealthy. She suggested that social and cultural attitudes rather than biological factors were influential in keeping women from becoming fully contributing members of society (Benjamin & Shields cited in Schultz & Schultz, 2004).
Hollingworth researched her hypothesis by studying males and females, both adults and infants. What she found was that infants showed little variability between the sexes. Adult males, however, showed greater variability than women, in the areas of mental defectiveness. This bolstered her theory that variability among males was due to their social environment of many choices in live, as opposed to women, who were afforded only the role of homemaker.
She cautioned vocational and guidance counselors against advising women that they should restrict their aspirations to the then socially acceptable fields of childrearing and housekeeping, where prominence and visibility are denied (Benjamin & Shields cited in Schultz & Schultz, 2004).
Menstrual cycle in women
Leta Hollingworth conducted extensive empirical research on the variability hypothesis, the idea that for physical, psychological, and emotional functioning in women are more homogeneous and average age group than men and showed less variation. Her research between 1913 and 1916 focused on physical and sensorimotor functioning and intellectual abilities in a variety of subjects; ranging from infants, female and male college students, and women during their menstrual period. Her data refuted the variability hypothesis and other notions of female inferiority. Dr. Hollingworth tested the perceptual and motor skills and mental abilities of 23 females and 2 males to disprove the theory that a woman’s menstrual cycle would disable her. She found that the menstrual cycle was not related to performance deficits in perceptual and motor skills or in intellectual abilities, where it was earlier assumed that menstrual cycles affected it.
She continued to work at Bellevue at least one day a week and helped to establish the Classification Clinic for Adolescents where she later functioned as its psychologist. In addition to her teaching duties at Columbia, she was the principal of the School for Exceptional Children. Moving form the psychology of women, Dr. Hollingworth next championed intellectually gifted children and also coined the term gifted or genius for the intellectually superior. She wanted to develop challenging educational opportunities for them and conducted two longitudinal research studies that culminated in the books Gifted Children (1926) and Children Above 180 IQ (1942) and a curriculum, Evolution of Common Things, for the gifted child.
She was never able to obtain research grant support despite the breadth and quality of her research (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).
She was active in the women's suffrage movement, campaigning for women’s right to vote and taking part in parades and demonstrations in New York (Schultz & Schultz, 2004). Leta Hollingworth died on November 27, 1939, of abdominal cancer (Benjamin and Shields, 1990). Hollingworth's last publication was completed after her death by her husband Henry Hollingworth; it was published in 1942. The book is based on a longitudinal study of twelve gifted children (Benjamin and Shields, 1990). According to Benjamin, Hollingworth found that many exceptional children suffered form adjustment problems due to a lack of intellectual challenge and inept treatment by adults. She found that adults often gave these children less attention because it was believed that they were self-sufficient.
- Hollingworth, Leta S. (1914a). Functional periodicity: An experimental study of the mental and motor abilities of women during menstruation. Full text
- Hollingworth, Leta S. (1914b). Variability as related to sex differences in achievement: A critique. American Journal of Sociology, 19, 510-530.Full text
- Hollingworth, Leta S. (1916). Social devices for impelling women to bear and rear children. American Journal of Sociology, 22, 19-29. Full text
- Hollingworth, Leta S. (1922). Differential action upon the sexes of forces which tend to segregate the feebleminded. Journal of Abnormal Psychology & Social Psychology, 17, 35-57.Full text
- Ann G. Klein. A Forgotten Voice: A Biography of Leta Stetter Hollingworth. ISBN 0-910707-53-7.
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