6 Women Mental Health Heroes of American History
Each year in March, we celebrate the courageous contributions and achievements of women in history who were able to overcome the odds stacked against them in a male-dominated society. Women’s History Month is a chance for us to not only recognize the historical impact of women who persevered to enact positive change, but also to reflect upon how we can continue to break down barriers to equity and inclusion today.
In this spirit, we are honored to share the inspiring stories of just a few American trailblazers and heroes from history who forever changed the fields of mental health and psychology – and who laid the foundations to the path of progress we continue today.
Dorthea Lynde Dix
1802 – 1887
Throughout her life, Dorothea Lynde Dix advocated for the living conditions and treatment of the mentally ill in the U.S., often challenging 19th century notions of reform and illness. She fervently and passionately pushed for better treatment for patients, even when prominent politicians disagreed and sought to discredit her work.
She played an instrumental role in the founding or expansion of more than 30 hospitals for the treatment of the mentally ill, and was a leading international figure challenging the idea that people with a mental illness could not be cured or helped.
In addition, Dix served as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union Army during the Civil War, treating both Confederate and Union soldiers. This practice earned her respect from many, at a time when most male doctors openly expressed disdain for female nurses. Nevertheless, she fearlessly advocated for formal training and more opportunities for women nurses.
Mary Whiton Calkins
1863 – 1930
In a period when pursuing an academic career was discouraged (if not outright impossible) for most American women, Mary Whiton Calkins overcame countless obstacles to make her mark in the field of psychology.
In the late 1880s, she received special permission to attend seminars at Harvard University (an all-male institution at the time). Despite passing all the requirements for a PhD at Harvard with distinction, she was refused a doctoral degree for the sole reason that she was a woman. She was later offered a special doctoral degree issued by Radcliffe College (at the time, a woman’s college associated with Harvard), but she turned it down.
Calkins went on to teach psychology at Wellesley College (a private women’s liberal arts college), and founded the nation’s first psychology laboratory at a women’s college. She was also elected President of the American Psychological Association in 1898, the first woman to hold this role. Throughout her long and prestigious career, Calkins authored several books and became a nationally recognized lecturer.
Mamie Phipps Clark, PhD
1917 – 1983
As an African American who grew up in the Jim Crow South, Mamie Phipps Clark went to segregated elementary schools and witnessed the violence of racism firsthand. According to the National Women’s History Museum, she recalled that she knew she was African American from childhood since “you had to have a certain kind of protective armor about you, all the time … You learned the things not to do…so as to protect yourself.”
After graduating with a Master’s degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., Clark pursued a PhD in Psychology at Columbia University – while raising her first daughter. She became the first African American woman to graduate from Columbia with a PhD in 1943.
Throughout her career as a social psychologist, Dr. Clark forever changed the field of psychology with her research on child development and racial trauma. Her groundbreaking work, in part, led to the desegregation of American schools. Her research and expert testimony were crucial in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which ended school segregation in the United States.
Martha E. Bernal, PhD
1931 – 2001
Martha Bernal, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was the first Latina to receive a doctorate degree in psychology in the United States. She devoted her career to advocating for and advancing the study of ethnic minority psychology.
During her postgraduate job search for a faculty position, Dr. Bernal received replies from schools that said simply, “We do not hire women.” Despite this, she was instrumental in establishing empirically validated interventions for child treatment and the assessment of children with behavior problems, as well as advancing multicultural psychology (which recognizes the importance of diversity in training, recruitment, and research). She also helped establish the National Hispanic Psychological Association and served as its second president.
Through her dedication and persistence, Dr. Bernal helped bring about structural change within the American Psychological Association and the field of psychology as a whole.
Kitch Childs, PhD
1937 – 1993
Ellen Kitch Childs was an American clinical psychologist who tirelessly advocated for the rights of marginalized women, sex workers, and the LGBTQ+ community. She helped found the Association for Women in Psychology to address the lack of organized research into the psychology of women, and she was the first African American woman to earn her doctorate degree in Human Development at the University of Chicago. Much of her research and practice focused on feminist therapy, particularly work around the experiences of Black women and feminist theory.
In addition, Dr. Childs was a lesbian and an activist in queer, women’s, and Black spaces. She helped found Chicago’s Gay Liberation Front, was a founding member of the University of Chicago’s Chicago Lesbian Liberation (an organization that helped organize Chicago’s first pride event in 1970), and she provided therapy for LGBT individuals, particularly those with AIDS.
Dr. Childs was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 1993 for her work to dismantle the American Psychiatric Association’s position on homosexuality, which was listed as a psychological disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973.
Bebe Moore Campbell
1950 – 2006
Bebe Moore Campbell was an American author, journalist, teacher, and national advocate who dedicated her life to advocating for the mental health needs of the Black community. In addition, she co-founded the Inglewood-LA chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Campbell was also the author of several bestsellers which discussed the harmful impact of racism on individuals and their relationships, including Brothers and Sisters, Singing in the Comeback Choir, and What You Owe Me.
Her passion for this work was, in part, rooted in her own experience trying to support a daughter who lived with mental illness. According to Campbell:
“Once my loved ones accepted the diagnosis, healing began for the entire family, but it took too long. It took years. Can’t we, as a nation, begin to speed up that process? We need a national campaign to destigmatize mental illness, especially one targeted toward African Americans…It’s not shameful to have a mental illness. Get treatment. Recovery is possible.”
Two years after Campbell’s death, Congress formally recognized July as Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month to shed light on the mental health experiences of under-represented and under-resourced groups in the U.S.
With deep gratitude and respect, we celebrate these heroes of history and countless others for their contributions in mental health and psychology. We thank these women for overcoming obstacles and paving the path of progress with persistence and perseverance. At Mental Health Partners, we are committed to carrying on this legacy by advocating for health equity for all.
Happy Women’s History Month!
We encourage you to continue learning about the important role of women in psychology and mental health by checking out these resources:
- Female Mental Health Trailblazers Throughout History by The Guidance Center
- Women Trailblazers In Mental Health by Jewish Family Services Delaware
- Celebrating 10 Women Trailblazers in Mental Health by Fountain House
- Celebrating Women’s History Month with Trailblazers in Mental Health by Uprise Health
- Black Pioneers in Mental Health by Mental Health America