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While there are hundreds of women who have been groundbreakers across the field of mental health, we are focusing on historical and contemporary WOMEN who changed the story of WOMEN’S mental health. This is not a comprehensive list, but includes trailblazing women who made significant contributions to the U.S. field of mental health.


While we’ve come a long way from the unacceptable mental health approaches of the past, it’s important this Women’s History Month to recognize the legacy of harmful attitudes toward women’s mental health — from the stigmas and falsehoods that surrounded it in the past to the challenges that still keep many women from speaking out today.


Prehistoric times: 

There was, as far as historians can tell, no division between medicine, magic and religion. 


Ancient Greece and Egypt:

People believed that if women’s wombs weren’t continuously satisfied with sex or impregnation, the uterus would wander to other parts of the body, thereby causing a host of mental health problems. The therapeutic measures [to treat women were] depending on the position of the uterus, which must be forced to return to its natural position. If the uterus had moved upwards, this could be done by placing malodorous and acrid substances near the woman’s mouth and nostrils, while scented ones were placed near her vagina; on the contrary, if the uterus had lowered, the document recommends placing the acrid substances near her vagina and the perfumed ones near her mouth and nostrils


1st/2nd century:

Soranus wrote a treatise on women’s diseases and who is considered the founder of scientific gynecology and obstetrics : women’ disorders arise from the toils of procreation, their recovery is encouraged by sexual abstinence and perpetual virginity is women’ ideal condition.


With the decreasing participation of women and men’s rising power over women’s medicine, the general public came to fear women’s mental health problems, associating them with witchcraft and dark magic. Sadly, many women were prosecuted and murdered under the pretense of being “witches” when they or their neighbors may really have suffered from mental health disorders and other serious illnesses. The last "witch" was sentenced to death in Switzerland in 1782: Anna Göldi


16th century:

Men began to understand the female reproductive system from a medical standpoint.

  • 1515-1588: Johann Weyer intended to prove that witches were mentally ill and had to be treated by physicians  

  • 1621-1675: Thomas Willis introduces a new etiology of hysteria, no longer attached to the central role of the uterus but rather related to the brain and to the nervous system


18th century:

Hysteria starts being gradually associated with the brain rather than the uterus, a trend which opens the way to neurological etiology: if it is connected to the brain, then perhaps hysteria is not a female disease and can affect both sexes.

  • 1748: Joseph Raulin describes Hysteria as a disease caused by foul air of big cities and unruly social life. In theory, the disorder can affect both sexes, but women are more at risk for their being lazy and irritable

  • 1775: Pierre & Jean-Jacques Roussel wrote about the afflictions, diseases and depravity of women as a  result from the breaking away from the normal natural functions. Following natural determinism, doctors confine the woman within the boundaries of a specific role: she is a mother and guardian of virtue


19th century:

Female independence was madness. Doctors could easily declare that any woman who rejected her submissive, domestic role was medically impaired. Women who studied or read—or who simply had minds of their own and a determination to use them—were “morally insane,” … They were to be locked away until they conformed to more natural, feminine behavior. ….. The theory ran that a woman’s sexual organs caused her madness, so cutting off her clitoris would calm her. Doctors claimed a 70% success rate.

  • 1833-1900: Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville performed pelvic massages on his female patients, and thus the vibrator was born….It's important to remember that these methods served as a means of "curing" a woman's mental illness, and more importantly controlling a woman's sexual agency.

  • 1837-1901: During the Victorian Age most women carried a bottle of smelling salts in their handbag: they were inclined to swoon when their emotions were aroused, and it was believed, that, as postulated by Hipocrates, the wandering womb disliked the pungent odor and would return to its place, allowing the woman to recover her consciousness.

  • 1840s: Activist Dorothea Dix lobbied for better living conditions for the mentally ill after witnessing the dangerous and unhealthy conditions in which many patients lived. Dix successfully persuaded the U.S. government to fund the building of 32 state psychiatric hospitals.

  • 1849: The first woman doctor appeared on the scene! Of course, prior to Elizabeth Blackwell, women had been in the health industry as nurses or birth maidens. No woman had the official M.D. title, however, and Elizabeth used it well by opening New York’s Infirmary for Women and Children and the first Women’s Medical College in America.

  • 1895: Until Freud it was believed that hysteria was the consequence of the lack of conception and motherhood. Freud reverses the paradigm: hysteria is a disorder caused by a lack of libidinal evolution (setting the stage of the Oedipal conflict). This means that a hysterical person is unable to live a mature relationship.



Late 20th century: 

People began to recognize and validate women’s mental health issues. As women began to challenge societal norms and centuries-old gender roles, women’s mental health awareness — and mental health awareness in general — became a global talking point. Instead of writing off symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses, physicians began to diagnose and treat these conditions with various therapies and medications.

  • 1954: The first time social science research was used in a Supreme Court ruling. The impact of this decision is still being evaluated today. 

  • 1962: The first Latina in the US earns a PhD in Psychology.

  • 1970: The first Asian American Community Mental Health Program is created in California.

  • 1976: African-American psychologist Robert Val Guthrie wrote that in psychology “even the rat was white.” Psychology was not only white, it was also male. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, psychology became more diverse, more socially-engaged, and more relevant to all people.

  • 1980: The American Psychological Association (APA) changed the diagnosis of “hysteria” to “conversion disorder.” The field of psychology now recognizes a variety of women’s hormonal and mental health conditions that were historically known as hysteria, including dissociative and somatic symptom disorders.

  • 1984: The Federal Department of Justice Task Force on Family Violence sheds light on the high domestic violence rates on women by examining just how many women this epidemic affected. This is what led to better mental and health coverage for women who experienced domestic violence.

  • 1989: Klerman suggested that depression was more likely to manifest in those born after WWII

  • 1999: The first-ever Surgeon General’s report on mental health was released. In this report, a stark difference in depression rates in genders was highlighted, thus beginning the journey to give women the specific care they needed to lessen their risk for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders.


  • 2018: According to a BBC article on gender bias in healthcare: Women are more likely to wait longer for a health diagnosis and to be told its “all in their heads. Women also face additional risk factors for mental illness including that they are more likely to be the main caregivers for their children, over represented in low-income, low-status jobs, and more likely to experience physical or sexual abuse


While the word “hysteria” may be gone, the historical stigma surrounding women’s mental health treatment remains. Even today, physicians and the general public all too often tell women they’re imagining or exaggerating their symptoms. Many women still feel ashamed to open up about their struggles — especially in an era when societal pressure makes them feel they must juggle so many responsibilities perfectly and without complaint. It’s important to remember that we need to be part of the movement to continue improving attitudes, accessibility, treatments, and conversations regarding mental health. This Women’s History Month, use your voice, your platform, and your personal experiences to connect with other women and remind the world that mental health awareness is not just an option — it is a necessity.



Thank you THELMA G ALPER! Alper deserves to be recognized as the woman who helped force the traditional, all-male faculty to accept female professors at Harvard. The discrimination against women in academia was not limited to Harvard  


Thank you AMY C. BRODKEY (of Mount Airy, PA)! Brodkey spent more than 40 years working to improve women’s health services, community psychiatry, and other underfunded initiatives in Philadelphia and across the country.  Her research showed that compulsive shopping could be as damaging to people as drug and alcohol addiction. In March 1971, on International Women’s Day, she protested the need for Cambridge’s first official women’s center.


Thank you PHYLLIS BRONSTEIN! Bronstein realized that a scarcity of information in the psychology literature existed not only about females, but about everyone who was not heterosexual, able-bodied, and of western European heritage, she and Kat Quina proposed an edited book to APA, which became Teaching a Psychology of People: Resources for Gender and Sociocultural Awareness.


Thank you HELENE DEUTSCH! Deutsch became the first psychoanalyst to write a book about female psychology. She helped to push her mentor Sigmund Freud into writing articles about female psychology. Deutsch  insisted on the neglected role of mothering which has a special significance for female psychology.


Thank you LETA HOLLINGWORTH! Hollingworth fought against the New York City's school district who would not hire married women as teachers. She advocated for curricular change, wrote several articles related to the psychology of women, and became a strong voice for establishing certification requirements for applied psychologists.

Thank you KAREN HORNEY! Horney founded feminist psychology and studied how gender power imbalance impacts mental health treatment. She recognized how the differences between men and women originate in socialization and culture, not biology. She contradicted Freud’s notion of penis envy and stated that women have a “desire for the status and recognition afforded to men by the culture”. She further argued that men's need to succeed sprung from womb envy - their inability to carry and bear children.”  


Thank you MARIE JAHODA! Jahoda became the first woman president of (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues) SPSSI, which had been established in 1936 to provide a forum for socially conscious psychologists to apply psychological research to social issues


Thank you ELEANOR MACCABY! Maccaby became the 1st woman chair of psychology at Stanford.  Her book was the first large-scale review of the literature on gender differences, which established that some such [sex]  differences are universal, whereas many others vary from culture to culture. It continues to be heavily cited today.

Thank you MARTHA MEDNICK! Mednick's work brings issues of race, class and gender to the forefront of the field. She has challenged the assumption of gender equality within Israeli communities and has worked extensively to create platforms where perspectives of Jewish, American, and Arab women can be heard.


Thank you SUSAN NOLEN-HOEKSEMA! Nolen-Hoeksema shaped the field’s perspective on depression in women and girls. Her work on gender differences in depression included a 1987 theoretical evaluation of why women are more likely to develop depression than men. … Her work demonstrated that rumination is also a risk factor for substance abuse and eating disorders.


Thank you ELIZABETH PACKARD! Packard petitioned the Illinois and Massachusetts legislatures, in 1869, to allow married women equal rights to property and custody of their children. Because of her, the State of Illinois passed a "Bill for the Protection of Personal Liberty" which guaranteed that all people accused of insanity, including wives, had the right to a public hearing.


Thank you MARY BROWN PARLEE! Parlee examined the significance of menstruation for adolescent females. As part of her research, she reviewed literature on what was beginning to be called premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Parlee was strongly against calling premenstrual changes a “syndrome” since there was no sound evidence supporting its labeling as a syndrome. She was also wary of the attention that PMS was receiving from the medical community and drug companies. Finally, she was concerned that the emergence of PMS could have a detrimental impact on women’s likelihood of success in court cases and custody battles…. Coming from a biology background, she was outraged that biology might be used to justify discrimination against women


Thank you ETHEL PUFFER HOWES! Puffer completed the Harvard Ph.D. but instead of a diploma, she received a certificate saying that she had completed the work. As a result of Puffer's actions, in 1902 four women were offered doctoral degrees. Puffer proposed that women modify their career plans by choosing professional work that allowed them flexibility. The goal was for women to achieve continuity throughout their lives, not the professional dead end [because of household and child-rearing responsibilities] that Puffer had experienced. … Under Puffer the Institute for the Coordination of Women's Interests at Smith College was productive in successfully integrating home and professional concerns, developing a cooperative nursery school and a food service which delivered ready-made hot meals.

Thank you GEORGENE SEWARD! Seward was frequently denied promotions in favor of men who were less qualified than she. Her research debunked the myth of menstrual invalidism, demonstrating no impact of the menstrual cycle on working women. As a victim of sex discrimination, Seward was a researcher devoted to issues critical to women, and an early advocate of women seeking mental health treatment from female therapists.


Thank you VIRGINIA STAUDT SEXTON! Sexton is best known specialist on the history of women in psychology. Her  work on women contained strong implicit and explicit elements of advocacy to improve women's status within psychology and in the larger world 


Thank you AMY TANNER! Tanner centered her research on whether men evidenced greater mental variability than women, and what the cause of such a difference in variability might be. In her view, it was impossible to distinguish possible biological differences from those due to the different social and educational environments in which the sexes existed. Her psychological investigation of the effects of female labor on the mind was an attempt to document the lived experience of this laboring class and advocate for labor reform. 


Thank you CLARA THOMPSON! Thompson was considering the effects of culture and personality development on women. Her work brought attention to women in society, and women within a therapeutic context.


Thank you TROTULA DE RUGGIERO! Trotula was an expert in women' diseases and disorders, in the 11th century. Recognizing women as being more vulnerable than men, she explained how the suffering related to gynecological diseases was “intimate”: women often, out of shame, do not reveal their troubles to the doctor. Trotula was devoted to the study of women’ diseases, of which she tried to capture the secrets, without being influenced by the prejudices and morals of her time.



Thank you MARY BALLOU! Ballou applies a feminist-ecological orientation to understand, and works to mitigate, how global issues, oppression, and environmental factors impact mental and physical health. She is committed to bringing feminism to mainstream psychology and academia… Ballou's areas of scholarship focus on feminist practice, health psychology, crisis intervention, intersections of gender and other oppressed identities, and advancing the feminist-ecological model.


Thank you JOY HARDEN BRADFORD! Joy is a psychologist and the host of Therapy for Black Girls, an online space dedicated to encouraging the mental wellness of black women and girls. She uses innovative methods of podcasts, online platforms, therapist directories, and even merchandise to form a community around promotion of mental health.


Thank you LAURA S. BROWN! Brown is the first out lesbian president of the Society for the Psychology of Women (SPW). Brown depicts feminist psychology as the study of “how gender and power are affected by everyone's intersecting identities.” She has been immensely honored by myriad professional organizations for her work regarding multicultural competency, trauma, feminist therapy theory, and LGBT issues.


Thank you JEAN LAU CHIN! Chin began a process of integrating the voices of minority women into the movement of feminist psychology. She advocates a strong sense of self to counter the double standards minorities inevitably face. Rather than pathologize ethnic women's continued struggle with the issues surrounding bias and oppression, she encourages us to see it as a normative and necessary process. 


Thank you JOAN CHRISLER! Chrisler's research on menstruation critically examines social understandings of menstruation, such as the cultural construction of 'PMS'. In speaking about the constructed history of PMS, she states, "it is amazing to think in the 1970s that nobody knew what it was and now everybody thinks she has it." …she strongly believes in making academic work accessible through popular media. 


Thank you JESSICA HENDERSON DANIEL! Daniel was successful in securing funding for the Next Generation Program, a program she designed to mentor early career Black female psychologists who have an interest in research on adolescents.. In 1998, she was the first woman, the first person of color and the first psychologist to receive the very prestigious Harvard Medical School A. Clifford Barger Excellence in Mentoring Award.


Thank you FLORENCE DENMARK of Philadelphia! Denmark was one of the founding members of the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP), an organization whose objective at that time was to target unjust employment practices within the American Psychological Association (APA)


Thank you PHYLLIS A. KATZ! Katz was the founding editor of the journal Sex Roles and has been recognized for her research on the development of gender and racial concepts and attitudes. Her books and writings analyze how corporations, states and countries have treated women and suggests how intelligent consumer choices can have positive effects for women. 


Thank you CATHERINE MONK! Monk directs the Perinatal Pathways lab at Columbia University Medical Center, where she researches ways to improve pregnant people’s well-being and their future children’s lives. Her team has significantly contributed to the body of scientific evidence about the emerging connections of trauma, anxiety, and depression across generations.


Thank you JANET MONTAG! Montag is a champion of women’s education and wellbeing, and making it possible to improve access to evidence-based mental health treatment across the world.


Thank you ALEXANDRA SAKS! Saks is a reproductive psychiatrist who is a leading expert in “matrescence,” a concept that she popularized in her TED talk.. and in her New York Times article. She is also host of the podcast Motherhood Sessions, providing easy-to-access mental health awareness and resources for pregnant women and new mothers.

Thank you CHERYL B. TRAVIS! Travis’s research has primarily focused on women and health care disparities, as well as on sexuality, feminism, sexual assault and gender equality.


Thank you JAN YODER! Yoder is the author of “Women and Gender: Transforming Psychology”, a textbook for Psychology of Women courses, now in its second edition… Dr. Yoder hopes for more research on women and families, as she feels the concept of balancing work and family for women is still an ambiguous one for the workplace


Thank you KAREN WYCHE! Wyche’s research focuses on women, women’s families, and how they cope in traumatic and ongoing circumstances

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