I May Be the First…

When Vice President-elect Kamala Harris walked on stage in her white suffragette suit on November 7th, I cried. One hundred years after women won the right to vote in the USA, she is the first woman vice president. The first Black and Asian American woman vice president.

Photo Credit: Jon Anders Wiken / stock.adobe.com

Kamala Harris acknowledged the generations of pioneers whose vision and indefatigable stewardship made it possible for her to be elected vice president. Her first is a mile marker on a journey that has been forged by many who came before her and that will be carried forward by many yet to be named. The same is true in mental health. In a previous Five on Friday, I celebrated one hundred contemporary women leaders in mental health. Today, we nod with gratitude to five trailblazing women in mental health who helped pave the way.

1.

Dorothea Dix (1802 – 1887). American educator, social reformer, and advocate for the rights of people with mental illness, Dorothea Dix challenged the prevailing notions that people with mental illness were beyond help. She fought against cruel and abusive treatments, including caging, incarceration without clothing, and painful physical restraint. Her efforts led to widespread reforms aimed at restoring the dignity of people with mental illness. She championed building hospitals specially designed for people with mental illness, which moved them out of poor houses and jails. Today, however, around the world, we still have too many people with mental illness who are languishing in overpopulated hospitals that are lagging in care. Dix was focused on dignity. In her day, building specialty hospitals was the ‘how.’ If she were alive today, I am confident she would be championing programs that promote engagement and recovery in community.

2.

Inez Beverly Prosser (1895 – 1934). In 1933, at the University of Cincinnati, Inez Beverly Prosser became the first African American woman to earn her PhD in psychology. Born into a family of 11 children in south-central Texas and educated in a segregated school system, her family planned to send one child (a brother) to college. He convinced them to send Inez in his place. Prosser’s dissertation, “The Non-Academic Development of Negro Children in Mixed and Segregated Schools,” examined differences among Black children attending either voluntarily segregated or integrated schools. She concluded – controversially – that Black children fared better in segregated schools. Today we know that systemic racism contributes to unfavorable conditions in schools for children of color, and we can imagine such was the case in her day. Perhaps having the power to choose an all-Black school, not unlike choosing an all-girls school, has the benefit of creating a more hospitable learning environment for some. What needs to happen for children of any gender or color to be equally advantaged in every school?

3.

Anna Freud (1895 – 1982). Her father, Sigmund Freud is a household name, but Anna was a pioneer in her own right. The sixth and youngest child of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays, she started her career as an elementary school teacher, which provided the foundation for her to develop psychoanalytic psychology, alongside Melanie Klein, with a focus on children and adolescents. She founded the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic in London in 1947 and was its director from 1952 until her death in 1982, after which it was renamed the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. Her work is central to our modern understanding of the unique needs of children and stages of early development – debunking the notion that children are simply small adults. Today, our work on adverse childhood experiences can trace its roots to her pioneering work with children in London following WWII.

4.

Mary Ainsworth (1913 – 1999). Canadian developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth is best known for her groundbreaking work in understanding the infant-mother relationship and formulating a theory of attachment that is foundational to how we understand relationship styles today. In her work with John Bowlby, Ainsworth designed an experiment called the “Strange Situation” where she created different conditions to observe how children responded to the comings and goings of familiar and unfamiliar adults. She demonstrated that our early relationship to our primary caregiver is the base from which we explore the world. Characterized as “Secure,” “Insecure Avoidant,” or “Insecure Ambivalent/Resistant,” Ainsworth posited that the quality of that primary attachment shapes our “attachment style” as we go forward in the world and develop other relationships. Her work on attachment style and mental health permeates our thinking about relationships – from early separation and trauma to strategies focused on conflict resolution.

5.

Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983). A pioneering researcher on race, self-esteem, and child development, when Mamie Phipps Clark was granted her PhD in 1943, she also became the first Black woman to earn a degree from Columbia University. Among her many important contributions to psychology, she conducted a series of studies using what came to be known as the Clark Doll Test to examined the impact of segregation on Black American children’s attitudes toward race, self-identity, and self-esteem. She found that African American children who were forced to attend segregated schools showed a preference for playing with White dolls over Black dolls. Her work influenced the historic US Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education landmark decision that established forced-segregation in schools unconstitutional. Work today focused on identifying and addressing systemic racism and combating internalized self-stigma can trace their roots to the formative work that Clark pioneered.


… but I won’t be the last.

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University
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