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Women in Science Lost in History #4: Mammie Phipps Clark

Timothy D. Wilson, psychologist, and professor at the University of Virginia is one of the many psychologists who feel discontent with the field’s rejection of science. He shared, “Once, during a meeting at my university, a biologist mentioned that he was the only faculty member present from a science department. When I corrected him, noting that I was from the Department of Psychology, he waved his hand dismissively, as [if] I were a Little Leaguer telling a member of the New York Yankees that I too played baseball,” (1).

A reason why the field is often overlooked as a science is that “psychology often does not meet the five basic requirements for a field to be considered scientifically rigorous”. These conditions are defined as terminology, quantifiability, the establishment of controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility, and predictability and testability. However, throughout the years, there have been numerous psychology-based experiments with quantitative results, control of extraneous variables, and standardized procedures set for reproducibility and testability, such as in the field of behavioral psychology investigating how a human’s biology influences their behavior.

Pete Daves from the Southern New Hampshire University also states that “there are some disciplines within psychology that are even more aligned with the natural sciences, such as neuropsychology, which is the study of the brain’s influence on behavior. Psychology is commonly recognized as social science and is included on the National Science Foundation’s roster of recognized STEM disciplines” (2).

Psychology, differing from many other STEM disciplines, has changed course throughout the years in terms of gender diversity. Data gathered from a 1986 APA report under the title of "The Changing Face of American Psychology" and the National Science Foundation show that the percentage of psychology PhDs awarded to men has been 70 percent before 1975, but over the years, the number has fallen to less than 30 percent. A 2020 report in Perspectives on Psychological Science titled “The Future of Women in Psychological Science” shows that women represent 78% of undergraduates and 71% of graduate students in psychology today (3). One may be curious as to why the proportion of men to women wasn't equal throughout the development of psychology as a science; the bitter truth is that until recently, even the thought of women's existence in any sort of academically demanding or thought-provoking field was considered a taboo.

This brings about the fourth and final woman featured in our series, Women in Science Lost in History.

Born in 1917 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Mamie Phipps Clark was born an African American to an America where slavery had been abolished 52 years ago. Although African Americans were allegedly at liberty to act on their individual needs, they only gained full equality under the law after the fair housing act of 1968. They were prohibited from being present in certain places, lacked the right to vote, and the right to obtain proper education was restricted (4).

As a result, Mamie was prohibited from entering stores belonging to White Americans and had to attend Black-only schools that were incredibly poorly funded. The impact of segregation is undeniable; it caused a severe difference in the daily lives of most, if not all, Black people.

Mamie’s childhood education was spent in segregated schools. “You always had to have a certain kind of protective armor about you, all the time," Mamie shared, “you learned the things not to do. You learned which streets not to go to when you were going to high school, so as to protect yourself. It happened that the white school and the black school were at opposite ends of the town, so the white children would come from this end to go to that end, and we would come from that end to go to this end, so we had to pass each other. So you had to develop all kinds of protective measures, really just to get by and not get into fights, which a lot of children did" (5). This made it evident for Mamie and her friends, even as children, that “there was a real chasm" between how the different races were treated and how it would inevitably impact their lives.

This seemed to trouble her more than most and thus her future work was based on outlawing the segregated schools.

Mamie graduated from a segregated high school when she was 17 years old while the United States was recovering from the Great Depression. Higher education, however, was largely inaccessible for black students, and even more so for those who were women. Mamie expressed the difficulty in getting accepted into universities in her personal essay stating that people like her “had relatively few choices ... and [were] absolutely prohibited to be accepted in larger southern universities” (6).

Perhaps due to the determination of her family in sending their children to receive further education and her status as a bright student who enjoyed intellectually challenging herself through subjects like math, she was offered scholarships by Fisk University in Tennessee and Howard University in Washington, D.C. where she was planning to major in math and physics. Unfortunately yet unsurprisingly, Mamie noticed that the mathematics professors were “detached” and “impersonal” particularly “[towards] the female students.”

Quite “prophetically”, a psychology student named Kenneth Clark, her husband-to-be, encouraged her to transfer to the psychology course after they met on campus. This turned out to change the course of her career into 36 years of discovering her passion for working with and for children. Mamie shares, “He opened up this whole area for [her], and [she] began to see what [she] was going to do with [herself]” (7). Mamie came to notice that she was interested in abnormal psychology which served the potential of working at a children’s mental hospital. She was also interested in the educational aspect of psychology and working with children in elementary schools.

She later met Thurgood Marshall and several other prominent civil rights lawyers during a summer job working in the office of civil rights lawyer Charles Houston; it was here that she decided that she was going to fight against segregation in schools. Her master’s thesis, “First Interests in Children and Development of Consciousness of Self” where she surveyed 150 Black preschool boys and girls from a DC nursery school to explore issues of race and child development, also played a significant factor in her determination to learn more. It was here that she found that children at segregated public schools became aware of their ‘blackness’, or rather what it brought them, very early in life. Racial awareness started developing at three to four years into life.

The Clarks became the first black recipients of psychology doctorates at Columbia University in 1943 where they published a paper on the emotional factors in racial identification in Black children. This is, to this day, their most renowned publication, as it is still largely known as the “Dolls Test”. A number of 253 Black children aged three to seven years old from which 134 attended segregated nursery schools in Arkansas and 119 attended integrated schools in Massachusetts participated in their research.

Each student was shown four dolls: two with white skin and blonde hair and two with darker skin and black hair. They were then asked to identify the race of the doll and select the one they preferred to play with. The results weren’t optimistic as most Black students from segregated schools shared that they preferred the white doll with yellow hair, sharing that they thought that the other doll was ”bad” and ”ugly” “like themselves” (8). The brown doll with black hair was therefore largely discarded by most of the children (8).

This led to the Clarks’ conclusion that “black children formed a racial identity by the age of three and attached negative traits to their own identity, which were perpetrated by segregation and prejudice” (9). The study was revolutionary as it was used in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the end of segregation in public schools. In spite of these revolutionary findings, Mamie was rejected from academic jobs, stating that a “black female with a Ph.D. in psychology was an unwanted anomaly in New York City in the early 1940s,” in her personal essay.

The collaboration of the husband and wife gave birth to several other revolutionary projects, including the initiation of their own agency in 1946, the Northside Center for Child Development, the first full-time child guidance center for families in the Harlem area (10).

Mamie was the last female scientist we chose to feature in our series in part because she was more than a scientist and also because she was another woman with another story that got lost. All the women we have mentioned, Eunice Foote, Dorothy Andersen, and Emmy Noether, have been women from different backgrounds.

However, they had all been privileged in a way, either by having a well-respected father in the university or by having access to scientific societies—privileges women like Mamie lacked. In a sense, with her father being a well-respected man, just as Emmy Noether’s had been, Mamie’s family was given more resources than what most of the Black population were prohibited from having access to. Nevertheless, Mamie was Black, which was quite a social obstacle at the time and posed far more difficulties in achieving success in academia than her fellow White women. Mamie faced racism, sexism, and the obvious fear that certain social taboos brought all at once. Thus her accomplishments show how strong she was as a woman, which is why we should not let her and her work be overlooked in the history of science, overshadowed by her male coworkers.

All in all, the network of the women we discussed, and the access they had to certain resources allowed us to somehow surface the stories of these revolutionary women. This brings to mind the question, how many other women were gifted with such intellectual ability, yet lacked the opportunity to be heard or seen as a result of the resources they had access to?

Works Cited

8 – Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky



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