She Paved The Way: Five Women Pioneers In Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Despite the fact that women tend to make up the majority of people in the mental health field – and have played significant roles in psychology since its inception – the most well-known pioneers of psychology are typically men. To this day, women in the field usually face higher amounts of debt compared to their male counterparts and wage gaps as high as $20,000. One way to fight the inequalities in the mental health field may be to recognize the brilliant and innovative women who have made major contributions to psychology. Margaret Morgan Lawrence, Anna Freud, Karen Horney, Martha Bernal, and Eleanor Maccoby may be just a few of the notable female contributors to the field of psychology. If you’re experiencing any kind of mental health challenges or believe you could benefit from speaking with a licensed mental health professional, online or in-person therapy may be a valuable resource.

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Women in psychology: Overcoming barriers

Psychology is usually said to have originated in the 17th century with Rene Descartes’ concept of dualism, which suggests the mind and body may be two separate entities. As time went on, psychology generally evolved into a school of thought and eventually turned into the modern psychology we know today. 

Many women faced barriers to learning more about psychology and leading research studies for various reasons, including the view that women were less intelligent and more emotionally reactive than men and, therefore, unable to handle the demands of academic environments.

Thanks to the contributions of persistent, brilliant women, many females have chipped away at these stereotypes to make critical contributions to the field of psychology, though they didn’t always receive attention or accolades. Let’s delve into the remarkable discoveries of five female psychologists.

Margaret Morgan Lawrence

Margaret Morgan Lawrence was born in 1914 in New York City, though she grew up in Mississippi. Two years before she was born, her brother passed away as a small child, leading her parents into the depths of grief even into Margaret’s childhood. The loss impacted Margaret so much that she decided to become a doctor to help children like her brother. Though she graduated from Cornell College with excellent grades, Cornell Medical School would not admit her because she was Black.

Instead, she attended Columbia University of Physicians and Surgeons and was the only African American student in her graduating class of 1940. Dr. Lawrence frequently fought racism and sexism as she began her career in medicine, but it didn’t stop her from creating a flourishing and distinguished profession that went on to make profound impacts in the field. 

She became the first Black resident ever admitted to the New York Psychiatric Institute and then the first practicing child psychiatrist in Rockland County, New York. Lawrence then went on to develop some of the first child psychiatry programs for schools, daycares, and hospitals

Dr. Lawrence’s focus on the intersection of community, spirituality, and health provided a groundbreaking lens through which to look at child development. Her tenacity in fighting systemic racism and sexism continues to inspire African Americans and women of color in the mental health field. 

Anna Freud

When you hear the name “Freud,” you most likely think of Sigmund Freud, the creator of psychoanalysis. However, his daughter, Anna Freud, may have been just as influential as her father. The youngest of six siblings, Anna Freud was born in Austria in 1895. She was very close to her father and learned much about psychology from him and his colleagues as she grew up. 

She began her career as an elementary school teacher, and this profession sparked her interest in the field of child psychoanalysis. Though her father did not believe psychoanalysis was possible with children, Anna Freud’s discoveries in the field proved otherwise, and her work continues to shape how we understand child psychology. On top of her contributions to child psychology, Anna Freud is credited with her discoveries concerning ego psychology and defense mechanisms – two important concepts commonly used in mental health care today.

Karen Horney

Karen Horney, born in Germany in 1885, was an important figure in feminine psychology. A neo-Freudian psychologist, Horney is primarily known for challenging Freud’s idea of penis envy with the concept of womb envy, which suggests that men may feel a sense of inferiority due to their inability to bear children. 

In her book Feminine Psychology, Horney wrote, “Is not the tremendous strength in men of the impulse to creative work in every field precisely due to their feeling of playing a relatively small part in the creation of living beings, which constantly impels them to an overcompensation in achievement?"

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Horney, who lived with a mental illness and struggled with depression throughout her life, also made significant contributions to the field of mental health with her theory of neurosis. Rather than seeing neuroses as entirely negative, Horney suggested that only over-reliance on neurotic behavior should be seen as negative. Ultimately, Horney’s perspectives challenged the male-dominated thinking of the time and shaped our current ideas surrounding neuroses and the Freudian approach.

Martha Bernal

Martha Bernal was one of the most influential female pioneers in mental health because she was the first Latina to receive a Ph.D. in psychology in the United States when she graduated from Indiana University in 1962. 

Dr. Bernal’s work centered around two major areas: First, to bring more empirically researched methods of treatment to children with behavioral issues, and second, to advance multicultural psychology. Dr. Bernal also worked to ensure that students of color could access graduate training, working to increase the number of minority students who attended graduate school. 

While studying how psychologists prepared to work with ethnic minority clients, Dr. Bernal noticed a lack of relevant training and few students and faculty of color. From there, she helped to create the National Hispanic Psychological Association (now referred to as the National Latinx Psychological Association or NLPA) and later served as its president. 

Bernal went on to study Mexican American children and how they connected with their identities while offering schools and psychologists tools to provide children with more culturally appropriate care. On top of her contributions to multicultural psychology, Dr. Bernal was awarded the 2001 Contributions to Psychology Award by the Public Interest Directorate. 

Eleanor Maccoby

Born in 1917 in Tacoma, Washington, Eleanor Maccoby became the first woman to ever serve as the chair of the Stanford Department of Psychology in the School of Humanities and Sciences. On top of that achievement, Maccoby is often known for her groundbreaking work in gender studies and child and family psychology.

With a focus on developmental psychology, Dr. Maccoby helped shape the way we see the differences in boys’ and girls’ emotional attachments. Dr. Maccoby also provided instrumental insight into the way we understand gender roles, with her research suggesting that cultural, social, and parental influences can be more impactful than biology when it comes to expressions of gender. 

Due to these discoveries, Dr. Maccoby helped to shift narratives about the differences between men and women. On top of these psychological advancements, Dr. Maccoby was the president of Division 7 of the American Psychological Association from 1971 to 1972.

The importance of women in the mental health field

Mental health disorders can affect men and women differently. Additionally, the prevalence of certain mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, tends to be higher in women than men. Because of the differences in mental health disorder rates and gender, it may be vital that the psychology of men and women – and their potential differences – are thoroughly studied.

Historically, psychological concerns that happen primarily to women have been studied mainly by women. While this situation seems to be improving as time goes on, more research on women’s health can demonstrate the dire need for women in mental health care. Though women in the mental health field may face challenges like sexism and unfair wage gaps – with a $39,648 gap in health services, the category in which most psychologists are employed – women’s contributions to psychology can’t be understated. 

How therapy can benefit you

Everyone tends to face challenges in life, and working with a mental health professional can be one way to cope with those challenges. Whether you’re facing a stressful situation or a diagnosed mental health condition, a licensed therapist can offer insight, tools, coping mechanisms, and other specialized mental health treatments to help you feel better. 

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When it comes to therapy, you have options. When searching for a therapist, you can search based on a specific therapeutic modality, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based therapy, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or any other modality that suits your needs. You can also choose which therapy setting works best for you, whether that’s group therapy, individual in-office therapy, couples therapy, family therapy, or online therapy. 

Benefits of online therapy

Online therapy can be a particularly convenient and accessible option for many people since it enables you to receive therapy from the comfort of your home without long commutes or waiting times. Some women may feel more comfortable meeting with a female therapist who may have a lived experience enduring something they themselves are living with (such as post-partum depression or an eating disorder, which tend to be more prevalent among women). BetterHelp enables users to make their preferences clear during the matching process.

Effectiveness of online therapy

Studies show that online therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy. Both in-person and online therapy can be valid options for those seeking professional help with mental health-related challenges and concerns.


In general, celebrating women and their achievements should be done on more occasions than Women’s History Month in March. Although many of the lauded psychologists we hear about may be men, it can be essential to recognize the many women who have made breakthroughs, advanced change, and positively impacted countless people with their contributions to the mental health field. Overall, the five women highlighted in this article, along with many others in the field, have made invaluable contributions to the mental health field that continue to be referenced today. If you’re interested in learning more about female psychologists or meeting with a professional to discuss your own mental health concerns, you can reach out to a licensed therapist online or in your local area.
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