Breakthroughs For Women Psychologists Highlighted Last Quarter Of 20th Century

By Henry Saeman, Editor
March 1, 2000



If the year 2000 ratings for “best” and “greatest” advancements were ranked by quarter centuries, the likelihood is that 1975-2000 would be cast as “the quarter century of the woman.” Particularly, the woman psychologist.

If Freud and his theories dominated the first part of the century, and the practitioners’ foothold became one of the transcending themes of the ’60s and ’70s, the role of women and the achievements of women psychologists in America came close to reaching the moon in the last three decades.

During the first 70 years of the 20th century, their roles were limited, particularly when compared with the decades that have followed. Women were not discriminated against in licensing laws but the trick for them was to gain admittance to graduate programs. Although women graduates taught in psychology programs long before their roles became widespread and significant, university department governance was the undisputed domain of male faculty members who cherished their seemingly predestined preferential roles.

Then came women like Florence Kaslow, Ph.D. and an entirely new breed of her peers who felt unfulfilled in just the traditional roles that virtually required marriage, family, being a housewife and supporting their husbands’ career at the exclusion of using their education and talents. They clamored for change–and achieved it.

Kaslow lived through the historic quarter century after receiving her doctorate degree from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1969. Her story may symbolize the observations of thousands of women whose lives changed dramatically as their movement took hold.

“Even in the 1960s, there was a group of women for whom the designated domestic career no longer sufficed,” Kaslow recalls vividly. “These were ultra-bright, energetic women who excelled as undergraduates and were not content with being restricted to the female-defined professions of nursing and teaching. They wanted more from their careers, and they knew they were capable.”

None of it was easy, and progress bore some resemblance to the concurrent civil rights movement. “I was told at a few places,” Kaslow said, recalling a frequent reaction of the times when she applied to graduate schools: “We can’t give away an opening that would go to a man because you’ll probably have children and not use your education.” The same modus operandi was familiar to women applying for graduate fellowships, according to Kaslow.

The irony of the times was that many bright women who played bridge, golf or did volunteer work were applauded, while the combination of motherhood and career was disdained with disparaging remarks like “what will happen to your children when you are not available.”?

Kaslow describes the results of the perseverance of those in the vanguard: “What has happened over the past 30 years is that universities have attracted significantly more female students who had significantly more life and family experience, were more work-oriented and did less partying,” she declared. “These women asked more challenging questions in classes. They did not necessarily endear themselves because they were less idolizing of faculty.” In addition, she said, the pendulum swung when male enrollment plummeted. The payoff in recruiting women has been so successful that gender balance shifted to a preponderance of women.

All this created greater pressure for additional female faculty, supervisors, mentors and administrators. It also led to women moving into higher rank at universities. When Kaslow was the first of two women to become a full professor in a large university medical school’s department of mental health science, they broke a long-existing barrier; their predecessors had been unwilling to stay long enough to overcome the odds. While opportunities have since soared for women, Kaslow points to data which indicates that women continue to be underrepresented at the top levels of educational institutions.

Kaslow’s own career since leaving Hahneman has achieved fairly predictable turns. She became the first female dean of a professional school, assuming that role at the Florida School of Professional Psychology, the forerunner of the Nova University Psy.D. program. Later, she established a private practice in Palm Beach Gardens, FL as a therapist, mediator and family business consultant.

She also points pridefully to her daughter, Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University in Atlanta as well as her son, Howard, who like her husband, Sol, are stock brokers and financial advisors.

As she recollects the changes for women, Kaslow reflects on a spectrum of revolutionary milestones that have permanently changed the lives of women psychologists. Perhaps most significant has been the acknowledgment by husbands that they must play a larger, more central role in child-rearing, helping their children with homework, chauffeuring and special activities–all to contribute to making their families function better and feeling more connected to their children.

When families relocate in this new world for women, the decisions are based on mutual agreement of the spouses rather than the husband being the dominant decisionmaker. This change is particularly visible in military families where transfers are recurrent and wives may indicate they prefer not to move if they do not wish to leave a good job, be uprooted from friends or continuously disrupt children’s schooling.

As women gained earning power and became successful entrepreneurs, they were able to take control over their own finances, maintaining their own investment portfolios, contributing generously to their favorite charitable causes or political causes. By becoming substantial contributors, they gained access and a voice in key board rooms when important deliberations were made, Kaslow believes.

She also points to the emergency of women’s health centers which have altered the way women can be treated for disease. most notably ovarian and breast cancer. There has not, heretofore, been any real recognition that menopause is part of a woman’s mental and physical lifecycle rather than an illness. With female psychologists, physicians and attorneys speaking out, health issues, long-denied domestic violence and child abuse have become major concerns and illustrate the changed world of women.

Gone, too, are the times when single women were viewed with disdain. Terms, such as “spinster” and “old maid,” that endured through much of the previous century have virtually disappeared from the vocabulary. “It’s entirely acceptable,” says Kaslow, “for women today to choose the freedom of being single, including being a single parent by choice, to enjoy their careers, their friendship network, their travels, financial independence and autonomy instead of marriage.

“At the beginning of the new century, it is evident that women have successfully created and availed themselves of a panoply of options–they can choose career and/or marriage and a family; they can do this simultaneously or sequentially; they can enter almost any field of endeavor,” Kaslow declared. “In psychology, they can be and are academicians, researchers, administrators, supervisors, authors, editors, mentors, clinicians and politicians. This progress will continue and extend many new and yet uncharted horizons.”

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