Leta Hollingworth challenged and disproved stereotypical generalizations about women. This was her greatest contribution to the psychology of her sex, not to mention the general education of women or the specific education of gifted girls as well. Beliefs such as “To be a true woman means to be yet more mother than wife” (Hall, 1918) could not exist unchallenged.
Hollingworth showed that from earliest childhood in uncountable small ways both at home and in school, girls were taught the ideal legitimate expression of adult womanhood: a life of slavery to domestic chores and maternal concerns (Shields, 1990). Regardless of ability, women were more maternal than intelligent; higher education was a waste of time and dollars.
Hollingworth railroaded the mythical, Madonna-like nature of women by derailing the premise that women’s mental and motor abilities are cyclical, intimately connected with the ebb and flow of the menstrual cycle. By nature, women perform best during that part of the month when they are free from the disabling condition of menstrual blood flow. Not so, claimed Leta. Her study “Functional Periodicity: An Experimental Study of the Mental and Motor Ability of Women during Menstruation” (Hollingworth, 1914) clearly aborted that male myth.
She used six women and two males as controls. Their mental and perceptual-motor skills such as tapping, color naming, naming opposites, etc. were tested daily. During the entire three months of the study, three of the women were monitored while they learned to type. Hollingworth uncovered no trace of skill reduction associated with the phases of the menstrual cycle. Prior literature, much of which was unproven superstition or prejudice, was wrong. More recently, Sommer (1973) substantiated Leta’s earlier claims. The aptitude of girls in school gifted or not, remains as constant as boys.
INNATE MALE SUPERIORITY.
Destroyed forever, by Hollingworth, was another masculine myth: men, by nature, were more intelligent than women. Perhaps Darwin helped maintain this position when he innocently stated that as a whole, the physical characteristics of the males in a species tend to vary a great deal–those of the females remain rather homogeneous (1871). While his innocent comment was intended exclusively for brutes, psychologists like J. McKeen Cattell extended it to include human intelligence. He claimed that, from the mean under the normal curve, a distribution of women is less than an equal distribution of men (1903).
Hollingworth irreverently destroyed this theory. She and Helen Montague examined birth records of 1000 new born boys along with an equal number of girls. Her findings: if physical variation favors sex at all, it favors women (Montague & Hollingworth, 1914). Point by point, she refuted the “greater variability” literature of her time. Clearly, the social application of this theory was incorrect (Shields, 1990).
Leta insisted that women are to be educated as male equals. Teachers need not adjust instruction or curriculum for inferior female ability. Sadly however, Hollingworth also showed that many women of her time, like those of today, even those of gifted intelligence, remain psychologically uneducated to think of themselves as male equals. This mythical attitude will continue in the world until prejudiced psychologists and educators are buried.
Hollingworth forced a complete rethinking of the natural maternality of girls when she found that gifted girls, as a group, were more interested in boys’ play, in boys’ books, in boys’ interests (1926, 1942). Highly precocious girls simply did not fit the milkmaid-like straight jackets which society, psychologists and educators wanted to lace on them.
Because gifted girls were more competitive and aggressive than the typical female was permitted to be, they were subsequently maligned as tomboys. Even Terman’s studies claimed to show gifted girls deviating toward the masculine slope of the normal curve (Stein & Heinze, 1983). It is easy to see that early in the gifted girl’s life, she would perceive her sex, wrong; her ambitions, boyish (Silverman, 1990), her interests, too much like her brothers.
But Hollingworth assaulted these misconceptions head on. She showed that gifted girls were interested in boys’ games and toys because they provided a means for exploration and excitement both physically and mentally. Why would a gifted girl accept the limited role of endlessly diapering a baby doll when she could become physically and/or intellectually involved with a chemistry set, Treasure Island, or with models of rockets and spacemen actively journeying to far distant realms of the galaxy?
Attesting to Hollingworth’s characteristics for precocious girls this author’s own gifted daughter, Marnie, at a very early age, was more concerned with the tube-like intestinal route for mushy food, from mouth to anus, inside her motorized, food-swallowing baby doll. She could have cared less about soiled diapers. Marnie was more interested in climbing high trees to “see the whole world” and riding her tricycle to “the end of the planet” than playing house or teaching school on the front porch (Schilken, 1969).
A second gifted daughter at the age of four, Cathy, became obsessed with ballet, but never for the sake of doing what girls are supposed to do. Both physically and mentally, dance became an exciting opportunity to master the most exacting techniques and positions of her Russian ballet instructor, along with the chance to memorize their obliquely difficult French and Russian names (Schilken, 1971).
Leta Hollingworth’s assertions about women are as meaningful today, as they were fifty years ago. Gifted girls have strong interests in those activities which are not physically restrictive or mentally confining. They want to explore. They want to eek out their own answers.
At home and in school, they naturally seek exciting activities which involve solving problems and uncovering new ideas. Personal discovery which allows the mind to jump logical gaps to acquire new knowledge is a uniquely human capability (Polanyi, 1958). Proven to be mental matches with boys, girls need similar educational experiences so that they too, may take giant strides to new shores of reality.
Next: THE NATURE OF GIFTED EDUCATION