Women in Mental Health History: 6 Groundbreakers You Should Know About

By: Raven Garza (she/they)

Collage of Melanie E. Bernal, E. Kitch Childs, and Melanie Klein

Every March, we honor women’s contributions throughout American history as part of Women’s History Month. The National Women’s History Alliance’s theme for 2024 is about recognizing women who worked to eliminate bias and discrimination from our lives and institutions.

In this post, we’ll highlight women who made strides in the mental health field, improved care for marginalized communities, and advocated for themselves— all while facing established forces that tried to misinterpret or discredit them.

6 women who made an impact in the mental health industry

1) E. Kitch Childs, PhD (1937 - 1993)

Kitch Childs was an American clinical psychologist who advocated for the rights of marginalized women, sex workers, and the queer community. She helped found the Association for Women in Psychology, and she was the first Black woman to earn her doctorate in Human Development at the University of Chicago. 

She strongly supported feminist therapy and used a treatment model that helped her clients advocate for themselves and racial justice. In 1993, Dr. Childs was also inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame for helping remove homosexuality from being listed as a psychological disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

2) Mami Phipps Clark, PhD (1917 - 1983)

Mamie Phipps Clark, an American social psychologist, was the first Black woman to get a doctoral degree in psychology from Columbia University. She partnered with her husband, Kenneth Clark, to expand her thesis research on self-identification in black children.

This work eventually shifted into the well-known “doll tests,” which looked at the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children. Dr. Clark and her husband’s testimony during Brown vs. Board of Education contributed to the decision to end segregation in public schools.

3) Melanie Klein (1882 - 1960)

Austrian-British author and psychoanalyst Melanie Klein is known for her work in child analysis. She was one of the first to use psychoanalysis on children and implemented several new techniques and tools, such as play therapy, that helped children communicate about psychological issues.

She’s also recognized as one of the creators of object relations theory, which emphasizes interactions between individuals. The theory suggests that people are primarily motivated by the need for contact with others and the need to form relationships.

4) Martha E. Bernal, PhD (1931 - 2001)

Martha E. Bernal was the first Latina to receive a PhD in psychology in the U.S. Some of her biggest contributions include advancing multicultural psychology and treatment for children with behavior problems.

She recognized that psychology had subtly instilled inaccurate ideas about race and the clinical treatment of marginalized communities, so she was moved to create more diverse research and speak out against injustice. 

Dr. Bernal published around 60 journal articles and book chapters, led several associations throughout her career, and inspired a new generation of Latino/a psychologists by mentoring students and encouraging their learning.

5) Mary Whiton Calkins (1863 - 1930)

Mary Whiton Calkins was part of the first generation of American psychologists and served as the first female President of the American Psychological Association (APA). Calkins has a long record of impressive accomplishments, such as inventing the paired-associates technique, founding one of the first laboratories in psychology, and writing four books and over 100 articles.

Although Calkins was allowed to attend seminars at Harvard University (a male-only institution at the time) and passed all of the requirements needed to earn a PhD, she was never given the degree simply because she was a woman.

6) Reiko Homma True, PhD (1933 - Present)

Reiko Homma True made significant improvements in mental health treatment for Asian American women. For example, her work titled “Psychotherapeutic Issues with Asian American Women” (1990) highlights the importance of cultural competency.

The journal article argues that healthcare professionals need to be trained to meet the needs of a culturally diverse public. That includes using interpreters and reevaluating the individualistic assumptions found in white Western psychology concepts.

These days, Dr. True continues to support Asian psychologists in navigating the Western system of psychology education and practice. She also works with the nonprofit NichiBei Care to provide mental health services to Japanese individuals worldwide.

Resources from the MHTTC and others

Our team at the South Southwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center Network (MHTTC) collected a list of resources to help you learn more about supporting women’s mental health and overall well-being.

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The MHTTC network resources

Resources from other organizations

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 

American Psychological Association 

Mental Health America 

National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health 

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) 

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