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Influential Psychologist Overturned Assumptions About Men and Women

Eleanor Emmons Maccoby ’39

December 11, 2018, in Palo Alto, California, at the age of 101, of pneumonia.

One of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, Eleanor was renowned for research showing that—in most respects—the minds of men and women do not differ, overturning centuries of dubious assumptions. She made key contributions to understanding differences in development between girls and boys, infants’ emotional attachments, and how divorce and child custody affect children.

The second of four daughters born to Eugene and Viva Emmons, Eleanor spent her early years on the shores of Day Island and in Tacoma, Washington. She contracted encephalitis as a child and was comatose for a time. The tomboy of the family, she went by the name of Bobby and had extensive conversations with her imaginary playmates, a married couple named Mr. and Mrs. Suddenly and their young son, Tumor.

An overachiever in grade and high school, Eleanor was awarded a one-year scholarship at Reed. It was a game changer; it became apparent that many of her classmates were just as accustomed to being the smartest kid in class. Used to knowing all the answers in grade and high school, Eleanor was taken aback when asked to provide evidence supporting her assertions in class.

“I began to realize that some of the things I thought I knew were really only opinions,” she said.

She sweated over her term paper in hopes of being chosen for evenings of discussion at the home of Prof. Rex Arragon [history 1923–74], and years later acknowledged using his methods in her own teaching career.

When the one-year scholarship ended, Eleanor’s father told her he couldn’t afford Reed tuition. She took the year off, attended secretarial school, and then got a job in her father’s factory so she could earn money for another year at Reed, which commenced in the fall of 1936. She was elected to the student council and took a psychology class from Prof. Monte Griffith [psychology 1926–54], which turned out to be profoundly important for the subsequent course of her life.

Remembering Griffith as a gargantuan man—six feet, three inches tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds—who had earned his college tuition as a professional prizefighter, Eleanor termed him “a dyed-in-the-wool behaviorist.” Having only recently spun off from philosophy, the field of psychology was still not taught as a separate discipline in some colleges.

“The mission of the new discipline,” Eleanor wrote in her memoir, “was to understand why humans behave the way they do. Most behaviorists adopted the assumption that a newborn infant was a tabula rasa who gradually learned an expanding set of behavioral habits.”

By the spring of her sophomore year, Eleanor had fallen into a deep, existential depression. Writing doom-laden poetry and feeling purposeless, she wondered whether life could really be nothing more than automatically following a path determined by events over which one has no control?

“From a sophomore’s perspective, the takeaway message from Monty’s teachings was that we have no free will,” she later reflected. “Later in my career as a psychologist, I came to see behaviorism as an intellectual straitjacket. Indeed, I, along with the whole field of psychology, have morphed toward a much deeper analysis of human behavior as a function of environmental inputs and genetic characteristics, as these feed into emotional, cognitive, and self-regulating processes—all connected to brain development and functioning.”

She stopped working on term papers, skipped meals, and hid from friends. In those days, Reed had about 400 students and the person considered the most qualified to counsel emotionally distressed students was the sole psychologist on the faculty—Prof. Griffith. Eleanor dropped out of school.

Over the summer she recovered and applied to the University of Washington. She wanted a full psychology department and was eager to study with Prof. Edwin Guthrie, the man who had taught Griffith. Her Reed boyfriend, Ben Barzman ’38, came to Seattle and introduced her to his friend Nathan (Mac) Maccoby ’33, a teaching fellow at UW. Mac showed Eleanor around the psychology department and they began playing tennis together. At the beginning of her senior year, they married.

After getting her bachelor’s degree, Eleanor followed Mac to Oregon, where he taught undergraduate psychology at Oregon State, and enrolled for graduate classes at the University of Oregon. At the end of the school year, the couple returned to Portland to work with Prof. Griffith. That fall, war began in Europe and Max took a job with the U.S. Civil Service Commission in Washington, D.C. Eleanor got a job with the Division of Program Surveys in the Department of Agriculture.

After the war, she entered a PhD program in experimental psychology at the University of Michigan. When Mac got a professorship at Boston University, she worked on her dissertation with psychologist B.F. Skinner at Harvard. Hired to teach and do research in Harvard’s Department of Social Relations, Eleanor participated in large-scale studies investigating whether certain parental practices were related to children’s personality characteristics, which resulted in the influential book Patterns of Child Rearing (Sears, Maccoby, & Levin, 1957).

Both Maccobys were offered positions at Stanford University in 1958, Nathan in the communication department and Eleanor in the psychology department. To raise their three children, she worked part time, pursuing her academic research late into the evening to preserve family time. She was elected to the governing council of the Social Science Research Council and was asked to organize a group to study how the two sexes both differed—and did not—in their development. Eleanor drew on Stanford colleagues and scholars spending sabbatical years at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a national think tank adjoining the Stanford campus. This led to a book published in 1966, The Development of Sex Differences, which she edited and for which she wrote a chapter.

At once both the first half-time tenured professor and the first woman to serve as chair of Stanford’s psychology department, Eleanor authored or coauthored 11 books (including her 2017 memoir) and published nearly 100 papers. Her most influential book was The Psychology of Sex Differences (1974), one of the first in the field of gender studies. The book cast doubt on widely held assumptions about innate abilities among girls and boys. Writing of her approach with her research partner, postdoc appointment Carol Jacklin, Eleanor said, “We were both indignant over the glib generalizations about sex differences that we kept encountering: ‘men are from Mars, women from Venus,’ ‘men are naturally more active, women more passive,’ ‘women just can’t do math,’ etc.  We both thought it would be useful to do a careful review of evidence for and against such generalizations.”

A team of student assistants conducted the first large-scale review of the literature on gender differences in an effort to determine which accepted beliefs were based in fact. Maccoby and Jacklin discussed major theories of how sex differentiation occurs, arguing that, in addition to being influenced by their biology and social environment, children engaged in what they called “self-socialization.” 

The book cast doubt on widely held assumptions about innate abilities among girls and boys, influenced a generation of scholars, and lent momentum to the tide of second-wave feminism then sweeping the nation.

In 1992, she published Dividing the Child: Social and Legal Dilemmas of Custody, about one of the largest studies on the effect of divorce on children. Following nearly 1,000 families who began divorce proceedings in 1984–85, Eleanor found that even four years after divorce, fathers stayed substantially involved with their children even though mothers remained the primary caretakers. That involvement was higher than shown in earlier national studies, and the book was awarded the William J. Goode Award by the American Sociological Association for the most outstanding book on family scholarship.

In 1998, she wrote The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together, which explored the paradox that despite being separated from one another through much of their childhood, most boys and girls form heterosexual unions as adults. Eleanor explored ways in which gender shapes lives in families, schools, relationships, and the workplace.

She was honored for her work with many awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychology Foundation and Stanford’s Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching. The American Psychological Association created the Eleanor Maccoby Book Award in Developmental Psychology in her honor and listed her as one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century.

Eleanor’s love of music began in her youth, when she joined her mother and sisters in a professional group with its own radio program. As an adult, she sang in various choral groups, and on her 100th birthday she belted out a jazz song from the 1930s.

Reflecting back on her two years at Reed, Eleanor said, “I took two science courses at Reed—one in physics and one in biology. In retrospect, I think they were important because they taught me about scientific objectivity, and what it means to go through the painstaking process of assembling evidence for or against a hypothesis. That’s basically what I’ve been doing for all my professional life.”

Nathan Maccoby died in 1992. Eleanor is survived by her three children, Janice Carmichael, Sarah Maccoby Blunt, and Mark Maccoby

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2018

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