Of Gifted Children and the Banality of Menstruation: The Psychological Research of Leta Hollingworth

What do you do with a gifted child?

A child who learns new concepts three or four times faster than his contemporaries, often withdraws from social interaction, and who brings unsettling intensity to both her passion and apathy.

How do you even identify one?

In the early twentieth century, while Anna Freud worked with traumatized children, and Maria Montessori with the very young, it was Leta Hollingworth (1886-1939) who devoted half of her all too brief career to sounding the profound riddles and contradictions of the gifted educational system. She had been, herself, a gifted child who had been tossed constantly about on the waves of youthful tragedy. She was born on the hardscrabble Nebraskan frontier in a town where a gun fight was the accepted means of settling debates. Her mother died when she was three, and her father, who was only occasionally present in her life up to then, turned tail and ran when faced with the task of raising three daughters on his own.

Leta and her sisters were left in the care of grandparents, and just when all seemed to be going well, who should return but their banjo-strumming, whiskey pounding father with a new wife on his arm. He insisted on taking the girls in to live with him and, once they were settled, left them in the care of a stepmother who routinely beat and abused them while he was gone for months at a time on adventures that would be dashing if they weren’t built on such hopeless suffering. So it was that, at age 10, Leta made herself a solemn vow to skip the rest of childhood and proceed directly to adulthood. It was a decision compounded of hard living and the ambition bred of nascent powers stirring.

Like Margaret Mead, her polar opposite in almost all other respects, her initial ambitions were centered on literature. Her poetry was filled with the yearning of a clever and emotional girl stranded in an intolerable life, and rings with an honest intensity that couldn’t have been more out of touch with the poetic climate of the early 20th century.   After a series of failed attempts at securing publication, she gave up on the notion of a career as a writer, though not on writing privately for herself and her friends.

She turned instead to psychology, a field that was just finding its feet in the United States. Getting her undergraduate degree at the University of Nebraska, she moved with her husband, Harry Hollingworth, to New York City, only to find that her status as a married woman prevented her from obtaining a teaching position. State law at the time prevented the hiring of new married teachers, and only permitted established teachers to get married and continue working until they had children, at which point they were compelled to retire.

Stranded and withering, relief only came with acceptance to Columbia University as a Master’s student in psychology. Her chosen field of early research was a provocative one, aimed directly at the most cherished gender theories of her advisers at Columbia. She sought to prove statistically the invalidity of two oft-cited theories about the mental inferiority of women. First, that women showed less variability in features than men, a sign of their lesser capacity for brilliance and lesser evolutionary importance. Second, the theory of Functional Periodicity, which held that women, during menstruation, were so diminished in their capacities that any intellectual or professional work that required persistent competence was beyond their ability.

She aimed first at the variability theory, gathering and analyzing a list of twenty thousand physical measurements taken at the baby ward of a local hospital. The result demonstrated unequivocally the same level of variability among male and female infants, and easily buried the variability theory. Next, for her dissertation research, she arranged for a series of men and women to perform a group of set tasks at a set time every day, and measured their performative variation. For both physical and intellectual functioning, she reported no significant alteration of performance during menstruation, and another centuries-long myth was sent scurrying for the corners.

The results were important, but they are not what we remember Hollingworth for. The breakthrough work of her life was performed from 1916 to her death in 1939, and centered on the problems of identifying and providing academic aid to special needs students, both the highly intelligent and the intellectually hindered. When she began her studies, psychometrics was in its infancy, but was roaring into prominence on the strength of Lewis Terman’s Stanford-Binet IQ test.

                In our age, when standardized testing is threatening to strangle an entire generation’s self-motivated love of learning, it’s hard to realize how exciting and important the development of these diagnostic exams was. For the first time, educators had something more than the instinct of their variously-trained teaching staff to identify students in need of particular support. Leta Hollingworth was an unabashed proponent of these exams, though she argued strenuously that they must never be administered in a group setting, but only one-on-one, with the educator following up on the results via interviews with parents and supplementary diagnostics to evaluate alternate intelligence types (our current acceptance of multiple intelligence types is, in fact, an advance largely of Hollingworth’s doing).

The crowning achievement of Hollingworth’s career was the establishment of the Speyer School, an experiment in educating children with both very high and very low IQ results. The press centered on the gifted aspect of the program, the first thorough-going experiment of its kind. The gifted children were encouraged to meet in committees to decide amongst themselves the topics that they’d like to investigate and report on, with the teacher acting as facilitator and guide rather than lecturer. In place of simply accelerating the students through the expected curriculum, Hollingworth designed a schedule that permitted a quick gathering of the basics, and then extra time for broadening exercises and expeditions. Constant field trips, to factories and museums, were the order of the day, supplemented by the students’ self-guided work on researching related topics of interest.

Of particular interest to Leta were the issues affecting the hyper-advanced students, those with an IQ of over 180. Incredible statistical rarities, Hollingworth only found 12 in her decades of research, but her posthumous work detailing the particular challenges they face in learning and socializing is still a standard text in the field.

That she contributed foundationally to the discipline of gifted education is beyond question, and that her role in combatting the gender prejudice against female education at the beginning of the century ought to be more celebrated, likewise…. Which brings us to an unpleasantness.

For, having been educated in psychology in America in the early twentieth century, and in particular being a devotee of psychometrics and genetic explanations of intelligence and character, Leta Hollingworth was an unabashed eugenicist. As against the egalitarian and democratic psychological theories of her colleague, the great William H. Kilpatrick, she emphasized the deterministic role that superior breeding stock plays in bringing about exceptional children, and argued for the enforced sterilization of the mentally deficient.


She held it to be inconceivable that a superior child could come from sub-standard parents, and had no patience with social programs that held the contrary. It was a waste of time to educate everybody the same way, she asserted – cruel for the slower of intellect who were thrown at the same topics again and again only to fail again and again, and cruel for the exceptional children who were weighed down by the sluggish pace of their comrades. While we can dispose without hesitation with her views about the creation of exceptional children, there is some truth yet in the idea that subjecting all children to the same educational regimen regardless of ability is a form of cruelty we’ve been spending the intervening decades trying to slowly correct through advances in differentiated instruction.

Generous to a fault with members of her family and friends, her lifelong dogmatic adherence to the tenets of eugenics caused her to lash out at colleagues and students who dared to question her assumptions. To her, the facts were the facts, and anybody who disagreed or tried to add nuance to her views was simply hurting science out of foolish soft-heartedness.

Nobody is a hero in all things. In dozens of ways, the vista of world education has been enriched and improved by Hollingworth’s stubborn adherence to the content of her collected data and devotion to specialized education for those requiring specialized learning environments. Multiple intelligence types, differentiated education, student-driven learning, individually focused testing for special needs identification, and the non-concomitance of intellectual precocity with social or artistic genius, were all ideas either originated by her or promoted heavily thanks to the prominence given them by her school experiments.

As against that, she held horrendous beliefs about social engineering that are only forgivable from the context of her having died before World War II showed the all-too-real result of such airy theorizing.   She was a member of the Heterodoxy Club and other early feminist groups aimed at gaining greater social, professional, and educational access for women, but was firmly against Franklin Roosevelt’s programs to provide security for the unemployed and elderly. Surviving so much childhood tragedy had hardened something inside her – if she survived so much pain, then everybody else ought to as well and should stop asking for help to cover their failure. If anybody can earn the right to such a grim and inhuman view of humanity, I suppose, it was she, and if anybody has profited from the simmering misery that pushed her work and world-view, surely, it is we.


FURTHER READING: Leta’s husband, Harry, wrote a biography of Leta but in spite of some beautiful passages, his view of her and her work is tempered by his relentless conservatism which saw in Leta the virtues and beliefs it wanted to see. Far better is Ann G. Klein’s A Forgotten Voice: A Biography of Leta Stetter Hollingworth. Klein is a professor who has worked in gifted children’s education for decades, and her insights into Leta’s continued significance are thoroughly worth the search.

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