Leta Stetter Hollingworth: Nebraska’s Transformational Force*

Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D.
Dr. Leta Stetter Hollingworth, born on the Nebraska prairie, May 25, 1886, is the founder of gifted education.  She taught the first course on “Nature and Needs of the Gifted” at Columbia University Teachers College in 1922, and wrote the first textbook in the field, Gifted Children: Their Nature and Nurture (Hollingworth, 1926). She was also the first counselor of the gifted. She contributed 30 studies of the gifted that have withstood the test of time (Benbow, 1990).  Children Above 180 IQ (Hollingworth, 1942) her best known work, remains an unparalleled study of profoundly gifted children. Her above-level testing inspired today’s talent searches (Stanley, 1990).
Nebraska was Leta Hollingworth’s first love and her final resting place. She wrote her first published poem, “Lone Pine,” at the age of 14; it was printed in the Valentine newspaper. Her poetry was preserved in a little book, Prairie Years (Hollingworth, n.d.; 2006) embroidering her love of Nebraska’s prairie. In an autobiographical sketch, she wrote that she was intellectually curious, worked hard, disliked waste and was never afraid to undertake an experiment or to change her mind (Hollingworth, n.d., 2006).
For Leta Hollingworth, the purpose of gifted education was to assist gifted children’s sensory, intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic development at appropriate mental level and pace of instruction (Grant & Piechowski, 1999). The role of the G/T teacher, from her perspective, was to act as a facilitator of learning and emotional growth for her students. The teacher needed to assist with problems arising out of the disparities between the students’ mental and chronological ages (Grant & Piechowski, 1999). Leta Hollingworth introduced many curricular modifications still used in gifted programs. 
  • Achievement as a function of opportunity:  The importance of nurturing giftedness
  • The importance of early identification of the gifted
  • Use of multiple criteria for identifying the gifted
  • Use of above-level assessment
  • The teacher as scientist/practitioner:  The importance of objective observation
  • Child-centeredness
  • Individualized curriculum
  • Adapting the school to the individual needs of the child
  • Combining acceleration and enrichment
  • Reduction of drill in the curriculum
  • Thematic learning
  • Interdisciplinary education
  • Education for creativity
  • Independent and small group projects (according to student interests)
  • Student-selected curriculum
  • Seminars:  Student discussions
  • The study of biography
  • Providing opportunities for the gifted to interact with true peers
  • The importance of affective development:  Emotional education
  • Moving beyond the classroom
  • Focus on children’s strengths (Silverman, 1991)
Leta Hollingworth developed “child-centered therapy,” which inspired her student, Carl Rogers, to create his famous “client-centered therapy.” She is also revered as a pioneer in the psychology of women.  Considered the “scientific bulwark” of the women’s movement, her studies demonstrated to science that females are equal in intelligence to males.  Her research on the intelligence of females helped win women the right to vote in 1920—100 years ago! 
The Research that Won Women the Right to Vote
Sir Frances Galton, who fathered the study of intelligence, equated giftedness with eminence. Leta Hollingworth objected vigorously to this inequitable criterion; it was biased against women. Galton studied eminent men, while Hollingworth was the champion of gifted girls and gifted women.  
The year of Galton’s death, 1911, Leta Stetter Hollingworth began graduate school at Columbia University in education and sociology, eager to take up the cause of gender discrimination.  Before coming to New York to marry Harry Hollingworth in 1908, Leta Stetter had taught school in Nebraska.  [Later, Dr. Harry Hollingworth founded industrial psychology.] She assumed that she would be able to continue working after she was married, only to discover that married women were barred from teaching appointments in New York City. A single teacher could retain her position if she married, but if she became pregnant, she was dismissed (Klein, 2002). Leta Hollingworth applied for scholarships and fellowships to obtain a graduate degree, and these doors were also closed to her. Women were ineligible for fellowships at Columbia University (Klein, 2002). Discouraged and puzzled by the role society had laid out for her, she pondered the inequality of women’s opportunities in society, particularly its toll on gifted women.  She called this: “the woman question.” 
Stated briefly, “the woman question” is how to reproduce the species and at the same time to work, and realize work’s full reward, in accordance with individual ability.  This is a question primarily of the gifted, for the discontent with and resentment against women’s work have originated chiefly among women exceptionally well endowed with intellect.  (Hollingworth, 1926, pp. 348-349)
A given woman of the same intellectual caliber as a given man is not of the same economic value as the latter, because masculinity is itself an asset of superior worth.  (p. 357)
In 1916, Hollingworth began to study gifted children, but never abandoned “the woman question” (Hollingworth, 1926, p. 348).  
In the book that formally initiated the field of gifted education, Gifted Children: Their Nature and Nurture, Leta Hollingworth (1926) presented a feminine perspective of giftedness.  She challenged Sir Frances Galton’s views in the very first chapter.
An overwhelming majority of illustrious persons have had fathers who were far above the average in social-economic conditions—nobles, professional men, or men successfully engaged in commerce.  Very few children of manual workers become eminent in high degree …  Very few women can be included among those who in the world’s history have achieved first rank for mental work.
One possible interpretation is that education and opportunity are the prime determinants of achievement, since nearly all of the great men have been born in comfortable homes, of parents in superior circumstances.  If opportunity were indeed the prime determinant of eminence, then we should expect those who belong to socially inferior categories to be virtually excluded from it.  This is just what we do find, since the uncultured, the poor, servants, and women are very seldom found to have achieved eminence.  (p. 11)
For Galton, “the cream always rises to the top.” Unlike Galton’s hereditarian view, Leta Hollingworth (1926) maintained that what a person can do might depend on endowment, but what he or she actually does do probably depends on opportunity. Galton provided the fuel for her argument that women have little opportunity to attain eminence:
A very gifted man will almost always rise, as I believe, to eminence; but if he is handicapped with the weight of a wife and children in the race of life, he cannot be expected to keep as much to the front as if he were single.  He cannot pursue his favorite subject of study with the same absorbing passion as if he had no pressing calls on his attention, no domestic sorrows, anxieties and petty cares, no yearly child, no periodical infantine epidemics, no constant professional toil for the maintenance of a large family. (Galton, 1869, p. 320)
[Interestingly, Galton had no children.] Leta Hollingworth found Galton’s passage an apt description of the plight of gifted women.  Citing data on the number of exceptionally gifted girls (above 170 IQ) collected on the new IQ tests for children, she applied Galton’s words as she contemplated how many of these girls would attain eminence.
It will be of social value to observe the deflections from possible eminence which they meet, and to see how many will survive “domestic sorrows, anxieties and petty cares, a yearly child, and periodical infantine epidemics.” (Hollingworth, 1926, p. 68)
Dismantling the Variability Hypothesis
… Women furnish few persons of great eminence, yet sisters of great men are of exactly the same ancestry as their brothers.  (Hollingworth, 1926, p. 13)
If sisters of eminent men did not become eminent, another explanation was needed besides heredity. Galton’s half-cousin, Charles Darwin, provided that explanation—the variability hypothesis—which persists today, in spite of rigorous research to quell it (Lips, 2005).  Darwin (1897) concluded that male members of all species were more advanced on the evolutionary scale than the female members because of greater variability of secondary sex characteristics.  The reason so few women had attained eminence was clear to Darwin—they were less variable than males, therefore far fewer were extremely bright or extremely dull.  Women were all pretty much the same.
The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.  (Darwin, 1897, p. 564)
Edward L. Thorndike (1906), a devotee of Darwin, warned that postgraduate instruction for women was a poor investment.  “A slight excess of male variability would mean that of the hundred most gifted individuals in this country not two would be women, and of the thousand most gifted, not one in twenty” (p. 213).  In the second edition of his classic text, Educational Psychology, released in 1910, Thorndike presented the following sentiments:
In the great achievements of the world in science, art, invention, and management, women have been far excelled by men.  …
The probably true explanation is to be sought in the greater variability within the male sex…
In particular, if men differ in intelligence and energy by wider degrees than do women, eminence in and leadership of world’s affairs of whatever sort will inevitably belong oftener to men.  They will oftener deserve it.  (p. 35)
When Leta Hollingworth enrolled in graduate school in 1911, E. L. Thorndike became her advisor.  It would be easy to imagine that there was a constant war between them.  On the contrary, Thorndike was Hollingworth’s greatest mentor—“the most influential to her intellectual and philosophical evolution as a scientist and teacher” (Klein, 2002, p. 74).  Thorndike was a facilitator of learning; he believed in promoting independent thinking in his students.  It was in this favorable climate that Leta Hollingworth (1914) had the spunk to challenge Thorndike publicly, two years before she graduated.  Her 21-page article, “Variability as related to Sex Differences in Achievement: A Critique,” was published in a new journal, The American Journal of Sociology.
Thorndike … declares ... that “We should first exhaust the known physical causes” before we proceed to any assumption of mental inferiority in explaining woman’s lack of achievement.  But have these “known physical causes” been exhausted if we end with the conclusion that “the probably true explanation is to be found in the greater variability within the male sex”?  Surely we should consider first the established, obvious, inescapable, physical fact that women bear and rear the children, and this has always meant and still means that nearly 100 per cent of their energy is expended in the performance and supervision of domestic and allied tasks, a field where eminence is impossible.  (Hollingworth, 1914, pp. 527-528).
As she was completing her master’s degree, Leta Hollingworth was offered a position administering mental tests at a Clearing-House for intellectually limited individuals.  This provided her with an excellent opportunity to collect data on the variability hypothesis.  One arm of the hypothesis was that there were substantially more males than females among the developmentally delayed.  She discovered an interesting phenomenon, which poked a large hole in the variability hypothesis. Records of 1,000 individuals brought to the Clearing-House over a two-year period revealed that although boys brought to an institution far outnumbered girls in the younger age groups, by the age of 16, the situation reversed itself and twice as many women were committed. (Hollingworth, 1913; 1914). Hollingworth discovered that men could only survive outside an institution with a mental age of 12, whereas women could survive with a mental age of 6, by means of housekeeping chores, child care and selling sex, therefore obscuring an accurate count.
In another article published the same year in The American Journal of Sociology, Helen Montague and Leta Hollingworth (1914) shared the results of an even more ambitious project.  They undertook a study of 2,000 neonates—1,000 of each sex—and, analyzing 20,000 measurements, demonstrated that the variability of infants was no greater in males than in females.  Where variability did exist, it favored the girls.  Therefore, the preponderance of men among the eminent could not be traced to greater inherent variability of males.  A better explanation was that variability is more likely to occur where there is more opportunity for its expression and development.
We should expect to find adult males more variable than adult females, because the males are free to follow a great variety of trades, professions, and industries, while women have been confined to the single occupation of housekeeping, because of the part they play in the perpetuation of the species.  Thus variability has had comparatively little survival value for women.  A woman of natural Herculean strength does not wash dishes, cook meals, or rear children much more successfully than a woman of ordinary muscle.  But a man of natural Herculean strength is free to abandon carpentry or agriculture and become a prize fighter or a blacksmith, thus exercising and enhancing his native equipment.  (p. 343)   
Leta Hollingworth and Robert Lowie’s article, “Science and Feminism,” in Scientific Monthly, ostensibly put to rest the variability hypothesis (Lowie & Hollingworth, 1916).  Four years later, with Hollingworth as the “scientific bulwark” of the suffragette movement, women won the right to vote. 
Yet, the variability hypothesis refuses to die. In Discover magazine, physician and geneticist, Professor Horst Hameister, of the University of Ulm in Germany, is quoted as saying,  “Females tend to do better overall on IQ tests; they average out at about 100, while men average about 99.”  “Also, more men are mentally retarded.  But when you look at IQs at 135 and above, you see more men” (Shell, 2005, p. 43).  
Eminence versus a Feminine Perspective of Giftedness 
Women do not fare well in the race for eminence.  Of the 768 Nobel prizes awarded between 1901 and 2006, 34 were awarded to women—4% of the total—with two of them going to the same woman in the fields of physics and chemistry:  Marie Sklodowska Curie.  Twelve of the awards were the Nobel Peace Prize and 10 were in the area of literature.  Only 2% were in the sciences (Silverman, 2007).  There is no listing of Nobel Laureates by ethnicity.  
The feminine perspective of giftedness, as it was conceived by Leta Hollingworth, was necessarily tied to performance of children on IQ tests. When recognized achievement in adulthood was considered the definitive demonstration of high intelligence, females were excluded.  The advent of intelligence testing of children provided empirical proof of high intelligence in females.  IQ tests became the valid, reliable and cherished method of finding gifted girls.  Hollingworth (1926) wrote, “mental tests proved the existence of gifted girls” (p. 347).  The evidence was irrefutable. Even Thorndike recognized it.
The trivial difference between the central tendency of men and that of women … is the common finding of psychological tests and school experience. …
One who accepts the equality of typical (i.e., modal) representatives of the two sexes must assume the burden of explaining the great differences in the high ranges of achievement. (Thorndike, 1910, p. 35)
Hollingworth (1926) eagerly publicized the findings of Terman, Peter and Stern in Gifted Children: Their Nature and Nurture:
In the most extensive census at present available [Terman’s study], therefore, among school children testing above 140 IQ, the ratio of boys to girls is 111:100 when allowance is made for the greater number of boys born.  The three highest cases—those ranging farthest from mediocrity—were girls, all with IQ above 190. 
In Germany, Peter and Stern, testing large groups for children of promise in the Volkschulen, report that “the girls do as well as the boys.  The ten best girls equal the ten best boys in performance.”
…  Mental tests have given no explanation of the great disproportion of eminence among men. … On the basis of mental gifts alone we should expect for every hundred and eleven men of eminence for intellectual work one hundred women of equal eminence.  Moreover, the most eminent persons should be women (since the highest IQ’s found were those of girls).
As this is by no means what history reveals (though we know that intellect in childhood is predictive of intellect in maturity) we must assume that there are powerful determinants of eminence beside intellect.  (pp. 67-68)
More than 6,000 gifted children have been assessed at Colorado’s Gifted Development Center in the last 41 years, and our data support the century-old findings of Terman, Peter and Stern. Girls continue to perform as well as boys on individual IQ tests. The distribution of IQ scores in the exceptionally gifted (160+ IQ) and profoundly gifted (175= IQ) ranges matches the gender distribution of our sample: 40% girls, 60% boys. Many of the highest IQ scores are achieved by girls. While gifted women continue to be poorly represented among the eminent (<6%), gifted girls often outperform gifted boys on measures of intelligence (Silverman & Miller, 2009).
Leta Hollingworth set up experimental classes for gifted children in New York City in 1922 and in 1936 that incorporated “emotional education” (Hollingworth, 1939, p. 585).  Infused throughout this program was a beautiful set of human values:  basic respect for humanity, awareness of our global interdependence, and commitment to service. Follow-up studies indicate that Hollingworth’s program had a profound, lifelong impact on the students (Harris, 1992; White 1990).  Carole Harris (1992, p. 102) asked these individuals, some almost 70 years later, “From your point of view, what constitutes success in life?”  Their answers revealed the same values that they had learned in their classes:  societal connection, awareness, compassion for others, definitions of success inextricably interwoven with self-actualization and sensitivity to the needs of others.  
Our field draws its nourishment from Leta Hollingworth and all of the feminine energy that has been devoted to gifted children.  It is not accidental that Leta Hollingworth was passionate about the plight of gifted women and gifted children.  “The Woman Question” is as much with us today as it was in 1926.  Do we pour our considerable energies into developing our gifted children at the expense of ourselves or do we go for glory?  If we are satisfied with doing our part for the good of the whole, then glory is not the goal.  We can still make a difference in the world, even if no one remembers our names.
In these unprecedented times, making a name for oneself, Galton’s legacy, has become less important than basic respect for humanity, awareness of our global interdependence, and commitment to service. Our foremother, Nebraska’s own Leta Stetter Hollingworth, born and raised on the prairie, has much to teach us about global interdependence and compassion for others. In 2020, 100 years after she helped secure for women the right to vote, she is well worth remembering, celebrating, studying as a transformational force in understanding the gifted and in proving the intelligence of women.
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Darwin, C. R.  (1897). The descent of man and selection in relation to sex (Rev. ed.).  New York:  D. Appleton.
Galton, F.  (1869).  Heredity genius:  An inquiry into its causes and consequences.  London:  Macmillan.
Grant, B., & Piechowski, M. M.  (1999).  Theories and the good:  Toward a child-centered gifted education.  Gifted Child Quarterly, 43, 4-12.
Harris, C. R.  (1992). The fruits of early intervention:  The Hollingworth group today.  Advanced Development, 4, 91-104.
Hollingworth, L. S.  (1913).  The frequency of amentia as related to sex.  Medical Record, 84, 753-756.
Hollingworth, L. S.  (1914).  Variability as related to sex differences in achievement:  A critique.  The American Journal of Sociology, 22, 19-29.
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Hollingworth, L. S.  (1939).  What we know about the early selection and training of leaders.  Teachers College Record, 40, 575-592.
Hollingworth, L. S. (1942). Children above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet: Origin and development. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY:  World Book.
Hollingworth, L. S. (n.d.). Prairie Years. (New York: Columbia University Press). Reprinted by the Nebraska Association for the Gifted in honor of its 50th anniversary, 2006.
Klein, A. G. (2002). A forgotten voice:  A biography of Leta Stetter Hollingworth.  Scottsdale, AZ:  Great Potential Press.
Lips, H. M.  (2005).  Sex and gender: An introduction (5th ed.).  Boston:  McGraw-Hill.
Lowie, R. H., & Hollingworth, L. S.  (1916).  Science and feminism. Scientific Monthly, 3, 277-284.
Montague, H., & Hollingworth, L. S.  (1914).  The comparative variability of the sexes at birth.  The American Journal of Sociology, 20, 335-370.
Silverman, L. K. (1991, May). Leta Hollingworth’s educational principles for the gifted. Nebraska Association for the Gifted Journal, pp. 11-17.
Silverman, L. K.  (2007).  [The percentage of female Nobel Laureates.]  Unpublished raw data compiled from The Nobel Foundation website, https://www.nobelprize.org/ and Female Nobel Prize Laureates listed on The Nobel Prize Internet Archive, http://almaz.com/nobel.html.  Retrieved January 20, 2007.
Silverman, L. K., & Miller, N. B. (2009).  A feminine perspective of giftedness. In L. Shavinina (Ed.).  The international handbook on giftedness (pp. 99-128). 
Stanley, J. C. (1990). Leta Hollingworth’s contributions to above-level testing of the gifted. Roeper Review, 12, 166-171.
Shell, E. R.  (2005, October).  Frontiers of science:  Sex.  Discover, pp. 42-43.
Thorndike, E. L. (1906).  Sex in education.  The Bookman, 23, 211-214.
Thorndike, E. L. (1910).  Educational psychology (2nd ed.).  New York:  Teachers College, Columbia University.
White, W. L.  (1990).  Interviews with Child I, Child J, and Child L.  Roeper Review, 12, 222-227.
*Note: This article was adapted from Silverman, L. K., & Miller, N. B. (2009).  A feminine perspective of giftedness. In L. Shavinina (Ed.).  The international handbook on giftedness (pp. 99-128).  Amsterdam:  Springer Science; and Silverman, L. K. (1991, May). Leta Hollingworth’s educational principles for the gifted. Nebraska Association for the Gifted Journal, pp. 11-17.