Cognitive Assessment

Leta Stetter Hollingworth (1886–1939) and sex differences in cognitive variability

Leta Hollingworth (1926) is often remembered for her pioneering work in studying the nature of extreme giftedness in children. She is also remembered for her earlier work that systematically undermined frequently voiced beliefs about the allegedly lower intelligence of women and their supposed inability to hold positions of responsibility. For example, her careful studies showed that women’s cognitive abilities did not fluctuate dramatically during the menstrual cycle, as was commonly believed and cited as justification for denying women entry into many professions (Hollingworth, 1914a).1

It is tempting to elevate Hollingworth to the status of folk hero simply because her beliefs align with the egalitarian sensibilities of most scholars and practitioners today. However, to admire Hollingworth simply for agreeing with one’s own position is a sort of narcissism. There are far better reasons to admire her.

It is instructive to contrast her work with that of Stephen Jay Gould. Gould is rightly honored for his creative and influential work in paleontology and evolutionary biology. As most psychologists are aware, he ventured somewhat outside of his expertise to critique the field of intelligence research. Gould’s (1981) book The Mismeasure of Man is much beloved, except by most intelligence researchers (Carroll, 1995). Gould’s egalitarian aims are just as laudable as Hollingworth’s. However his arguments, and possibly his methods (Lewis et al., 2011), are not. There are numerous instances of sloppy scholarship in which overstatements and misstatements served his political purposes (e.g., the untrue story that Goddard believed that high percentages of eastern European immigrants were mentally retarded). Noble causes are ultimately undermined by noble lies.

Hollingworth is admirable not so much for what she said about women but the way that she went about conducting and defending her research. She was creative, thorough, and fair. For example, she reviewed, in an even-handed manner, all of the evidence in favor of and against the “greater male variability hypothesis.” Her closing statement in the article is masterful (Hollingworth, 1914):

Briefly our thesis may be summed up thus:

  1. The greater variability of males in anatomical traits is not established, but is debated by authorities of perhaps equal competence.
  2. But even if it were established, it would only suggest, not prove, that men are more variable in mental traits also. The empirical data at present available on this point are inadequate and contradictory, and if they point either way, actually indicate greater female variability.
  3. But even if it were established that there actually is greater male variability in mental traits, it would only suggest, not prove, that there is greater inherent variability. For (a) the opportunity and exercise of the sexes have been dissimilar and unequal; (b) intellectual variability has had survival value for men, but for women it has had little or none—this by virtue of the different parts played by the sexes in the perpetuation of the species.
  4. It must be remembered that variability in and of itself does not have social significance, unless it is known in what the variability consists—whether in greater range, greater frequency at the extremes, or in flattening at the top of the curve of distribution.
  5. It is undesirable to seek for the cause of sex differences in eminence in ultimate and obscure affective and intellectual differences until we have exhausted as a cause the known, obvious, and inescapable fact that women bear and rear the children, and that this has had as an inevitable sequel the occupation of housekeeping, a field where eminence is not possible.

As a corollary it may be added that

  1. It is desirable, for both the enrichment of society and the peace of individuals, that women may find a way to vary from their mode as men do, and yet procreate. Such a course is at present hindered by individual prejudice, poverty, and the enactment of legal measures. But public expectation will slowly change, as the conditions that generated that expectation have already changed, and in another century the solution to this problem will have been found. (p. 528–529)

What I like about this style of argumentation is that her feminist position is clear but it is even clearer that her allegiance is first to the truth as revealed by science. She is willing to entertain unpleasant hypotheticals because she sees clearly that her egalitarianism is in no way threatened by the possibility that mental ability is indeed more variable in males. This is fortunate because we now have much more evidence that males probably do have greater variability in at least some cognitive abilities (Deary, Thorpe, Wilson, Starr, & Whalley, 2003). Hollingworth reminds us that even if the descriptive statistics are accurate, we are nowhere near concluding that greater male variability is an inherent, inalterable feature of human nature. We do not know if greater male variability would be present in a more egalitarian world and furthermore, even if greater male variability were to survive the elimination of sexism, no actions currently considered unjust would suddenly become ethical. Hollingworth’s fearless use of hypotheticals and level-headed logic can easily be applied to controversies about other kinds of research on group differences in cognitive abilities.


Carroll, J. B. (1995). Reflections on Stephen Jay Gould’s the mismeasure of man (1981): A retrospective review. Intelligence, 21, 121–134.

Deary, I. J., Thorpe, G., Wilson, V., Starr, J. M., & Whalley, L. J. (2003). Population sex differences in IQ at age 11: The Scottish mental survey 1932. Intelligence, 31, 533–542.

Gould, S. J. (1981). The mismeasure of man. New York: Norton.

Hampson, E., & Kimura, D. (1988). Reciprocal effects of hormonal fluctuations on human motor and perceptual-spatial skills. Behavioral Neuroscience, 102, 456–459.

Hollingworth, L. S. (1914a). Functional periodicity: An experimental study of the mental and motor abilities of women during menstruation. Teachers College Contributions to Education, No. 69.

Hollingworth, L. S. (1914b). Variability as related to sex differences in achievement: A critique. The American Journal of Sociology, 19(4), 510–530.

Hollingworth, L. S. (1926). Gifted children, their nature and nurture. New York: Macmillan.

Hollingworth, L. S. (1942). Children above 180 IQ: Stanford-Binet: Origin and development. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book.

Lewis, J. E., DeGusta, D., Meyer, M. R., Monge, J. M., Mann, A. E., & Holloway, R. (2011). The mismeasure of science. Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on skulls and bias. PLoS Biology, 9(6), e1001071. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071

1 Recent findings of small fluctuations of mental rotation speed that track with changes in testosterone levels during the menstrual cycle (Hampson & Kimura, 1988 and many others) do not undermine Holingworth’s principal conclusion.


3 thoughts on “Leta Stetter Hollingworth (1886–1939) and sex differences in cognitive variability

  1. Sex differences in variability are weird: I’m not certain what’s going on there. They do not seem to be present on the Progressive Matrices nor on some IQ tests (such as the original Binet standardization sample). But they are present on tests of mathematical and scientific ability.

  2. tom fagan says:

    For considerable biographical information and her contributions see the special issue of Roeper Review (A Journal on Gifted Education), March 1990, Vol. 12, No. 3.

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