The psychology of women is an area of scientific research focused on how and why women come to act, think and feel the way they do. Other terms that are sometimes used to describe the same concept are psychology of gender and feminist psychology. However, according to Florence L. Denmark, the term psychology of gender leaves out important experiences that are unique to women, for example pregnancy, breastfeeding and menstruation. The term feminist psychology is not considered appropriate as it has too many connotations and its definition may vary considerably among different feminists.
Denmark defines the psychology of women as a study that includes all psychological issues pertaining to women and their experiences. In the dawn of psychological research, women and female animal species were often not included as subjects in the investigations. Early researchers focused on white male humans or male animals, which turned psychology from a science of behavior into a science of white male behavior, as Denmark and co-authors said in The Psychology of Women: A Handbook of Issues and Theories (2008).
There are two main figures in the early history of the psychology of women: Charles Darwin (1809 to 1882) and Sigmund Freud (1856 to 1939), who both shared a perception of women as inferior to men. Social Darwinism was based on the theories of natural and sexual selection. According to Darwin, individuals compete in their struggle for existence and the ones that have favorable traits survive and reproduce. The less popular theory of sexual selection is also based on a struggle, but the struggle between males for possession of the females as Darwin said, cited by in The Psychology of Women: A Handbook of Issues and Theories. Darwin believed that as females did not compete for males, they had fewer opportunities to develop the same intelligence, perseverance and courage as males. As a reaction, a number of scholars, including Leta Hollingworth (1886 to 1939), worked to refute Social Darwinism by providing solid empirical evidence against the belief in greater male variability.
Freud, whose psychoanalytic theory is the basis of some of the most influential formulations of personality development, emphasized the penis as the source of power and introduced the concept of "penis envy," the feeling that girls are said to get when they realize they do not have penises. This viewpoint also gave rise to opposition among some female psychoanalysts as it represented women as broken or deficient men. For example, Karen Horney (1885 to 1952), often described as a Neo-Freudian, posited that men were envious of the female womb as the act of creating another human being was considered the ultimate form of creativity, a concept known as womb envy. Clara Thompson (1893 to 1958) was another that opposed Freudian orthodoxy. Both Horney and Thompson pointed out experience, environment and social influences as factors of great importance for personality development.
Male and female infants are said to perceive and experience the world around them differently due to certain constitutional differences. However, Bardwick does not agree with the oversimplistic anatomy-is-destiny theory. The scholar also argues with the partisans of cultural determinism that ascribe little importance to biological differences. In her book Psychology of Women: A Study of Bio-Cultural Conflicts (1971) Bardwick posits that differences between men and women originate interactively: in genetic temperamental differences, in differences in the adult reproductive system and in sex-linked values specific to each culture."
The psychology of women was officially recognized as a legitimate field of study in 1973, when the American Psychological Association set up the Division of the Psychology of Women, also known as Division 35. Since then the field has continued to grow and develop with a number of scholars working on the topic. In 1999, the division was renamed as the Society for the Psychology of Women.