Skip to main content

Science Psychologist Eleanor Maccoby conducted path-breaking research on how boys and girls differ

Eleanor Maccoby at Stanford University in 1997.

LINDA CICERO/STANFORD NEWS SERVICE/Stanford News Service via The New York Times

Eleanor Emmons Maccoby, a distinguished psychologist and a pioneer in the field of gender studies who was the first woman to head the Stanford University psychology department, died on Dec. 11 in Palo Alto, Calif. She was 101.

Her death, at a retirement community, was confirmed by her son, Mark, who said the cause was pneumonia.

Dr. Maccoby, whom the American Psychological Association listed among the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century, conducted path-breaking research in child-development and gender studies. She explored a wide range of topics, including interactions between parent and child and the effect of divorce on children.

Story continues below advertisement

But the overarching themes of her long career were the differences between the sexes and how they develop. These were the subjects of two of her most significant books: The Psychology of Sex Differences (1974) and The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together (1998).

“She advanced our understanding of how girls and boys develop the characteristics that we think of as boy things and girl things,” Dr. John Flavell, a psychology professor emeritus at Stanford, said in a telephone interview.

The answer involved a complex combination of biological, cognitive and social factors, including the dynamic in which children learn from other children.

Dr. Maccoby did not initially consider herself a feminist. But she was gradually awakened by slights along the way, such as not being allowed to enter the Faculty Club at Harvard through its front entrance, which was reserved for men, even though she was a member.

Asked in a video interview in 2013 how she became interested in gender issues, she replied, “We lived it.”

While teaching at Stanford, she noticed that scientific literature either portrayed women negatively or excluded them altogether. One study, for example, said female prisoners were more likely than men to sell out a fellow inmate in exchange for her own freedom. Yet even though almost 30 other studies disputed that finding, none had been published, Dr. Maccoby found, because a conclusion of “no difference” was not considered valuable.

This inspired her and Carol Nagy Jacklin, a developmental psychologist and scholar of gender, to write The Psychology of Sex Differences, a landmark book of more than 600 pages that shook up the field. (Dr. Jacklin died in 2011.) The book included the first large-scale review of the literature to see which, if any, of the purported psychological and social differences between boys and girls actually existed.

The authors found that studies showing few differences were rarely published. And their own research showed that some published studies claiming major differences between the sexes were often not replicated.

For example, they wrote, “The allegation that girls learn best by rote processes, boys by some more advanced form of reasoning, is clearly not supported by the evidence.”

In a 2009 interview with Psychology’s Feminist Voices, Dr. Maccoby said, “The upshot of that book, its basic message, was that most of what we think about as differences, essential differences between the sexes, are myths.”

Among those myths: girls are more “social” and suggestible; boys are more analytic; and girls have lower self-esteem (although as girls get older, the researchers said, they do lose self-confidence).

The authors found significant differences in only four areas: girls have greater verbal ability; boys excel at math; boys have better visual-spatial acuity; and boys are more aggressive.

But more than two decades later, Dr. Maccoby argued that even if the psychological differences between the sexes were relatively minor – especially when boys and girls were studied individually – their differences were magnified in social settings, as boys tend to play with boys and girls with girls.

Story continues below advertisement

This self-segregation is inevitable, Dr. Maccoby wrote in The Two Sexes. The stereotypical behaviour of boys in groups (roughhousing) is very different from that of girls (talking), she maintained, and it influences how the two sexes interact into adulthood.

“I certainly switched over from the idea that gender didn’t matter to the notion that it matters a hell of a lot,” she said in the 2009 Feminist Voices interview.

Dr. Maccoby was born Viva Emmons on May 15, 1917, in Tacoma, Wash. Her name was changed to Eleanor soon afterward because of the potential confusion with her mother, Viva May (Johnson) Emmons. Her father, Eugene, owned the Tacoma Sash and Door Co.

Eleanor and her three sisters were raised in Tacoma. She graduated from high school in 1934, during the Great Depression, and became an ardent New Dealer.

She attended Reed College in Portland, Ore., for two years before transferring to the University of Washington, where she was Phi Beta Kappa and where she met her future husband, Nathan Maccoby, who was also a psychologist. They were married in 1938. (He died in 1992.)

Dr. Maccoby earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in experimental psychology at the University of Michigan and conducted some of her doctoral work at the lab of renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner at Harvard. She taught and did research at Harvard from 1950 to 1957. But, she said, she felt that Harvard was a tough place for women to advance.

After a former Harvard colleague, Robert Sears, with whom she wrote Patterns of Child Rearing (1957), became head of the psychology department at Stanford, Dr. Maccoby and her husband, who was chairman of the psychology department at Boston University, transferred to Palo Alto.

While teaching and raising the couple’s three adopted children, she went on to be the author or co-author of 11 books, including a memoir, which she wrote at 99, and scores of monographs and essays. She was chairwoman of the psychology department from 1973 to 1976, the first woman to lead it.

Story continues below advertisement

Dr. Maccoby also served on a committee to help promote accomplished women who had been blocked from advancement or higher pay. This had been the case for Dr. Maccoby herself. At one point, when students got hold of records listing faculty salaries, they broadcast them at a public demonstration and noted that the distinguished Dr. Maccoby was one of the lowest-paid professors on campus. Her son said that within a couple of weeks, the chagrined university doubled her salary.

Story continues below advertisement

Dr. Maccoby faced mandatory retirement from Stanford at the age of 70 in 1987, at which point the pace of her writing and research only increased. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1993.

In addition to her son, she leaves two daughters, Janice Carmichael and Sarah Maccoby Blunt; two sisters, Helen Barclay and Joan Taylor; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Asked for the secret to his mother’s long life, Mark Maccoby said in a telephone interview that longevity ran in the family, along with a sense of humour. He recalled how she used to like to say, “If I had known I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself!”

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter