Ethel Puffer Howes: Biography of this psychologist and activist

Ethel Puffer Howes (1872-1950) was an American psychologist who conducted various studies on the psychology of beauty and aesthetics, which was one of the important stages in the consolidation of psychology in the experimental field and in the- beyond philosophy.

In this article we tackle the biography of Ethel Puffer Howes. A psychologist who, while developing in the field of experimentation, strongly questioned the difficulties of women of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to reconcile married life and academic career.

    Ethel Puffer Howes: biography of this pioneer of scientific psychology

    Ethel Dench Puffer (later Ethel Puffer Howes), was born October 10, 1872 in Massachusetts, United States, within a family that promotes higher education for women. Her mother was a teacher and had received professional training at Smith College, which served as a guide for Ethel and her four younger sisters. As soon as she graduated, Ethel Puffer started taking math classes at the same college, and at the same time, she developed a special interest in psychology. In this area, Puffer has been recognized by various academics, even in associations, as a pioneering psychologist.

    Like many psychologists of the day, and in the face of the recognition that Wundt’s experimental work was gaining; Puffer Howes moved to Berlin, Germany in 1895. Surprisingly, it was found that in Germany there was a greater exclusion of women in scientific psychology and laboratories.

    In this context, he met psychologist Hugo Münsterberg, who showed interest in working with Ethel and her professional interests. More precisely, the psychologist was interested in the study of beauty and aesthetics from a social point of view. This interest is well established with the process of consolidation of scientific psychology the subject of aesthetics had concentrated only in the field of philosophy.

    For this reason, he got a scholarship from the Association of College Alumnate to pursue a doctorate with Münsterberg, who taught at Harvard, USA. She returned to Massachusetts and was educated at the nearby University for Women, Radcliffe College. As with other women of the same period, Puffer completed her doctorate after completing the same tasks as her peers; however, he obtained a diploma as an equivalent position.

    Years later, Ethel take various steps to apply to Harvard for official doctoral recognition. In response, she and three psychologists received Ph.Ds from Radcliffe, which Puffer agreed to. His experimental research into aesthetics culminated in the publication of the 1908 book The Psychology of Beauty.

    Between marriage and scientific career

    Ethel Puffer later worked as a teacher at various women’s colleges and in 1908 she married Benjamin Howes, a civil engineer whom she met after graduating from Smith School. Against this background, something that seemed trivial, like acquiring her husband’s surname, caused Ethel various difficulties both in pursuing her scientific development and in meeting the expectations of the marriage.

    From her own experience, Ethel Puffer was one of the first scientists to publicly debate the conflicts between women to make both science and a life in a “successful” marriage, that is to say comply with social and normative expectations of the same.

    As part of their marital engagement she had to move to a rural community for her husband’s job, And among other things, it led her to reflect on the poor compatibility between the burden of domestic activities and the intellectual demands of scientific psychology. And also, this incompatibility was a major stressor for women who were gradually abandoning the ideals of professional training to which they had devoted years.

    In short, Ethel Puffer questioned the demand for leading a “perfect personal life”; with the path of personal development, which generates different contradictions when the first corresponds to marriage and the second to a task already associated with male values: doing science. After spending several years of private reflection, Ethel brought this discussion to science itself, in the form of research and various academic papers where she describes the tensions women scientists have gone through and possible reconciliation strategies, for example. example. the development of nurseries and special services for working mothers.

    Her major works include “Accepting the Universe” and “Continuity for Women”, both dating from 1922. She proposes, among other things, to reform the working conditions of women, without addressing the possibility of redefining marriage and the sexual division of labor.

      Generated identity vs scientific identity

      Women who opted for higher education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries experienced a major tension between the public image of an obedient and submissive wife and the silence of an “I.” desires and initiatives that correspond to a sphere associated with opposing values. In the social imagination, scientists were men and women’s activity was more associated with private space.

      Scientific activity, associated with values ​​opposite to those associated with women, also meant their exposure to social sanctions related to skepticism about their abilities and the validity of their activities. The latter was painful for women who considered themselves “atypical” to practice science and not stay within the confines of domestic space.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Rodkey, I. (2010). Profile. Ethel Puffer Howes. Accessed July 2, 2018.Available at
      • García Dauder, S. (2005). Psychology and feminism. Forgotten history of pioneering women in psychology. Madrid: Narcée.

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