Eugenics, social reform, and psychology: The careers of Isabelle Kendig

Isabelle Kendig (Courtesy of Ben Harris)

A forthcoming piece in History of Psychology will be of interest to AHP readers: “Eugenics, social reform, and psychology: The careers of Isabelle Kendig” by Ben Harris. Abstract:

The psychologist Isabelle Kendig had two careers before earning her doctorate and rising to the position of chief psychologist at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC. She began as a eugenic field worker in 1912, focusing on Shutesbury, Massachusetts, where she administered intelligence tests to the locals, collected gossip about their character, and created genealogical charts. When she presented her research to Charles Davenport and other social scientists concerned with social defect, Kendig dissented from eugenics orthodoxy. She was shunned by Davenport, who, in turn, falsified her findings to fit his beliefs. She was then hired by Massachusetts and New Hampshire to survey intellectual disability in each state. Following her work in eugenics, Kendig was briefly a leading figure in feminist and antimilitarist campaigns, including the National Women’s Party and the 1924 presidential campaign of Senator Robert La Follette. In 1933, she earned a PhD in clinical psychology from Radcliffe and went on to help guide the field’s post-WWII expansion. True to her feminist ideals and with the help of her husband, she juggled marriage, her three careers, and the parenting of four children. She thus serves as a noteworthy member of the second generation of women in psychology in the United States. Using unpublished correspondence between Kendig, her parents, and her future husband, this article offers a rare glimpse of a young feminist struggling to build a career and a life unconstrained by patriarchal norms. 

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.