Florence Denmark, PhD
By Tasha Dorsey
When students around the world take a course in the psychology of women, they have Florence Denmark to thank. A pioneer in women’s studies, Denmark’s contributions to her profession have made the field of psychology a more informed and just place for new therapists of all varieties to work and thrive. Florence Denmark was born January 28, 1932 in Philadelphia (Psychology’s Feminist Voices Team (PSFT), 2011). While her father worked as a lawyer, her mother chose to leave her career as a musician and teacher to stay home. Denmark attributes much of her early success to her parents’ emphasis on excellence and hard work (PSFT, 2011). She graduated valedictorian of her high school class and continued her education as an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a dual degree in History and Psychology in 1952 (Unger, 2009).
Denmark initially planned to study clinical psychology at the graduate level, but later found she was far more interested in social psychology (PSFT, 2011). She married an orthodontist in 1953, and continued her graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania where she received her master’s degree and PhD in social psychology in 1958 (Denmark, 2008; PSFT, 2011). It was at this time that she and her husband moved to New York and started a family, prompting her to look for part-time work in academia (PSFT, 2011). At Queens College, she found a position as an adjunct professor and later applied for a teaching position at Hunter College (PSFT, 2011). Denmark recalled that despite having a PhD and several publications, she was given the title of instructor (Denmark, 2008). In a later interview, she recalled that at that time, men were more likely to receive the better paying title of assistant professor (Denmark, 2008).
While she was always interested in research on women’s leadership, Denmark credits Virginia Staudt Sexton as being the person who influenced her to become more active in the field (Denmark, 2008). She became a member of the New York State Psychological Association (NYSPA) and the New York Academy of Sciences (Denmark, 2008). In 1969, she was also one of the founding members of the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP), an organization whose objective at that time was to target unjust employment practices within the American Psychological Association (APA) (Denmark, 2008; Tiefer, 1991). Around this same time, students at the City University of New York requested a course on the psychology of women (Denmark, 2008). Although their initial request was rejected, the course was eventually approved and Denmark became the first professor to teach psychology of women at the doctorate level (Denmark, 2008). She also co-wrote several texts that are considered foundational to women’s studies such as Women’s Realities, Women’s Choices (1983) (Denmark, 2008). She went on to become the third president of the Division of the Psychology of Women of the APA (PSFT, 2011). She was also the fifth woman, and the first Jewish woman to be president of the APA (PSFT, 2011; Unger, 2009). When asked about her effective leadership style, Denmark recalled a friend who described her as an “iron fist in the velvet glove” (Denmark, 2008, p. 9). She felt she was able to use her femininity and gentleness as strengths (Denmark, 2008).
While her work in leadership roles and women’s interests are notable, Denmark interests go further (Denmark, 2008). Work with ethnic minorities has also been a lifelong passion for Denmark. While working at Queens College in the 1960’s, she and colleague Marcia Guttentag conducted a study at a local school where they were able to demonstrate positive effects of integration for both African American and White students. She was also the director of the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge program, a program which was designed to support low income students. As of 2008, she was still a member of the Division of Ethnic Minority Psychology. When asked about the current abundance of women and lack of men in psychology, Denmark remarked it will always be important to maintain a balance and therefore bringing more men and minorities into the field should be a focus in the future. Another interest of Denmark’s is international social issues. She is the APA’s representative to the United Nations (Denmark, 2008).
In addition to the APA, she has also been president of the International Council of Psychologists, Eastern Psychological Association, NYSPA, and Psi Chi (Social Psychology Network, 2011). She has four honorary degrees and numerous awards which include the APA’s Distinguished Contributions to Education and Training Award, and the Public Interest and the Advancement of International Psychology Award (Social Psychology Network, 2011).
Denmark, F.L. (2008, April 7). Interview by W. Pricken [Video Recording]. Psychology’s Feminist Voices Oral History and Online Archival Project. New York, NY.
Psychology’s Feminist Voices Team. Profile of Florence Denmark. In A. Rutherford (Ed.). Psychology’s Feminist Voices Multimedia Internet Archive. Retrieved from http://www.feministvoices.com/florence-denmark
Social Psychology Network (2010). Retrieved from http://denmark.socialpsychology.org/#contact
Tiefer, L. (1991). A brief history of the association for women in psychology. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15, 635-649. Doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.1991.tb00436.x
Unger, Rhoda K. (2009). "Florence Levin Denmark." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved from http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/denmark-florence-levin