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Virginia Staudt Sexton (1916-1997)

by Hendrika Vande Kemp, Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary*

Biography of Virginia Staudt Sexton

Virginia Mary Staudt was born in New York City on 30 August 1916, the younger of two daughters of Kathryn Burkard and Philip Henry Staudt. Staudt majored in classics at Hunter College (CUNY) and graduated magna cum laude in 1936. During the Depression and war years she was employed by the St. Peter and St. Paul's School (1936-1939), Hunter High School (1939), and the New York City Department of Welfare (1938-1944). During these years Staudt began graduate study at Fordham University, earning the M.A. (1941) and the Ph.D. (1946). She launched her career as Guidance Director and faculty member at the Notre Dame College of Staten Island (1944-1952). In 1952, supported by a Ford Foundation Faculty Fellowship, Staudt began a year of graduate study in clinical psychology and neuroanatomy at Columbia University. In 1953 she accepted a faculty position at Hunter College (now Herbert H. Lehman College), where she taught until her retirement in 1979. She spent her remaining years as Distinguished Professor at St. John's University. On 21 January 1961, Staudt married Fordham English professor Richard Sexton, a widower with four children. Richard Sexton died in January 1997. Virginia Staudt Sexton died in Cincinnati, Ohio on 24 May 1997. Her biography has been included in numerous biographical reference works, and her obituary will appear in the American Psychologist and The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. A bibliography and extensive details of Sexton's career are included in the chapter by Denmark & Russo (1990). Here I will focus primarily on Sexton's contributions to the psychology of women.

Staudt Sexton described her principal research interests as the history of psychology, international psychology, and the psychology of women. She established her reputation as historian of psychology and philosophical/theoretical psychologist primarily through the books she published with Henryk Misiak, a Catholic colleague from Fordham University with whom she was involved in a highly successful, long-lasting writing partnership. Together they authored Catholics in Psychology (1954), History of Psychology: An Overview (1966), and Phenomenological, Existential, and Humanistic Psychologies: A Historical Survey (1973), and edited Historical Perspectives in Psychology: Readings (1971). With Joseph W. Dauben, Sexton edited History and Philosophy of Science: Selected Papers (1983). Sexton's reputation as an international psychologist was based on her active participation in the International Congresses of Psychology and other international meetings, contributions to Pakistani and Yugoslavian psychology journals, service on APA's Committee on International Relations in Psychology, and her editing with Misiak of Psychology Around the World (1976). The second edition, International Psychology (1992), was co-edited with Sexton's St. John's University colleague John Hogan.

Stevens and Gardner (1982) described Sexton as "the best known specialist on the history of women in psychology" (p. 235). Sexton's biographical sketches of Hilda Marley, Christine Ladd-Franklin, Mary Whiton Calkins, Karen Horney, and Margaret Washburn were published in The New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), the Dictionary of Behavioral Science (1973) and the International Encyclopedia of Psychiatry, Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Neurology (1977). Misiak and Staudt (1954) devoted an entire chapter of Catholics in Psychology to Sister Marie Hilda (Hilda Gertrude Marley), founder of the Notre Dame Child Guidance Clinic in Glasgow. This text also documents the contributions of Franciszka Baumgarten and Josephine Joteyko in Poland; Maryse Choisy in France; Honoria Wells in Belgium; Maria Montessori, Agatha Sidlauskas, and Giuseppina Pastori in Italy; and Magda Arnold, Agnes McDonough, and Sisters Jeanne Marie Bonnett, Kevin O'Hara, and Annette Walters in the United States. John Hogan and Sexton authored the biography of Anne Anastasi for O'Connell and Russo's (1990) sourcebook and an article on "Women and the American Psychological Association" for Psychology of Women Quarterly (1991). Her contributions to Catholics in Psychology also earned Sexton a lasting reputation among psychologists of religion. This was enhanced by her leadership in the American Catholic Psychological Association and its successor, Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues (PIRI).

Sexton's work on women contained strong implicit and explicit elements of advocacy to improve women's status within psychology and in the larger world. Early in her career, Staudt often spoke about psychology to women's and girls' groups. At regional meetings, APA conventions, and international conferences, Staudt Sexton presented papers with such titles as "Practical Psychology for the Working Woman," "Scholarly and Professional Pursuits for Catholic Young Women," "Psychological Fulfillment for Women," "Personality Attributes and Roles of Women Psychologists," "Women's Accomplishments in American Society," "Women in American Psychology: A Historical Survey," "Women Psychologists in the 1970s," "Women in National and International Psychology," "American Women Psychologists: A Centennial Tribute," "History of Psychology: Women Still Need Their Place," "Mainstreaming Women into the History of Psychology," and "The Status of Women in Psychology Around the World."

Staudt Sexton's work in general displayed a strong spirit of diplomacy and cooperation. Her career was filled with professional political and diplomatic activities that won her numerous awards from local, national, and international organizations. It was due to the lobbying efforts of Sexton and her colleague William C. Bier that PIRI eventually became Division 36 of APA. She served as Chair of the Fellows Committee of Division 35 and as a member of its Governance Committee, and as a reviewer for Psychology of Women Quarterly. Sexton essentially retired from her diplomatic career after her candidacy for the APA presidency in the 1980s.

Sexton's family strongly supported her work, and she repeatedly acknowledged the ways in which family members supported her career. Her sister Florence Staudt at various points assisted in typing, proof-reading, and editing manuscripts, and in index preparation. These duties were shared by her husband Richard Sexton and her step-children, Richard E. Sexton and Mary W. Sexton. She will be mourned not only by her family, but by all those for whom she served as a role model.


Denmark, F. L., & Russo, N. F. (1990). Virginia Staudt Sexton (1916- ). In A. N. O'Connell & N. F. Russo (Eds.), Women in psychology: A bio-bibliographic sourcebook (pp. 285-296). New York: Greenwood Press.

Stevens, G., & Gardner, S. (1982). Turning her attention towards the history of women in her field: Virginia Staudt Sexton (1916- ). In The women of psychology. Vol. II. Expansion and refinement (pp. 234-235). Cambridge, MA: Schenkman.


*Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 25, Number 1, Winter, 1998.  Appearing with permission of the author.

Date created: 2010