Sunday, September 30, 2012

Nancy Henley

Nancy Henley

Personal and Educational Background:

            Born in 1934, Nancy Henley’s original academic aspirations had little to do with psychology and even less to do with feminism and gender dynamics. When she finished with high school, she enrolled in Wilson’s Teacher’s College with the intention of becoming an educator, a role stereotypically filled by women. Nonetheless, it was here that Nancy was exposed to her first psychology courses. She became utterly fascinated by what she was learning. Under the tutelage of a “very good psychology teacher” there, Nancy developed an appetite for the field and began taking more courses related to psychology than to education (Henley, 2005).
However, before she could complete the program at Wilson, life intervened and Nancy left the school to marry and raise children. Not long after, though, she returned to night school at John Hopkins University where she made the most of the psych credits she had earned at Wilson and finished her Bachelor’s degree in 1964. Subsequently, she was accepted into John Hopkins Graduate program under James Deese working with psycholinguistics where she completed her Masters in 1967. One year later, she was awarded a PhD in Experimental Psychology from the same institution.

A Career Influenced by Feminism:

            The notion that psychology was a male-dominated field during her time was one that was not lost on Nancy. In an interview conducted in 2005, she recounted a story from her search for a suitable graduate school:

“…there were these little booklets that had a few words about each school. Many actually had blatantly in their listing, ‘Men Preferred.’”

But, her feminist sentiments were not fully awakened until she became involved in an activist group that discussed racial issues. This group slowly exposed her to the Women’s Movement.
            As time went on, Nancy became increasingly interested in study of gender and more politically active in terms of empowering women in the professional psychology field. Along with other notable feminists psychologists, like Phyllis Chesler and Patricia Greenfield, Nancy began forming women’s groups at each institution she worked/studied at. These groups would not only discuss gender and how it related to psychology, but they also gathered data “about women and men at various ranks” for the purposes of exposing gender inequalities (Henley, 2005). In Nancy’s own words:

“…I think for academic women it was sort of being second-class and you know we suspected a number of things. We weren’t sure if we were getting less pay, or you know not being promoted or hired as much…”

She, personally, drafted the groups’ findings into a series of “resolutions and motions” that they collectively presented to the American Psychology Association (APA) in an attempt to reveal the rampant androcentrism that had been part of their practices for years (Henley, 2005).
It was also during this time that Nancy began really studying how gender dynamics played a role in non-verbal communication. Although she was the author of many scholarly articles throughout her life, it was these studies that culminated in her most famous work, Body Politics: Power, Sex, and Non-Verbal Communication which was published in 1977. Through this very influential text, Nancy posited the idea “that male dominance was maintained and supported a lot through non-verbal communication, unconsciously…therefore women and other people being dominated could be subordinated without their knowledge” (Henley, 2005).
Her activism, her studies of communication, her writings, her time spent as the director of Women’s Studies at the University of California while simultaneously serving as editor of Psychology of Women Quarterly amounts to impressive catalog of work. That’s why its not surprising that in 1996 Nancy was awarded the Distinguished Contribution to Women in Psychology Award from the APA Committee on Women in Psychology. Presently (and quite justifiably), she is retired.

            If there were any one woman who seems to typify the classic feminists heroine, it would be Nancy. Like most women of her day, every inch that she earned would have counted as two for a man. She overcame the seemingly insurmountable androcentrism of the education system to achieve her doctorate and then subsequently used that knowledge to unite women and bring to light the male-biases of the current establishment.
            Her research went further, though, exposing just how deep the gender-imbalance of our society goes. By taking a hard look at the various ways in which we communicate, Nancy revealed that women are being held down by more than just unabashed misogynism; if true equality for the sexes is the end goal, then we as a society are going to have to rework some our most basic functions (i.e. body language) – a revelation that, I think, speaks to the very core of feminism in all its forms.
            Most notably, however, was Nancy’s activism of the 1960’s. It was because of her work that the APA established its Division 35, which is now called the Society for the Psychology of Women. This subsection of the APA serves a dual purpose: first and foremost it is devoted to women’s studies, but just as important, it “makes it unlikely that interest in the psychology of women and gender will fade away as it did in the 1920’s” (Crawford). This is an important point, because, based on this fact, one could argue that without the Society for the Psychology of Women, we may not have the basis for the class we’re taking today…Thank you, Nancy.

Works Cited:
1.) Crawford, M., & Unger, R. Women and Gender: A Feminist Psychology.

2.) George, Meghan. (2011). Profile of Nancy Henley. Retrieved from:
Accessed September 23rd, 2012.

3.) Henley, N. (2005, January 29). Interview by A. Rutherford and W. Pickren [Audio Recording]. Psychology’s Feminist Voices Oral History and Online Archive Project. Toronto, ON. Retrieved from:
Accessed September 24th, 2012.

Accessed September 24th, 2012.

Picture Citation:
Accessed September 23rd, 2012.

Josh Meunier
Professor Hill
PSY 350
September 26th, 2012

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