Eleanor Emmons Maccoby, Ph.D. Professor Emerita, Stanford University

Eleanor Emmons Maccoby, a distinguished alumna (Ph.D. 1950) of the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, celebrated her 100th birthday on May 15th, 2017. She is Professor Emerita at Stanford University where she spent her academic career since 1958. A leading scholar in the field of developmental psychology, she has been a pioneer in studying the importance of parenting, the development of attention in children, and the role of gender in childhood and adulthood. Her accomplishments includes the multidisciplinary study of children and the law, especially family restructuring after divorce. Maccoby was also an early leader in combining research in child development with its implications for public policy.  

Born in Tacoma, Washington in 1917, Eleanor Emmons began her training at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. She then earned her B.A. in psychology at the University of Washington in 1939, where she met and married graduate student Nathan Maccoby in her senior year. When Nathan was offered a position at the U.S. Civil Service Commission they relocated to Washington D.C. in 1940, just before the United States' involvement in World War II.  Based on her training in psychology, Eleanor was offered a position in the Social Security Administration, during which time she wrote multiple-choice tests for use by state merit systems. She describes it as a difficult assignment, during which she mastered the tools of test construction.  When the war was declared, Nathan was drafted as a Sergeant and sent to Florida.  Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to the Pentagon, so they moved back to Washington D.C. until Victory Over Japan Day in August of 1945. Nathan had worked on studies of troop morale, and the data provided a foundational base for the new field of social psychology. Rensis Likert, a psychologist later known for developing Likert Scales, was able to transfer the Division of Program Surveys to the University of Michigan and helped establish the Institute for Social Research there, which is now one of the premier centers in social research in the country.  At this time, in September 1947, both Eleanor and Nathan became Ph.D. students at the University of Michigan.

Eleanor and her Father, heading to a Michigan Football Game.

They both established distinguished careers while graduate students at Michigan. They bought land and built a house (obtaining a loan through the G.I. bill) and also became involved in local politics. In 1950, Nathan was offered a professorship at Boston University. Even though Eleanor still had a year to complete her doctoral degree at Michigan, she and Nathan relocated to Boston. Remaining under the mentorship of professor Edward Walker, her thesis advisor at Michigan, she worked with the famed psychologist B. F. Skinner at Harvard in order to conduct the research needed to complete her dissertation on the role of reinforcement in discrimination learning in pigeons (Ph.D. 1950). At this point, her interests turned to other research questions.  She began working in Harvard's Social Relations Department and met Robert R. Sears, an eminent developmental psychologist. Their work resulted in the creation of a famous study reported in the volume Patterns of child rearing (Sears, Maccoby, & Levin, 1957), which continues to be cited up to the present day.  When Sears relocated to Stanford University, he arranged for positions for both Eleanor and Nathan there, where they transferred to in 1958 and spent the remainder of their long and successful careers.  

Eleanor in her Harvard Office.

Throughout the course of her career, Eleanor has made pioneering and highly influential contributions to the fields of developmental and gender psychology. Her co-authored book, The psychology of sex differences (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1978) has been cited over 10,000 times, and launched the scientific study of gender roles and sex differences (including the lack thereof). She was the first woman to chair the psychology department at Stanford, was the director of many programs, and in 1983 she was elected as the President of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) and over the subsequent years she received honors from all major professional societies. These honors include election in the National Academy of Sciences, the Lifetime Contribution Award from the American Psychological Foundation, the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award, the Society for Research in Child Development Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions, the American Educational Research Association Award for Distinguished Contributions in Education Research, the G. Stanley Hall Award of Division 7 (Developmental Psychology) of the American Psychological Association, and the Stanford University Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching. The Eleanor Maccoby Book Award from Division 7 of the American Psychological Association was named in her honor.

Newly Minted Professor at Stanford

As a tribute to Eleanor and her influence on the field, in 2002 the American Psychological Association recognized her as one of the 100 most “Eminent psychologists of the 20th century” (APA, 2002; Haggbloom et al., 2002). We are especially proud to count Eleanor Maccoby as an alumna of our department and salute her as she celebrates her 100th birthday.  


American Psychological Association. (2002, July/August). Eminent psychologists of the 20th         century. Monitor on Psychology, 33(7), 29. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/

Haggbloom, S. J., Warnick, R., Warnick, J. E., Jones, V. K., Yarbrough, G. L., Russell, T. M.,      Borecky, C. M., McGahhey, R., Powell III, J. L., Beavers, J., & Monte, E. (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology6(2),          139.

Maccoby, E. E., & Jacklin, C. N. (1978). The psychology of sex differences. Stanford, CA:            Stanford University Press.

Sears, R. R., Maccoby, E. E., & Levin, H. (1957). Patterns of child rearing. Stanford, CA:            Stanford University Press.