The Empowered Dr. Brenda Major


Themes from the personal to the political permeate the research of Dr. Brenda Major: from her groundbreaking work on issues of mental health and emotional responses to abortion, to her early research on gender and the psychology of non-reciprocal touch between people, to her more recent studies on stigma relating to ethnicity, culture, and body-weight. The issues at the core of her research are intense and often intensely debated as our national discourse about gender and race equality, access to health, and social acceptance of body-size continue in battles unabated.

Dr. Major introduces herself:

In this first excerpt, Dr. Major tells us a bit about her parents:

During WWII Avonelle Major (Brenda’s mom) was working (a la  Rosie the Riveter) and  attending college, while her father,  Bertram, spent the war in Air Force Intelligence. He returned home from the war and was able to use the GI Bill to advance his education and seek employment. From there, Bertram Major entered into the busy life of a traveling salesman spending most of his days each week on the road. With new social and personal circumstances at the end of the war, Avonelle Major left the workforce and with it her means of support to complete her own college degree. Instead, Ms. Major raised her two daughters in a strongly matriarchal home and with a strong sense of her own capabilities and aspirations.  As her daughters came of age in the 1960’s and with the rise of equal rights for women, she was determined to see them into higher educational achievement.

Brenda Major was born in Pittsburgh in 1950, where her family lived most of her early life. She was a good student,  active with theater, debate, and even achieved that most coveted of early 1960s middle-American cool by making the cheerleading squad! There were challenges in her teenage years — especially an unexpected move to a new town just before starting her senior year of high school — but generally she was active, engaged, and motivated. That one awkward final year of HS aside, in 1968 Brenda was off to college and ready to experience that next part of her education.

She describes the context of that decision and how she got into Psychology in this next excerpt:

College of Wooster is a great liberal arts institution and one that underwent some tremendous change during Brenda’s years as an undergrad (1968-72). There was civil rights activism for the equality of women and people of color, demands for more freedom of thought and expression, and the heart-felt reactions to the Kent State shooting in 1970 during a protest against  the Vietnam war (less than 50 miles up the from College of Wooster). This feeling of a changin’ in the political landscape caught on rapidly on college campuses and altered the practices and regulations for Brenda and her Wooster cohort.  During this time,  Brenda started to read and study issues on the edge of political-psychology. She determined with her advisor that this might the right target for her studies.  In 1972 she graduated with a Psychology degree, a steady boyfriend (pre-med, starting on med school), and was ready to start a professional life, possibly a family.

Then, as now, finding a job just out of college with a bachelor’s degree was challenging. Brenda took a low-level position as a secretary after finding no offers at the more interesting and higher paying positions. This work was difficult and unfulfilling, and she was ready for something new. Toward the end of that first working summer, Brenda received a phone call out of the blue that changed the trajectory of her life! Serendipity — with heavy traces of earned respect from her undergraduate faculty mentors — lead to her jumping into a graduate program in Psychology program at Miami University of Ohio, complete with funding! Brenda learned from her mentors, her courses, but also started on research with issues at the height of her psycho-political intrigue: entitlement, gender, and attribution theory.

Dr. Major recalled the first study she published:

As she described, this early study examined the very real anxiety that many women had regarding success, and how those feelings might relate to gender roles (Major, 1979).  The idea of “fear of success” had received some popular press  after Dr. Matina Horner had first investigated this issues. Brenda sought to better understand the mechanism: it wasn’t success that caused anxiety, so what caused this anxiety? Brenda used Dr. Sandra Bem’s Sex Role Inventory (you are welcome to give it a try from this link) to assess the femininity-androgyny-masculinity of women and how that might relate to their putative anxiety about women’s success in various scenarios. Notably, women didn’t seem to have a fear of their own success, but rather women had a fear of the social retribution that they might experience by being successful, and that fear was more common among women with more masculine gender identities. That last point may have been a result of the social rejection that more masculine women were already experiencing.

In any case, this line of research investigating the Psychology of Women was one that many of the women in her cohort wanted to embrace. With no female faculty at the Psychology department (although some wonderful faculty, nonetheless), some of those graduate students organized a conference to enhance their introduction to the field and immerse themselves in some of the critical issues. That, too, would prove critical for Brenda in her education.

She describes this serendipitous set of events in the next excerpt:

In 1975 Brenda began to work with Dr. Kay Deaux, a young and brilliant scholar in her first professional appointment at Purdue University.  Dr. Deaux mentored Brenda through completing her PhD at Purdue, and the two have maintained an important friendship and collaboration over their lives.

Dr. Major began to research several issues relating to equality, status, entitlement and how those variables are interpreted in micro and macro level interactions. There are many examples, but I think it is helpful to start with her work on non-consensual touch. Consider if a person were to touching another’s arm, or drape an arm around someone else’s shoulders, or pat their head. There are interpersonal social mores about who touches who, when it is appropriate, and how those interactions might be interpreted between the parties involved and others who might be observing. Part of Dr. Major’s early research involved a massive observation of how this type of touching occurs in various social/contextual environments. And make no mistake: touching someone else is an act of status and power. It is an action that makes concrete a feeling of entitlement to someone else’s personal space and body.

Dr. Major’s research addressed these and other issues and there is kind of a weird bit of irony in her efforts to publish the findings:

Who touches who is socially constrained by a sense of power and status. Dr. Major described the extensive observation from her and her research assistants to create this research. Furthermore she tested and analyzed her findings appropriately and effectively before…putting the whole thing in a box. And putting that box in her attic. And forgetting about it. Through another twist and some nagging memories of that interesting research, she recovered her original manuscript and reevaluated it with fresh eyes and a more seasoned understanding. From the original write-up in graduate school until finding that manuscript for her invited talk, years would have passed and she had moved into her first faculty position at SUNY Buffalo. She brushed off the manuscript, cleaned it up, submitted it, and saw it through to publication. Her early research on touch and its implications for entitlement and status were paralleled with her own growth and sense of empowerment.

It was at Buffalo that Dr. Major began studying how feelings of entitlement and status would affect the jobs and associated salaries for men and women. It was also at Buffalo and with the assistance of a great set of research assistants that she began to evaluate the emotional responses of women to having an abortion. Make no mistake that this is a sensitive issue. As ever, Dr. Major approached this with integrity and a respectfulness to the people involved. That included all the levels of care, confidentiality, and sound science to gain approval for conducting this work by the clinic that would be involved, the volunteer participants, and the associated ethical review boards.

In this excerpt, Dr. Major describes how she got started studying socioemotional responses to abortion. She further discusses how the early research led to her testifying for  Surgeon General Koop’s report and multiple task forces evaluating the mental health issues relating to abortion that followed:

It’s a rather remarkable excerpt, I think. She described origin of the research and the critical connection of a grad student at Buffalo first with a clinic that offered women’s health services and then her seeking out Dr. Major to initiate the first studies. Dr. Major and her colleagues worked closely with the clinic and its procedures to survey some of its clients and to learn about their social supports and emotional well-being before and after the abortions. These are important findings which indicated that most women were coping well and able to maintain their well-being through this process. Social support was found to be helpful from partners, friends, and relatives if, and only if,  it was offered with full and complete support. Nothing less.

Moreover, Dr. Major recalled the historical context of the mid-to-late 1980’s with Ronald Reagan as president and Dr. C. Everett Koop his appointed Surgeon General. The president sought to use the office of the Surgeon General and his recommendations to find a political tool with which to contest abortions. Because Dr. Koop took a scientific approach, he drew on testimony from researchers familiar with this issues, including Dr. Major, to inform his report. Subsequently, Dr. Major was recruited to participate the American Psychological Association’s (APA) task force on abortion in 1989-90, and to lead that task force in their efforts 2006-2008. The report from that committee can be found here and is intended as a to guide the major findings from this emergent body of research for the public.

Dr. Major has, of course, continued working and expanding her research program as she moved to her current position at the University of California — Santa Barbara. She’s tested issues of diversity and prejudice, and most recently she’s focused on tests body-size and the associated stigma. There is much more to tell from Dr. Major’s life and career and I look forward to discussing more of it in the book!

(Photo credit to Sonia Fernandez, UC Santa Barbara!)

Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Major:

Major, B. (1979). Sex-role orientation and fear of success: Clarifying an unclear relationshipSex Roles5(1), 63-70.

Major, B. (1980). Information acquisition and attribution processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(6), 1010-1023.

Major B. (1981) Gender Patterns in Touching Behavior. In: Mayo C., Henley N.M. (eds) Gender and Nonverbal Behavior. Springer Series in Social Psychology. Springer, New York, NY

Major, B. (1987). Gender, justice, and the psychology of entitlement. In P. Shaver & C. Hendrick (Eds.), Review of personality and social psychology, Vol. 7. Sex and gender (pp. 124-148). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc.

Major, B. (1989). Gender differences in comparisons and entitlement: Implications for comparable worthJournal of Social Issues45(4), 99-115.

Major, B., & Adams, J. B. (1983). Role of gender, interpersonal orientation, and self-presentation in distributive-justice behaviorJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(3), 598-608.

Major, B., Appelbaum, M., Beckman, L., Dutton, M. A., Russo, N. F., & West, C. (2009). Abortion and mental health: Evaluating the evidenceAmerican Psychologist64(9), 863-890.

Major, B., Carnevale, P. J. D., & Deaux, K. (1981). A different perspective on androgyny: Evaluations of masculine and feminine personality characteristicsJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(5), 988-1001.

Major, B., & Cozzarelli, C. (1992). Psychosocial predictors of adjustment to abortionJournal of Social Issues48(3), 121-142.

Major, B., Cozzarelli, C., Cooper, M. L., Zubek, J., Richards, C., Wilhite, M., & Gramzow, R. H. (2000). Psychological responses of women after first-trimester abortionArchives of General Psychiatry57(8), 777-784.

Major, B., Cozzarelli, C., Sciacchitano, A. M., Cooper, M. L., Testa, M., & Mueller, P. M. (1990). Perceived social support, self-efficacy, and adjustment to abortionJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(3), 452-463.

Major, B., Eliezer, D., & Rieck, H. (2012). The psychological weight of weight stigmaSocial Psychological and Personality Science3(6), 651-658.

Major, B., & Gramzow, R. H. (1999). Abortion as stigma: cognitive and emotional implications of concealmentJournal of Personality and Social Psychology77(4), 735-745.

Major, B., Gramzow, R. H., McCoy, S. K., Levin, S., Schmader, T., & Sidanius, J. (2002). Perceiving personal discrimination: The role of group status and legitimizing ideologyJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(3), 269-282.

Major, B., & Heslin, R. (1982). Perceptions of cross-sex and same-sex nonreciprocal touch: It is better to give than to receiveJournal of Nonverbal Behavior6(3), 148-162.

Major, B., Hunger, J. M., Bunyan, D. P., & Miller, C. T. (2014). The ironic effects of weight stigmaJournal of Experimental Social Psychology51, 74-80.

Major, B., Kaiser, C. R., & McCoy, S. K. (2003). It’s Not My Fault: When and Why Attributions to Prejudice Protect Self-EsteemPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin29(6), 772–781.

Major, B., Kaiser, C. R., O’Brien, L. T., & McCoy, S. K. (2007). Perceived discrimination as worldview threat or worldview confirmation: Implications for self-esteemJournal of personality and social psychology92(6), 1068-1086.

Major, B., & Konar, E. (1984). An investigation of sex differences in pay expectations and their possible causesAcademy of Management Journal27(4), 777-792.

Major, B., McFarlin, D. B., & Gagnon, D. (1984). Overworked and underpaid: On the nature of gender differences in personal entitlementJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(6), 1399-1412.

Major, B., Mueller, P., & Hildebrandt, K. (1985). Attributions, expectations, and coping with abortionJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(3), 585-599.

Major, B., Richards, C., Cooper, M. L., Cozzarelli, C., & Zubek, J. (1998). Personal resilience, cognitive appraisals, and coping: an integrative model of adjustment to abortionJournal of Personality and Social Psychology74(3), 735-752.

Major, B., & O’Brien, L. T. (2005). The social psychology of stigmaAnnual Review of Psychology56, 393-421.

Major, B., Quinton, W. J., & Schmader, T. (2003). Attributions to discrimination and self-esteem: Impact of group identification and situational ambiguityJournal of Experimental Social Psychology39(3), 220-231.

Major, B., Spencer, S., Schmader, T., Wolfe, C., & Crocker, J. (1998). Coping with negative stereotypes about intellectual performance: The role of psychological disengagementPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin24(1), 34-50.

Major, B., & Testa, M. (1989). Social comparison processes and judgments of entitlement and satisfactionJournal of Experimental Social Psychology25(2), 101-120.

Major, B., Zubek, J. M., Cooper, M. L., Cozzarelli, C., & Richards, C. (1997). Mixed messages: Implications of social conflict and social support within close relationships for adjustment to a stressful life eventJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(6), 1349-1363.

APA Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion: Major, B., Applebaum, M., Beckman, L., Dutton, M.A., Russo., M.F., & West, C.. (2008). Report of the APA Task Force on Mental Health and AbortionWashington, D.C.:

Crocker, J., Cornwell, B., & Major, B. (1993). The stigma of overweight: Affective consequences of attributional ambiguityJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(1), 60-70.

Crocker, J., & Major, B. (1989). Social stigma and self-esteem: The self-protective properties of stigmaPsychological Review96(4), 608-630.

Deaux, K., & Major, B. (1977). Sex-related patterns in the unit of perceptionPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin3(2), 297-300.

Deaux, K., & Major, B. (1987). Putting gender into context: An interactive model of gender-related behavior. Psychological Review, 94(3), 369-389.

O’Brien, L. T., & Major, B. (2005). System-justifying beliefs and psychological well-being: The roles of group status and identityPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin31(12), 1718-1729.

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