5 Very Early Stories About American Women and Voting

Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

When talking about women’s suffrage in the United States, we usually focus on the efforts of first-wave feminists who worked to get women the vote from the mid-19th century until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. But during colonial times and in the earliest days of the nation, a small number of women managed to vote despite circumstances stacked against them. Below, we’ve collected four very early stories about women who voted, or demanded to vote, under English and later American law, as well as one popular myth about an early female voter.

All of these stories concern women in a particular category—they weren’t married. Under the legal tradition of coverture [PDF], married women did not exist as legal persons separate from their husbands. This English common law tradition was imported into the United States along with English colonists. Under coverture, a single woman could own property and exercise legal rights, like entering into contracts and suing or being sued, but upon marriage, a woman’s legal existence disappeared into that of her husband—she became a feme covert. Her husband took control of her property and she could no longer act on her own behalf in legal matters, which included voting. So while we have scattered instances of women voting in the United States before women’s suffrage was granted, the voting women were primarily widows—married women didn’t legally exist, and young single women usually didn’t own property. (The various colonies and early states each set their own voting laws, but all required the possession of a certain amount of land, personal property of a certain value, or payment of a certain amount of taxes, though the amount of property that was required varied by jurisdiction [PDF].) States began eliminating property requirements for voting in the early 19th century.

1. MARGARET BRENT DEMANDS A “VOTE AND VOYCE.”

Margaret Brent immigrated to the colony of Maryland in 1638 with several siblings. Though the Brent family was descended from British nobility [PDF], they were Catholic and so faced persecution in Anglican England [PDF]. Taking refuge in the colony established by fellow Catholic Cecil Calvert (Lord Baltimore), Margaret Brent accumulated significant wealth and became a prominent citizen [PDF], developing a close relationship with Maryland’s governor, Leonard Calvert, the brother of Lord Baltimore. Margaret Brent never married, and thus retained complete power over her extensive property. She also became a frequent presence in colonial court, representing herself, her brothers, and family acquaintances in legal suits more than 130 times.

Despite being a woman, Margaret Brent was a forceful presence in Maryland society, both economically and legally, and when her friend Governor Calvert lay dying in 1647, he appointed her the “sole Execquutrix” (sic) of his estate, instructing her to “Take all, & pay all.” But settling Calvert’s debts turned out to be quite complicated.

A Protestant ship captain named Richard Ingle had led an insurrection against Maryland’s colonial government and its Catholic leaders two years before Calvert’s death. Calvert had struggled to put down the rebellion, but eventually defeated the rebels with a group of mercenary troops, whom he had pledged to pay out of his own estate or that of his brother, Lord Baltimore, which he controlled. When Governor Calvert died, however, these troops had still not been paid, and his estate did not have enough available funds to compensate them.

Under English law, as executor, Brent could not easily sell Calvert’s land, so she found another way to get the money. Before his death, Governor Calvert had possessed power of attorney over the Maryland possessions of his brother, Lord Baltimore, who lived in England. On January 3, 1648, Brent asked the Maryland General Assembly to transfer the power of attorney to her, as Calvert’s executor—a request the General Assembly granted.

Now Margaret Brent had two options: liquidate some of Lord Baltimore’s property to pay the mercenaries, or convince the General Assembly to levy a tax on the colony. To resolve the matter quickly, she would have had to sell the property without Baltimore’s permission, which would likely have angered him. Meanwhile, holding his power of attorney gave her the chance to serve as his proxy in the General Assembly, and thus try to push through a tax. On January 21, 1648, Brent appeared before the Maryland General Assembly and appealed for the ability to vote in their council, requesting “to have vote in the howse for her selfe and voyce also … as his [Lordship’s] Attorney” [PDF]. Brent was demanding that she receive two votes: one as a landowner in her own right, and another as the legal representative of Lord Baltimore. Acting Maryland Governor Thomas Greene rejected her request, and Brent furiously protested against the Assembly’s proceeding without her.

Without an official voice in the General Assembly, Brent was unlikely to convince them to pass a tax to pay the mercenaries, and thus she decided to sell some of Lord Baltimore’s cattle and use the money to compensate the soldiers. But since Lord Baltimore lived in England and Brent needed to move fast, she made the sale without his permission—a move he angrily protested in a letter to the Maryland General Assembly. The Assembly, however, recognized that Brent had taken a necessary step to placate the grumbling mercenaries, who otherwise might have decided to obtain their compensation by plundering the countryside. The Maryland legislature defended Brent to Lord Baltimore, writing, “We do Verily Believe and in Conscience report that [your estate] was better for the Collonys safety at that time in her hands then in any mans else in the whole Province.” Lord Baltimore was not convinced, and became hostile to the Brent family.

Exasperated with Maryland’s leaders, Brent moved to Virginia with her siblings, even though that colony did not offer religious freedom for Catholics. In 1650, she wrote to Maryland’s new governor from Virginia, “[I] would not intangle my Self in Maryland because of the Ld Baltemore's disaffections to me and the Instruccons he Sends agt us.” Gradually selling off her Maryland property, Margaret accumulated land in her new home, and by her death in 1671 she and her siblings reportedly owned almost 10,000 acres in Virginia.

2. JANE GOODENOW AND MARY LOKER MAKE THEIR VIEWS KNOWN ON GRAZING RIGHTS.

In a Massachusetts town in 1655, groups of men arguing over land use ended up empowering two women to vote—in what may be the earliest instance of women voting in the colonies.

When the town of Sudbury was established in the mid-17th century with a land grant from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, each head of household received a 4-acre house lot as well as a portion of meadow land—but the allotted portions of meadow were not equal. Sudbury’s founding committee ranked each settler in a financial hierarchy and determined the amount of land he would receive based on that ranking [PDF]. This hierarchy was self-perpetuating, because each man’s initial meadow grant would determine the amount of land he could claim each time the town divided more land among its inhabitants.

For ten years, this system worked reasonably well, but in 1649, the Massachusetts General Court (the colonial legislature) granted the town an additional 6400 acres at its western boundary. By that time, Sudbury was home to many young men who had been children when the town was founded, or who had only recently moved there. They were thus not part of the original list of meadow grantees, and pushed the older town selectmen toward an egalitarian division of the new territory. The conservative selectmen attempted to block this change, but after much political jockeying, the youngsters flooded a town meeting with their supporters and passed a motion awarding each townsman an “equal portion” of the new land. The town selectmen, angry at being overruled and worried about a wave of liberal changes to Sudbury, decided to use their power over the town’s common areas to reassert the primacy of the town’s established elite.

The town commons had served as unrestricted grazing area for residents’ livestock, but the town selectmen reserved the right to “size” the commons—i.e., determine how many animals each person could graze on the land—whenever they judged fit. They presented a new proposal that would allow only those who owned meadow acreage to graze livestock on the common, and would tie the number of animals allowed to the amount of meadow a person owned. The young men saw this as retaliation, so in preparation for a vote on the proposal at the next town meeting, they recruited as many supporters as possible, and the old guard did likewise. In their search for votes, each side enlisted a propertied widow.

Jane Goodenow and Mary Loker were both widows of men who received land in the original division of the meadow. As their husbands’ heirs, each had a stake in this question of sizing the commons. Jane Goodenow owned 25 acres of meadow land, and thus benefited from any policies that favored those with a large acreage. Mary Loker, on the other hand, only owned 5 acres of meadow, and she recognized that tying grazing rights to meadow acreage would disadvantage her. As landowners, both women were theoretically eligible to vote in Sudbury, where the access to the franchise depended on property, though according to custom, women did not vote. But on January 22, 1655, Goodenow and Loker packed into the Sudbury meeting house with over 50 other people to determine how the town commons would be sized.

Acting for herself and as a proxy for a (male) neighbor, Goodenow issued two votes in favor of tying grazing rights to meadow ownership, while Loker issued two votes against the measure (it’s unclear if she was also acting as a proxy) [PDF]. When the town clerks counted all the votes, they quickly realized there was a tie: 27 to 27.

Immediately, people on each side began questioning certain opponents’ right to participate in the vote, arguing that the vote of a man who owned meadow land but did not live in town should be discounted, and that another man claiming to be a proxy did not have the consent of the man he was supposedly speaking for. Interestingly, the historical record shows no evidence that the townsmen disputed the widows’ right to weigh in—perhaps because their opposing views canceled each other out.

In the end, the townspeople could not agree on how to size their common land, and had to petition the colonial legislature to decide the matter for them. The Massachusetts General Court concluded that the town could base grazing rights on property ownership, but not just meadow ownership: they had to take a person’s entire estate into account [PDF]. But even after it was resolved, the conflict over the commons had continuing effects on the town. A few months later, the old guard of town selectmen were voted out of their posts. Then, in 1657, a group of young men who were still dissatisfied with matters in Sudbury left to start their own town—which survives today as Marlborough, Massachusetts.

As far as town records show, neither Jane Goodenow nor Mary Loker ever voted again.

3. PROPERTIED SINGLE WOMEN VOTE IN EARLY NEW JERSEY.

In 1776, New Jersey rewrote its constitution upon transitioning from colony to state. The new constitution defined eligible voters as “all inhabitants” over 21 years old who owned property worth £50 and had resided in their New Jersey county for at least 12 months [PDF]. The language “all inhabitants” reflects a situation unique to New Jersey at the time: single women, both black and white, could vote, provided they satisfied the property requirement. While only five states’ early constitutions explicitly limited voting to men, New Jersey was the only state in which women actually voted (at least from 1776 to 1807, after which the first enfranchisement of women took place in what was then the Wyoming Territory in 1869). The unique extension of voting rights to women in New Jersey was likely due to the state’s large Quaker population, as the Quakers had a much more egalitarian vision of gender roles than other Christian sects at the time.

Initially, very small numbers of women participated in New Jersey elections. In Burlington County, for instance, just two women’s names appeared on poll lists in 1787, though the county had a population of 18,095 in the 1790 census. But in 1790, a law was passed regarding seven New Jersey counties that explicitly used the language “he or she,” and in 1797 a statewide law used the same phrase to reinforce women’s right to the franchise. And women first made a real mark at the ballot box that year in Essex County.

In October 1797, Essex County held an election for the New Jersey legislature. A Federalist candidate, William Crane, faced off against a Democratic-Republican, John Condict (or Condit, sources vary), for a seat in the upper house. Federalists reportedly went to great effort to bring voters to the polls, and as voting was nearing the end, while worried Crane was losing, they “had recourse to the last expedient; it was to have women vote […] They scurried around collecting them,” according to an eyewitness. The Newark, New Jersey newspaper The Centinel of Freedom reported that 75 women voted in the election—most of them seemingly for the Federalist candidate. Condict, the Democratic-Republican, ultimately won the legislative seat by just 93 votes.

The Federalist Party’s embrace of the women in Essex County was not unique: the growth of the first political parties seems to have caused a massive increase in women voting in New Jersey, as party leaders wooed the female electorate. In their history of women’s suffrage in New Jersey, Reclaiming Lost Ground, social studies professor Margaret Crocco and history teacher Neale McGoldrick estimate that as many as 10,000 women voted in New Jersey between 1790 and 1807. It’s even reported that women voted in the 1804 presidential election, after the state switched from legislative selection to a popular vote. Some newspapers and public figures celebrated women’s electoral participation and many joked about it, composing humorous poems about the “government in petticoats.” But other men were concerned women weren’t voting for the right reasons—or for the right candidates.

New Jersey elections were often close, so while women voted at a much lower rate than men, their votes still could make the difference between winning and losing. The Democratic-Republicans had, by this point, realized that white women tended to vote Federalist, as did African American men and women. After the state legislature passed a gradual slave emancipation law in 1804, the Democratic-Republicans grew worried about the growing number of free blacks, and thus Federalist-leaning black voters. Then, in early 1807, an election over the location of a new Essex County courthouse led to an explosion of fraudulent voting. One township of 350 eligible voters recorded nearly 1900 votes. Some men, reportedly, dressed in drag in order to vote more than once.

An investigation found that more votes had been cast across the county than eligible voters existed—indeed, in the town of Elizabeth, turnout was 279%— and accusations flew about illegal voting by married women, slaves, underage men, nonresidents, and people who could not meet the property requirement. The election results were thrown out and the matter received widespread press. Democratic-Republicans took this opportunity to submit a bill to the legislature altering the state’s election laws to allow only free white men to vote. Both houses passed his bill by significant margins. Beginning on November 16, 1807, only taxpaying white men could vote in New Jersey.

4. “TWO OLD WIDDOWS” VOTE IN QUEENS COUNTY, NEW YORK.

In the colony of New York, beginning in 1699, the law defined voters as “people dwelling and resident” in the colony who owned “Land or Tenem’ts” with a value of at least £40. Local sheriffs were assigned the responsibility of announcing and conducting the elections for the state General Assembly, and were given the power to verify that each voter satisfied the property requirements. While election law referred to voters as “he,” it didn’t explicitly disqualify women. Under coverture, married women, of course, could not vote, but single women and widows who owned enough property potentially could—if they had the guts to try and the local sheriff allowed it. But those women who tried to vote were few and far between, as doing so flew in the face of strong social norms.

In June 1737, the New York Gazette reported that “Two old Widdows […] were admitted to vote” in a recent election for the General Assembly held in the town of Jamaica in Queens County. A man named Adam Lawrence was then the sheriff of Queens County, and he either had no problem with these women voting or did not want to go up against two rich (and thus likely socially powerful) widows. The Gazette quipped, “It is said, these two old Ladies will be chosen Constables for the next year.” Unfortunately, without access to poll books or other voting records, we can’t learn the identities of these gutsy women—or discover whether they voted on more than this one occasion.

5. AN EARLY VOTING MYTH: LYDIA CHAPIN TAFT

Lydia Chapin Taft is often cited as the first woman to vote in what would become the United States. In 2004, the Massachusetts state legislature even dedicated a highway “in recognition of Mrs. Taft's unique role in American history as America's first woman voter.” Unfortunately, available evidence suggests that the story of Taft’s voting in a town meeting in Uxbridge, Massachusetts in 1756 is simply a myth.

Born in Mendon, Massachusetts in 1711 (Julian calendar), Lydia Chapin married Josiah Taft in 1731, and the couple took up residence in the nearby town of Uxbridge. Given a swath of farmland by his father, Josiah Taft became a wealthy man who was prominent in local politics and also served as Uxbridge’s representative to the Massachusetts General Court. He died in September 1756, leaving his land to his wife, who was also named the executor of his estate. That year, the colonies were embroiled in the French and Indian War, and—legend has it—the town of Uxbridge held a vote on October 30, 1756 to appropriate funds for the war effort. Josiah Taft had been one of the largest landowners in the town, and since his widow was the legal representative of his estate, the town selectman allowed her to vote on whether to tax the local citizens to pay for the war. Lydia Taft voted in favor of the tax—casting the tie-breaking vote, per historical legend.

But according to records from Uxbridge’s town meetings, there wasn’t any meeting on October 30, 1756, and the town did not appropriate any funds that year for the war or for unspecified colonial purposes. (They did vote to raise money for the local schools, to repair the roads, and to pay the town minister’s salary.) Further, even if Lydia Taft had voted, we’d have no way of knowing, since the official minutes for the town meetings do not list the names of people voting or their votes. The minutes simply state when a vote happened and that a given measure passed or failed.

The myth about Lydia Taft seems to have first arisen in the 19th century. In 1864, a man named Henry Chapin gave a speech about his family history during which he told the tale of the “widow Josiah Taft,” who supposedly voted in a town meeting after her husband’s death. Henry Chapin stated that Lydia voted because “The estate of Josiah Taft paid the largest tax in Uxbridge, and his son Bezaleel was a minor,” so it went against the town’s “sturdy sense of justice” to have “taxation without representation.” While Henry Chapin is correct that Bezaleel Taft was a child in 1756, Lydia and Josiah had two other sons who were older: Josiah Jr., who would have been 23, and Asahel, who would have been 16. Josiah Jr. had gotten married in Uxbridge in 1755, where he and his wife owned property; he died in the town in 1761. Unless he was away fighting in the war, we’ve no reason to believe Josiah Jr. wouldn’t have been in Uxbridge in the fall of 1756, able to vote on behalf of his father’s estate, and we haven’t been able to find his name on any colonial muster rolls.

Sometimes it’s reported that Lydia Taft voted three times in town meetings, but that claim seems to have appeared in the 20th century, and looks to be based on times her name appears in town meeting records—for any reason—rather than on times the record says she voted. Available historical documents make no mention of Lydia Chapin Taft voting, to support the French and Indian War or for any other purpose.

Additional sources:

“Democracy and Politics in Colonial New York,” New York History, 1959; “Election Procedures and Practices in Colonial New York,” New York History, 1960; “‘The Petticoat Electors’: Women's Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807,” Journal of the Early Republic, 1992; The Centinel of Freedom, Oct. 18, 1797.

11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

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