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Matina Souretis Horner


Training Location(s):

PhD, University of Michigan, (1968)

MSD, University of Michigan, (1963)

BA, Bryn Mawr, (1961)

Primary Affiliation(s):

Radcliffe College (President), (1972-1989)

Harvard University (Associate Professor), (1969-1972)

University of Michigan (DeRoy Visiting Professorship), (1969-1970)

Media Links:
Archival Collection

Matina Horner Papers, Radcliffe College Archives



Career Focus:  Women’s achievement motivation; ‘fear of success’.


Matina Souretis Horner, born in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1939, demonstrated an aptitude for experimental psychology and motivation research early in her academic endeavours. While still an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, she worked as a research assistant in 1960 funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. The following year Horner completed her BA, graduating cum laude and writing an honours thesis on ‘need achievement’ in Greek and Jewish communities. At Bryn Mawr she met her husband Joseph Horner, who would become a research physicist. They married in 1961, the year they both graduated from college and began graduate school. 


As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Matina Horner’s early psychological research focused on intelligence, motivation, and achievement. Noticing that very little of the research in these subfields paid attention to women’s motivation for success, she took up this topic as her primary research interest. In a study which found high anxiety levels in female participants, Horner challenged her co-researchers’ conclusions that such observations were to be attributed to a fear of failure. Rather, she hypothesized, it was the possibility for success that invoked so much apprehension.


Horner began investigating and testing her hypothesis around 1968 for her doctoral dissertation. Throughout her studies, Horner used a modified Thematic Apperception Test in which each participants were asked to complete a story about either John (for male participants) or Anne (for female participants). In each story, the protagonist was presented as a struggling medical student. Based on the responses to this test, Horner would formulate a ‘Motive to Avoid Success’ score based on the extent to which participants, when receiving thematic cues about the success of John or Anne, responded with statements showing conflict about the story, anticipation for negative consequences because of success, or denial about the protagonist’s effort or role in attaining the success. Horner found that 65% of the females who responded with negative projections for Anne’s future did so given their anticipation that negative consequences would follow from success. Horner then proceeded to place the participants in two different, mixed-sex achievement tasks, one being noncompetitive and the other competitive. Comparing each participant’s scores from the first task with the second, Horner found that the female participants who scored high on a "Motive to Avoid Success" scored significantly lower on the competitive achievement task compared to their performance on the noncompetitive task.


Interpreting these results, Horner argued that at an early stage, women acquire an aversion to success in certain professions that are perceived as inconsistent with the prescribed social norms for femininity, lest they make themselves vulnerable to social criticism given the aggressive (and thus ‘masculine’) overtones associated with competing for success in such fields. It was from the results of this study and its retest that Horner derived the popular and controversial concept of women’s ‘fear of success,’ publishing these results and a discussion on the concept in the Journal of Social Issues in 1962, under the title ‘Towards An Understanding of Achievement-Related Conflicts in Women.’ In this paper, Horner asserted that “femininity and competitive achievement continue in American society, even today, to be viewed as two desirable but mutually exclusive ends,” and, despite the women’s liberation movement which began to take root at the time, “the recent emphasis on the new freedom for women has not been effective in removing the psychological barrier that prevents them from actively seeking success or making obvious their abilities and potential.” Elsewhere Horner emphasized that the fear of success was completely rational: “Fear of success is not neurotic. It's a realistic appraisal of what society has taught us and how society has responded to women.”


Following the completion of her Ph.D. in 1968 and earning a lecturer position at the University of Michigan, Horner was invited to join Harvard University’s Department of Social Relations as a lecturer in 1969, earning the role of assistant professor in the department’s Personality and Development wing just one year later. Three years following her appointment at Harvard, Horner was selected to become the sixth president of Radcliffe College, a women’s liberal arts college founded in 1879 with the purpose of offering women equal access to Harvard’s faculty and resources. At 32 years old, Horner was the youngest president elected in the history of Radcliffe College.


Gaining equal access to Harvard and its resources, however, proved to be a slow battle for Radcliffe College, and when Horner became its president in 1972 she inherited a longstanding contentious relationship between the two institutions. For instance, it was not until 1967 that women were allowed to use Harvard’s undergraduate library, and while administration agreed to lower the male constitution of the student body to 70 percent from 80 percent, this administrative change could hardly be regarded as approximating gender equality.


By 1975, however, the long debate over whether to merge Radcliffe and Harvard came to an end; the administrative offices respective to each college resolved to integrate, and declared the removal of a quota on the number of female students admitted. Horner’s influence on the politics of academia did not stop there. In 1977 Horner reasserted Radcliff’s financial independence in a new agreement with Harvard, allowing for the college to oversee its own research programs and to facilitate special educational programs for undergraduate women. Further, addressing the underrepresentation of tenured female professors at Harvard, Horner encouraged female junior faculty members to publish by founding a special book-publishing program known as the Radcliffe Biography Series. One of the programs’ first publications, entitled Women in Crisis, became a bestseller in 1978.


During her time at Radcliffe and Harvard, Matina Horner played a crucial role in bringing a new academic focus to the experiences of women and to women’s rights. Under her presidency, the Radcliffe Institute, which was renamed the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute in 1978, served not only to sponsor research by women, but offered fellowships to female researchers and students as well, thereby providing them with “a room of their own” and new opportunities to flourish within academic settings. Horner also served as an example to students of the successful combination of career and family--her three children were ages 3, 5, and 7 when she became president. When asked about this, Horner commented “One of the things you lose in two-career families is time. It becomes a more precious commodity than anything else. Time for friends and hobbies quickly drops away, especially when you care about mothering your own children, as I do.”


Horner’s administrative talents were recognized by President Jimmy Carter, who in 1979 appointed Horner to the President’s Commission for the National Agenda for the 1980s, also offering her the position of chairperson of the Task Force on the Quality of American Life the following year. Even after her retirement from Radcliffe in 1989, Horner would go on to earn positions and accolades such as chairman to the Board of Trustees for Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions, as well as the Distinguished Bostonian Award, the Catalyst Award, and the Ellis Island Medal.


by Pavan Brar (2014)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works:


About Matina Horner


(1972, May 15). Matina Horner named sixth president of Radcliffe College. Radcliffe Quarterly, Sequence 13855, 1.


(1982, November 20). Matina Horner: A decade of leadership at Radcliffe. New York Times.


Jennes, G. (1976, June 21). Radcliffe President Horner warns ambitious women of catch-22—fear of success. People, 5, 25.



By Matina Horner


Horner, M. S. (1970). Femininity and successful achievement: A basic inconsistency. In J. Bardwick, E. M. Douvan, M.S. Horner, & D. Gutmann (Eds.), Feminine personality and conflict. Belmont, CA: Brooks-Cole.


Horner, M. S. (1972). Toward an understanding of achievement-related conflicts in women. Journal of Social Issues, 28(2), 157-175.







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