Anyone who has sat through Econ 101 recalls the names of Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman. But what about the women economists? They’re all but invisible. Professor Edith Kuiper aims to right that wrong in this study of women’s contributions to economies and economics. She leads an intriguing tour through economic history and uncovers compelling issues and anecdotes that aren’t part of the typical curriculum. But while Kuiper gets an A for identifying a worthy topic, readers may grade her writing style – for prose that often gets lost in lists of obscure names and long-forgotten publications – a C.
- Female economists played an overlooked role in the evolution of the field of economics.
- Women have been missing from economics in a variety of ways.
- The first wave of female economists was barred from formal education.
- Female labor force participation soared after World War II.
- During the past two centuries, women have seen their economic roles change dramatically.
- Female economists drove a more nuanced view of households as economic engines.
- Female economists helped shape government policies in the 20th century.
Female economists played an overlooked role in the evolution of the field of economics.
The formal study of economics focuses on the contributions of male economists. The teachings of Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes dominate the field. However, female economists have played an important part, yet they’re often forgotten. Joan Robinson, to name one example, wrote about monopolies and price discrimination during the 20th century. She was considered a researcher who should have won a Nobel Prize but was snubbed. Rosa Luxemburg was another prominent female economist.
“As it is taught today, the history of economic thought consists of a chain of intriguing and engaging stories about great economists, with a focus on a fixed set of male Western economists.”
But the list of women who made important contributions to economic thought extends well beyond Robinson and Luxemburg. A number of female writers and economists have advanced the field by starting schools for girls and writing books and pamphlets aimed at female audiences. Through the 19th century, universities were closed to women, so it wasn’t until late in the 1800s that women were admitted to the field and began to publish in academic journals. Once women entered the discipline, they were able to shape the study and discussion of economics in ways that men alone wouldn’t have.
Women have been missing from economics in a variety of ways.
Women long were seen as a drag on economic output – a view that changed as they later flooded into economics departments and into the broader knowledge economy. The lack of female economists is just part of the story; women also received short shrift as topics of inquiry. Early studies of labor markets focused entirely on men. Women’s economic decisions were grouped under the broader category of family behavior. Also complicating matters were class distinctions: Wealthy women often commanded slaves or treated domestic servants poorly, reflecting the varied power positions among women.
“By the 1980s, the absence of women and their economic interests had become a defining part of economic scientific reasoning, norms and values that seemed to be confirmed by facts and other empirical evidence.”
The lack of female researchers and the little attention paid to women’s economic interests were self-perpetuating. In academic circles, there simply were no women present who could ask, “What about the women?” And with no one inside the power structure to raise questions about the obvious exclusion of women, the very topic of women in the economy remained invisible. The bias extended to the foundational economic notion of rational behavior, which was seen as synonymous with masculinity. Only in recent decades have more and more women entered economics departments and begun publishing their research.
The first wave of female economists was barred from formal education.
At the dawn of industrial society, most schools were closed to girls, and women were actively discouraged from seeking education. Early female economists saw education as a way to undo this form of “colonization” of women’s minds. As early as the 17th and 18th centuries, women like Mary Astell in England and Anne-Thérèse, Marquise de Lambert, in France urged women to pursue formal education. Astell’s friends settled on a do-it-yourself approach: With girls’ schools underfunded, they started their own educational institution in 1729. By the 1780s, many women began setting up schools. In the United States, this instinct extended to higher education – Hartford Female Seminary, Mount Holyoke and Smith College were launched in the 1800s to educate women. However, the Ivy League colleges in America remained off-limits to women, as were Oxford and Cambridge.
“The exclusion of women, girls, and colonialized and enslaved people from getting a decent education prevented them not only from learning to read and write but also from obtaining better-paid positions and from contributing to culture – their culture.”
Early women writers focused on explaining the basics of economics to female audiences. In one example, Jane Haldimand Marcet in 1816 published in England Conversations on Political Economy, a book structured as a discussion between a female student and her female teacher. When the pupil says the topic seems too arcane, the teacher replies that the student already is an active participant in the economy. Marcet’s book was rudimentary in its explanations, but it proved popular – the book sold well. Women could now discuss the topic, and Marcet continued to write books about economics for general audiences.
Female labor force participation soared after World War II.
Before the Industrial Revolution, most households operated as tiny family farms. But the growing sophistication of the economy transformed many jobs from those in subsistence farming to roles in workshops, then manufacturing plants and finally multinational corporations. Though economists long overlooked the contributions of women, some female thinkers argued that women were in fact active contributors to the economy. The poet Mary Collier was a washerwoman in England who learned to read and write. Her 1739 book, titled The Woman’s Labour, made the case that women were every bit as productive and important as men. Collier made the still-familiar argument that women’s paid work was just the first shift – they were in for a second shift once they got home from their outside jobs.
“Working-class women as well as those in rural areas have always worked for pay.”
Even as the Industrial Revolution created employment opportunities for women, female workers often were doomed to lives of poverty. In the 19th century, the researcher Frances Power Cobbe reported that single women outnumbered single men in Britain, creating a supply of “old maids” who struggled to support themselves. In 1915, economic historian Elizabeth Leigh Hutchins wrote Women in Modern Industry, which noted that women’s labor participation rate was about 36% in England: Most girls had to leave the workforce after they got married. Only women who were widowed or otherwise forced to work would return to textile mills and other places of employment.
“Women became more and more both care and financial providers for their household.”
Employers and mainstream economists generally saw women as inferior workers. But World War I undermined that myth – female workers were crucial to the British war effort. Yet the end of the war meant the end of many women’s jobs. As soon as soldiers returned from the front, women were pushed out of the workforce. The Great Depression led lawmakers in the United States and Europe to prohibit married women from working. After World War II, labor-saving appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines reduced the demand for women as domestic workers, and so in the postwar decades, women flooded into formal labor markets. From the 1960s to the 1990s, labor force participation among married women rose from 34% to 66% in the United States, from 35% to 69% in the United Kingdom, and from 7% to 47% in the Netherlands; in Sweden, fully 87% of married women held jobs outside their homes.
During the past two centuries, women have seen their economic roles change dramatically.
Early in industrialization, women were economic afterthoughts. They relied on the “generosity” or “chivalry” of their husbands for support. That patronizing model later changed to one in which women entered the workforce but didn’t earn enough to maintain households themselves. By 2019, American women held more formal jobs than American men did. Even as women have emerged as a major force in the labor market, questions remain about the fairness of wages paid to women.
“Over the herstory of economics, the basis of the distribution of income and wealth has always been at the core of the debates; what work is valued, how much and why?”
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, women expected to earn far less than men. White women earned about half as much as men, and women of color survived on wages that were even lower. This harsh reality led some women to become activists. At the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, for instance, girls provided much of the labor, and in 1836, they struck over a pay cut. The earliest labor unions in the United States were formed in the 1830s and 1840s, and women played leading roles as labor activists. Meanwhile, female economists began pushing back against the patriarchal concept of “economic chivalry,” which held that men altruistically supported women financially because their lower earning power meant women couldn’t support themselves. Charlotte Perkins Gilman referred to the unequal gender roles as “unnatural,” noting that nowhere in the animal kingdom does a female rely on a male for food.
“Explaining the gender wage gap now focused mainly on the human capital of the worker.”
And yet the patriarchal view of family structure persisted. As late as 1981, the University of Chicago’s Gary Becker wrote A Treatise on the Family, in which he referred to the male breadwinner as “the Altruist” and his wife as “the Beneficiary.” In Becker’s telling, the wife and children owe their very survival to the male head of the household, and they therefore should attend to the patriarch’s needs. But by the late 20th century, reality had outstripped such quaint notions – many households were headed by single women, many living in poverty. At the same time, as the United States and Western Europe began experiencing widening gaps in income inequality, economists began to examine gender-based wage gaps. Claudia Goldin, the first woman at Harvard’s Economics Department, concluded in 1990 that women were paid less than men primarily because women had taken breaks from working to raise children.
Female economists drove a more nuanced view of households as economic engines.
Before the Industrial Revolution, most consumers spent little, and barter was a common way for people to acquire what they needed. After industrialization, consumer spending transformed into a major economic driver. In 1899, economist Thorstein Veblen had coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to describe the new trend of consumers signaling their wealth with otherwise useless purchases. In the early 20th century, economists began to focus on housewives as an economic force. Marion Talbot wrote The Modern Household, a short book published in 1912. She also launched the University of Chicago’s department of household administration. A decade later, another female researcher at the University of Chicago, Hazel Kyrk, published A Theory of Consumption.
“Considering consumption an active process, she (Kyrk) perceived consumers as playing a substantial role in determining the direction of the economy as much as those involved in production.”
Kyrk outlined the misunderstood role of women in a consumer economy. Traditional economists viewed housewives as “parasites upon the economic order,” Kyrk wrote. But she posited that women had taken on an important role as orchestrators of household spending. One of Kyrk’s students, Margaret G. Reid, went on to publish a thesis titled The Economics of Household Production, a work that further formalized the measurement of the economic value created by household spending. Reid taught at Iowa State University and later at the University of Chicago, and she championed a new understanding of home economics as a sophisticated skill set that required budgeting and financial planning.
Female economists helped shape government policies in the 20th century.
Until the early 1900s, women in the United States and the United Kingdom couldn’t vote or hold office, rendering their voices unheard. Predictably, the economics establishment had little to say about the value delivered by households in the areas of child care and elder care. As women gained new rights, they began to have fewer children and to focus their time and attention away from the household and toward the jobs market.
“For women, state control over reproductive health and their economic position were closely intertwined.”
The work of female researchers helped usher in these trends. In one example, the American activist Margaret Higgins Sanger wrote about population control and birth control. In 1914, she created a pamphlet titled “Family Limitation” that showed how to prevent pregnancy. Publishing the details violated the obscenity laws of the day, and Sanger fled to Europe for a time to avoid jail. Sanger returned to the United States and co-founded Planned Parenthood. In Britain, the economist Clara Collett produced statistical research on work and pay for women, and she became a proponent of the minimum wage. Male economists also began to agitate for an end to the “economic inferiority” that perpetuated poverty in England.
“Feminist economists realized in the early 1990s that there was gender bias in the process of public policy making itself.”
By the 1990s, female researchers were taking aim at the systemic gender bias built into economies and policies. In the United States, South Africa and Australia, researchers pointed out ways that policies on housing, trade and social issues were skewed against women and children. These economists even pioneered a new tool – “gender-responsive budgeting,” which analyzed government spending for signs of bias. While American policy makers mostly used this new tool, it was also adopted in Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia.
About the Author
Edith Kuiper is chair of the economics department and an associate professor at the State University of New York, New Paltz.
“A Herstory of Economics” by Edith Kuiper is a groundbreaking and enlightening exploration of the often overlooked contributions of women to the field of economics. In this meticulously researched and compellingly written book, Kuiper presents a comprehensive and thought-provoking account of the historical and contemporary role of women economists.
The book begins by challenging the prevailing narrative that portrays economics as a male-dominated discipline. Kuiper delves into the lives and works of notable women economists throughout history, shedding light on their significant contributions and their struggles to be recognized in a field that has traditionally marginalized their voices. By highlighting the achievements of these women, the author effectively demonstrates the immense intellectual capital that has been overlooked for far too long.
One of the strengths of “A Herstory of Economics” lies in its ability to integrate personal narratives with rigorous academic analysis. Kuiper skillfully weaves together biographical details, anecdotes, and scholarly insights to create a captivating narrative that brings these women’s stories to life. This approach not only humanizes the subject matter but also provides a deeper understanding of the socio-cultural barriers these women confronted and their enduring impact on the field.
Kuiper’s writing style is engaging and accessible, making complex economic theories and concepts understandable to readers with varying levels of familiarity with the subject. The author strikes a commendable balance between providing historical context and presenting contemporary perspectives, enabling readers to grasp the evolution of economic thought and its relationship to gender.
Moreover, “A Herstory of Economics” is not limited to a single geographical or cultural perspective. Kuiper explores the contributions of women economists from diverse backgrounds, encompassing both Western and non-Western contexts. By doing so, the book broadens our understanding of the global nature of economic thought and challenges the Eurocentric bias that has often overshadowed contributions from other regions.
In addition to shedding light on the achievements of women economists, Kuiper critically examines the structural barriers and biases that have hindered their progress. The book delves into the systemic issues within academia, such as gender discrimination, lack of representation, and the perpetuation of male-dominated networks. By exposing these challenges, the author calls for greater inclusivity and diversity within the field of economics.
If there is one area where “A Herstory of Economics” could have been further strengthened, it is in the inclusion of more recent developments and emerging voices in the field. While the book provides a solid foundation in terms of historical achievements, an updated edition could incorporate more contemporary examples to reflect the evolving landscape of economics.
Overall, “A Herstory of Economics” is an essential and timely contribution to the field of economics. Edith Kuiper’s meticulous research, engaging storytelling, and critical analysis make this book an illuminating and empowering read. By reclaiming the lost narratives of women economists, the author challenges the traditional canon and inspires readers to recognize the multitude of voices that have shaped economic thought. This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of economics, gender studies, or the pursuit of a more inclusive and equitable future.