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History of Political Economy 34.1 (2002) 1-30

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Female Contributions to Economic Thought, 1900–1940

Kirsten K. Madden


Women faced substantial barriers to participating in academia in the early twentieth century. Some of the most prestigious colleges were closed to women, and social norms and family structures (particularly the division of housework between husband and wife) meant that women focused on domestic affairs at the expense of other interests. Economics itself, the “most male dominated” social science (Pujol 1992, 2), had set up obstacles of its own. Because of their gender, women faced limited access to professional networks and research support (Hutchinson 1930). As Nancy Folbre (1996, 3) explained, women entered economics only through a “combination of unusual circumstances, exceptional faculty, and carefully planned collective action” (see also Mary Ann Dimand 1995).

Women usually needed the active support of a male economist and the assistance of a substantial network of female colleagues. Emilie Josephine Hutchinson, who conducted a 1930 survey of 1,025 women with Ph.D.'s regarding their education and livelihood, noted for instance that [End Page 1] there were “many” responses in the survey to “experiences indicative of discrimination in matters of appointment, promotion, and salary in positions for which the Ph.D. degree is required and to which both men and women are eligible” (19). Women, too, were held to higher standards than men. A university dean with an economics Ph.D. wrote that “the degree is not the thing—it is merely evidence of certain training. The training can be secured through research for which no university credit is given. It is however more important for women to take the Ph.D. than men, since it is more difficult for women to secure university positions or opportunities for research. They need to offer more than men in the same fields” (Hutchinson 1930, 191).

Even so, a doctorate was not always enough. “In my field of economics and sociology, a degree means nothing,” responded a woman with an economics Ph.D. She continued:

For social work experience counts some. There are no openings for a woman in economics. Ordinarily I am a fairly sane woman of thirty, but on this matter of advanced degrees I own that I am considerably disillusioned. I believe that my university has granted the Ph.D. to only two women in economics so far. The prejudice is marked. I had both an A.M. and M.S. plus two years' experience when I taught at the university. I received $500 less per year than boys with only the A.B. and no experience. As a result of the worry and strain I have been an invalid for a year. I am convinced that it is wrong to encourage women to do graduate work unless it is for personal satisfaction. (201)

Judging from the syllabi of most economics courses and the references contained in leading history-of-thought textbooks, students are likely to conclude that women, with the notable exception of Joan Robinson and, to a lesser extent, Rosa Luxemburg, have played a negligible role in the development of modern economics.1 However, as researchers are beginning to discover, women, despite the discrimination they faced, [End Page 2] managed to contribute a substantial number of writings on economics in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Robert Dimand, in a 1995 essay, identifies no less than seventy women who contributed to the discipline. Evelyn Forget (1995) documents 137 Ph.D. theses written by women in the United States between 1912 and 1932. Peter Groenewegen and Susan King (1994) catalog 112 women responsible for the publication of 222 articles in five leading economics journals in the United States and the United Kingdom between 1900 and 1939. Of approximately 3,880 authors listed as contributors to economics journals between 1925 and 1939 in volume 2 of the Index of Economic Journals (IEJ), 209, or 5.4 percent, have recognizably female names. In her statistical analysis, Barbara Libby (1987) unearthed the literary remains of 621 women in the discipline.

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pp. 1-30
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Archived 2005
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