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The Routledge Handbook of the History of Women’s Economic Thought

Editor(s):Madden, Kirsten
Dimand, Robert W.
Reviewer(s):Forget, Evelyn L

Published by EH.Net (August 2020)

Kirsten Madden and Robert W. Dimand, editors, The Routledge Handbook of the History of Women’s Economic Thought. New York: Routledge, 2019. xiv + 465 pp. $196 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-1388-5234-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Evelyn L Forget, Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Manitoba.

 

“By design this Routledge handbook is about women and about time and about economics. By design this handbook is global. Otherwise, this handbook is not easy to capture, condense, or consolidate into leading archetypes and primary themes” (p. 1). So writes Kirsten Madden on the first page of a fascinating adventure that draws together the wildly diverse writings of “a Soviet game theorist and a Liberian president; wives of noted nineteenth-century economists and Buddhist nuns from millennia past … revolutionaries, terrorists, even an assassin.”

This Handbook has an impressive geographical scope: women economists from Austria, Britain, China, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, the Soviet Union, sub-Saharan African nations and the U.S. are profiled. Chapters are organized by time, and most focus on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but the first chapter, written by Sheetal Bharat, on Indian women’s literature reaches as far back as the fifth century BCE, while the final chapters extend well into the twenty-first century. Almost all of the authors are women, with the exception of two male co-authors, and contributors range from senior scholars to graduate students.

Diverse themes are addressed. Eleven chapters address issues of gender and economy, exploring topics such as the crowding hypothesis and pay gaps, minimum wages, affirmative action, co-operation and household decision making. Other chapters explore colonialism, trade, economic development, economic statistics and finance. The experiences of women economists are not neglected; many of the economists in this collection confronted significant barriers to leave a record of their analyses. In fact, Madden writes, “one … concept crosses all the chapters: exclusion” — either because the economist herself was forced to overcome exclusionary practices or because she constructed works that spoke to the experiences of others excluded by economic practices (p. 2).

The Handbook does not aim to be exhaustive, nor does it establish a canon. It offers a selection of fascinating contributions of which many of us were unaware. As one might expect in such a variegated collection, contributions are somewhat uneven in tone and emphasis. Some chapters, such as “The First 100 Years of Female Economists in Sub-Saharan Africa,” by Lola Fowler and Robert Dimand, Giandomenica Becchio’s “Austrian School Women Economists” and Kirsten Madden’s “Anecdotes of Discrimination,” focus almost entirely on biography. Others, such as Shoshana Grossbard’s “Women’s Neoclassical Models of Marriage, 1972–2015,” lean heavily towards economic thought, traditionally understood. Other chapters combine the two and strive for a balance between the experiences of women economists and their writing. These include contributions such as “The Economic Thought of the Women’s Co-operative Guild” by Kirsten Madden and Joe Persky, Cléo Chassonery-Zaigouche’s analysis of the changing positions of Beatrice Potter Webb, Eleanor Rathbone and Millicent Garrett Fawcett on equal pay, and Marianne Johnson’s “Daughter’s of Commons; Wisconsin Women and Institutionalism.”

Co-editors Kirsten Madden, of Millersville University in Pennsylvania, and Robert Dimand, of Brock University Canada, have compiled a wonderfully diverse collection that should encourage us all to think more broadly about the history of economics. This collection, though, makes it very clear that we are at the very beginning stages of recovering the contributions of women economists. It is impossible to read any of these chapters, entertaining as many of them are, without asking some serious questions about historiography, and that may be the greatest contribution of this Handbook.

Historians of economics should be asking ourselves these questions.

Why do we need a Handbook of the History of Women’s Economic Thought? On one level, the answer is obvious. Existing collections, textbooks and even Handbooks of the History of Economic Thought include very few women. But why are women’s contributions not integrated into our understanding of “schools,” periods and themes? What are the consequences of exclusion? How does it affect the kind of histories we write?

If women economists were routinely included in standard histories of economics, would there still be a reason to have a Handbook of the History of Women’s Economic Thought? Is there some theme that binds together women economists and makes their work different from that of men? Madden’s focus on exclusion deserves more careful thought: how did exclusion manifest in particular times and places, and what were the consequences for the development of economic thought? Are there parallels, similarities and differences between the contributions of women economists and those of racialized economists?

How should we best organize a Handbook of Women’s Economic Thought? The editors’ decision to use a simple timeline makes sense at this stage of our knowledge, but should we organize by theme rather than date of contribution? If so, how do we identify the relevant themes? It isn’t obvious that the way we delineate standard histories of economic thought should be the most appropriate way to organize women’s contributions.

If we think about “themes” in the history of women’s economic thought, are there some that deserve greater attention than they have received to date? One thing that has always struck me, and it is apparent in this collection as well, is that women economists are very often embedded in the economies they write about in ways that “professional” economists, male and female, may not be. The women in this collection are activists more often than they are scholars and, while this may also have characterized male economists of the past, it persisted well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for many women writers. For example, Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (2014) delineates the dual role of economic writers and highlights the contributions of women. It builds on W.E.B. DuBois’s (1907) Economic Cooperation among Negro Americans, and brings another perspective to many of the same themes addressed in “The Economic Thought of the Women’s Co-operative Guild” written by Kirsten Madden and Joe Persky.

Every library needs a copy of this Handbook, and it should also find its way into the collections of historians of economics. This book will extend the boundaries of what is sometimes a very narrow field, both by including people who have been excluded, and by asking us to think again about some of the ways we define the field of economics and organize our knowledge of its past. We owe to Kirsten Madden and Bob Dimand, co-editors, as well as all the authors in this collection, a large vote of gratitude.

 

Evelyn L Forget is Professor of Economics in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, Canada. She is past president of the History of Economics Society, and her most recent book is Basic Income for Canadians: From the Covid-19 Emergency to Financial Security for All.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative