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Ending the era of stale, male and pale economics

Worldy Women Philosophers Ruth Potts and Molly Conisbee explain how recognising women's contribution to economic thought uncovers a very different set of ideas

March 8, 2014
6 min read

Focus E15 mums outside City Hall in a protest children's party calling on Boris Johnson to support their fight against social cleansing of London

‘We have claimed the historical realities of our lives as the place where thought and politics not only do begin but should begin.’ Susan Harding

Worldly Women Philosophers is an active contribution to the transformation of economics, exploring one significant group that economic history has overlooked – women. (Re)claiming the lives, work and ideas of the women left out of economic history will vastly expand, and enhance, the landscape of economic philosophy so that it more fully reflects the range and diversity of our collective lived experience and potential. This, we believe, can go some way towards creating the conditions in which everyone is able to live and flourish without undermining the ecosystem on which we can depend.

The experiment is framed by a dynamic challenge to one of the iconic texts of popular economics. Published in 1953, Robert Heilbroner’s Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of Great Economic Thinkers remains one of the best selling economics books of all time. In it, Heilbroner tells the tale of the economic revolution that shaped the modern era through a series of pen portraits of influential economists. His account is economics in the form of rip-roaring yarn: a vivid catalogue of the great egos of the characters that shaped modern economics and the revolutionary ideas with which they intended not only to interpret the world but, in the spirit of Marx, to change it. But Heilbroner’s account is partial and dangerously limited. His ‘Great Economic Thinkers’ are, perhaps unsurprisingly, without exception, male and pale.

It is not that these were the only forces shaping the world: women were not only active on the front line of Heilbroner’s economic revolution forging the forerunners to modern welfare and campaigning for the right to equal wages, they were also writing, speaking, popularising, and contributing to economics. Uncovering the work of these women matters particularly now. Today as then, many community campaigns against cuts, or for better work and conditions are led by women. By reclaiming the transformational role of women historically, we can also help to raise the profile and influence of the vocal, politically astute women fighting injustice today.

Much economics claims ideological neutrality, but as a politically-determined tool used to shape social systems, economics cannot be separated from concerns about gender inequality, cultural and racial prejudice, class oppression or concerns about resource use. And, if mainstream economics has marginalised the contribution of more than one half of humanity, it is likely that we have exiled, or left dormant, key insights and concepts that could create a very different kind of economics. If a gendered approach is inimical to the neoliberal model, then addressing, and then ending the hegemonic masculinity of economics could create a very different discipline, and the conditions for healthier and more vibrant ways of shaping our lives.

Evidence suggests that the impact could be significant. A survey by Ann Mari May and Mary McGarvey and Robert Whaples found that even male and female economists schooled in the neoliberal model have significantly different opinions on public policy questions such as the minimum wage, employment rights, and health insurance. They conclude: ‘gender diversity in policymaking circles may be an important aspect in broadening the menu of public policy choices.’ This matters because a narrow range of public policy choices leaves us ill equipped to deal with rapidly changing circumstances and maintains a monoculture of ideas that makes progressive transformation less likely.

Invaluable insights

We don’t have to go far to find the women who can help us further develop a new, more vibrant body of economic thinking. John Stuart Mill was clear that equal attribution for his work should be given to his partner, Harriet Taylor. Rosa Luxemburg, Annie Besant, Charlotte Perkins Gillman and Beatrice Webb all wrote, thought and talked about the economics they identified as a key mechanism of social and gender oppression. Hazel Kyrk’s work blurred the boundaries between home economics and economics, and she was among the first to argue that in order to make any welfare statement, economics needed an ethical underpinning. Margaret Reid, one of Kyrk’s students, developed a theory of efficiency more in keeping with the Buddhist notion of minimising waste than the maximisation of profits. Marilyn Waring’s groundbreaking If Women Counted documented the importance and value of the care the formal economy ignores and erodes, yet depends on.

These insights could prove invaluable in the development of a new kind of economics, rooted in moral philosophy and responsive to the subtleties and vicissitudes of real life. Our intention then, is not only to bring more women into economics, although that is critical, but also to transform economics so that it more fully reflects the whole of humanity and then evolves as a discipline that is better able to support human flourishing. It is, in the spirit of Emma Goldman an attempt to address: ‘The general social antagonism which has taken hold of our entire public life today, brought about through the force of opposing and contradictory interests’ and which ‘will crumble to pieces when the reorganization of our social life, based upon the principles of economic justice, shall have become a reality’.

We are beginning this process with a series of essays outlining the ideas of the Worldly Women Philosophers that mainstream economics has overlooked or marginalised, and we are open to both contributions and suggestions for inclusion. We will work with others to call for greater diversity in economics and economic policy-making and to support mutual support networks for women in economics. In the summer, we will take positive action to redress imbalance in the public record by crowd-sourcing the addition (or expansion) of the biographies of 101 women economists on Wikipedia. The era of stale, male and pale economics is over.