Geo-Economics and Politics

13 women who transformed the world of economics

Mike Bird
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This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider. 

Economist Justin Wolfers recently wrote about how female economists are airbrushed out of academic discussion when they have a male coauthor.

We decided to bring together some of the women who’ve had the biggest impact on the subject and the practice of economic policy, whether in academia, business, politics, or education.

These women are not just modern academic economists. Several are historical figures who made major contributions to the discipline at a time when female participation was incredibly difficult.

Take a look at 13 of the most influential.

Edith Abbott (1876-1957)

Born in Nebraska in 1876, Abbott took a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, which was awarded in 1905, and worked at the London School of Economics afterward.

She later became dean of the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration during the 1920s.

In the next decade, she had a hand in drafting the US Social Security Act of 1935, one of the first unified systems of social welfare in the US. The work was done under the supervision of Frances Perkins, the US’ longest-serving labor secretary and the first woman to hold the position.

Anna Schwartz (1915-2012)

Anna Schwartz is the lesser-known coauthor of what is probably the most influential single book on monetary economics written since the second world war.

In 1963, Schwartz and future Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman published “A Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960,”

Schwartz did not share the Nobel Prize with Friedman, the awarding committee said that the book was “one of Friedman’s most profound and also most distinguished achievements.”

The focus on the effect of monetary policy on the economy’s business cycles that Friedman and Schwartz took went far beyond the world of academia. Governments around the advanced world made dramatic changes, focusing far more on monetary policy to manage the ebbs and flows of economic activity.

Deirdre McCloskey (1942)

Deirdre McCloskey is one of, and perhaps the single most prominent economic historians in the world.

Her writing on the beginnings of industrialisation in the UK has not only become a major part of the academic debate, but a popular book in its own right.

In mid-2014, she became one of Professor Thomas Piketty’s most prominent critics, and she has had a significant economic influence on conservatives and libertarians.

Dambisa Moyo (1969)

After a degree in chemistry and an MBA, Moyo received a Ph.D. in economics from Oxford University. She previously worked at Goldman Sachs, and sits on Barclays’ Board.

Moyo is a prominent critic of development aid for low-income economies. Her “Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa” is one of the best-selling works on the subject of development aid ever published.

In 2013, she received the Friedrich Hayek Institute’s lifetime achievement award.

Carmen Reinhart (1955)

Carmen Reinhart is perhaps the most influential living female macroeconomist. After training at Colombia University, she has worked as chief economist at Bear Sterns, at the International Monetary Fund, and the Harvard Kennedy School.

As one of the coauthors of “This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly” and “Growth in a time of debt,” Reinhart became one of the standard-bearers of government austerity after the financial crisis.

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)

Martineau is the earliest writer on the list, publishing books on the subject of taxation and political economy in the 1830s. She has previously been described as one of “Adam Smith’s daughters,” who adapted his work for a later audience.

Later, she travelled through the young US and wrote “Society in America,” a sociological account of the country.

Martineau’s works were not minor additions to the subject — according to John Vint at Manchester Metropolitan University, her work on political economy was at one point so popular that she outsold Charles Dickens.

Joan Robinson (1903-1983)

Robinson is one of the most influential of Keynes’ students and followers, and her major works followed from Keynes’ “General Theory.” As a Cambridge economist, she became the first female honorary fellow of King’s College.

Even before then, Robinson developed the concept of monopsony, a kind of reversed monopoly where instead of having one seller and many buyers, there is one buyer and many sellers. In labour economics, this is an extremely important idea. When the single buyer is purchasing labour, and there are many people wishing to sell their labour, the theory suggests that they can exert large influence over wages. It’s one of the major arguments for minimum wages.

She was one of the most prominent founders of the post-Keynesian school of economic thought.

Janet Yellen (1946)

Janet Yellen is not only one of the most heavily cited female research economists in the world, but as chair of the US Federal Reserve, she holds what may well be the most powerful economic-policymaking position in the world.

Prior to heading the organisation, Yellen had worked as a professor of economics and was vice chair of the Fed from 2010.

She was also the first chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors under Bill Clinton.

Mary Paley Marshall (1850-1944)

Mary Paley Marshall was one of the first five women permitted to study at Cambridge University, and became the first female lecturer in economics at the university, in the year 1875, a full 43 years before women were able to vote in the UK.

She authored a book named “The Economics of Industry” with her husband, Alfred Marshall, who became of the very most influential economists in history.

According to James and Julianne Cicarelli, who wrote a book called “Distinguished Women Economists,” she was listed by John Maynard Keynes in his “Essays on Biography.”

The Cicarellis say that “Keynes held her in the highest regard and considered her an intellectual and thinker every bit as significant to the historical development of economics as her husband or any of the other economist about whom he wrote.”

Christina Romer (1958)

Romer was the second woman to become chair of the US President’s Council of Economic Advisors, and did so at a crucial time for the US. As President Barack Obama came into office at the beginning of 2009, the economy was in a deep depression.

Her most famous research prior to that position concerned the Great Depression and subsequent recovery, which Romer attributed in large part to monetary policy changes, playing down the role of fiscal policy.

Romer’s later work, with her husband David Romer, has concentrated on the effect of tax changes on the US economy. She is an advocate of replacing central-bank inflation targeting with nominal gross-domestic-product targets.

Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919)

Luxemburg is more well known as a revolutionary who was executed by German government-supported militiamen in the aftermath of the failed Spartacist Uprising in 1919.

But she also made a significant mark on Marxist economic thought. Just before the onset of the first world war, Luxemburg wrote “The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism.”

But she made a significant mark on Marxist economic thought, to the extent that Socialist Workers Party founder Tony Cliff referred to it as “one of the most, if not the most, important and original contributions to Marxian economic doctrine since Capital.”

Though Joan Robinson was a major critic of Luxemburg’s analysis, she herself referred to the work as “more prescience than any orthodox contemporary could claim.”

Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929)

Milicent Fawcett is mostly known as a feminist and campaigner for women’s rights, as well as the name behind Britain’s Fawcett Society, which continues that work today.

As an economist, she wrote “Political Economy for Beginners” in 1870, and was committed to the political rather than scientific application of economics that developed in the coming decades.

The book was still published 40 years later, when the 10th edition was released.

Fawcett also blended her campaigning work and her economics, proposing the “crowding hypothesis” that women were driven by informal and formal institutions into lower-paid work. Because all women were driven toward this subset of jobs, Fawcett hypothecated that the oversupply of labour kept their wages down. The thesis is still discussed by feminist and labour economists today.

Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012)

Elinor Ostrom held the only Nobel Prize in economics ever awarded to a woman.

She was dissuaded from pursuing a Ph.D. in economics, and completed one in political science instead.

Her work on the formal and informal political institutions the influence an economy had enormous influence on a discipline that had become more scientific and mathematical, bringing back some of the more politically focused work more common 100 years ago.

Ostrom is associated with New Institutional Economics.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Mike Bird is a European markets editor, working from London and covering financial and economic issues.

Image: Elinor Ostrom celebrates winning the Nobel Prize in economics. REUTERS/John Sommers II.

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