Worldly Women Philosophers: Lives, Times and Ideas of the Other Great Economic Thinkers

Worldly Women Philosophers: Learning from the Lives, Times and Ideas of the Other Great Economic Thinkers

Worldly Women Philosophers is an active contribution to the transformation of the economic system, exploring one significant group that economic history has overlooked – women. As the economist Judith Alexander points out: “many women economists must lie in the literary equivalent of unmarked graves.” Reclaiming 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 call 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. Heilbronner, who went on to earn his PhD at the progressive ‘New School for Social Research, regarded himself as a social theorist rather than an economist, a “worldly philosopher” pre-occupied with “worldly” affairs such as economic structures. 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 words of Marx, to change it. But Heilbroner’s account is partial and, as a result, dangerously limited. His ‘Great Economic Thinkers’ are, perhaps unsurprisingly, without exception, male and pale.

It is not that these were the only voices: 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 popularising 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-determind 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 organising our lives for all of us.

Evidence suggests that the impact could be significant. A survey by Ann Mari May and Mary McGarvey of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Robert Whaples of Wake Forest University 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 change less likely. It is as though, stretching Einstein’s definition of insanity, we prevent anything other than the thinking that caused the crisis being applied to its solution. Restricting the policy gene-pool to the fields of reference of middle class white men, cannot bode well for the resilience, or the happiness, of our species. The fundamental challenge then, for all of us, not just those in the policy world, is to broaden scope of our imaginations and expand the range of possibilities at our disposal.

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, yet it is his name that has stood the test of time. Rosa Luxembourg, 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 minimizing waste than the maximisation of profits, and her work in the 1930s defined the household not only as a site of consumption, but a site of production. Edith Penrose’s Theory of the Growth of the Firm placed human relationships at the heart of an explanation of the behaviour of companies. Joan Robinson, who made far-ranging contributions to economics was famed for saying: “the purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.” Marilyn Waring’s groundbreaking “If Women Counted’ developed ideas articulated earlier by Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Margaret Reid and others, to make the case for the importance and value of the care that takes place outside the formal economy.  More recently, Eleanor Ostrom, who operated outside the field of conventional economics, has made significant contributions to our understanding of collaboration, becoming the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics. There was, she believed, a great common pool of sense and wisdom in the world. But she had an uphill struggle to show that it reposed in all of us, and that humanity would flourish if it could draw on the full spectrum.

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. The economist Irene Van Staveren, working with Ricardo Crespo, draws on the work of the philosopher Virginia Held to suggest that an ethics of care could lead to fundamental changes in the financial sector (and society more broadly). As Held suggests: “With the ethics of care and an understanding of its intertwined values, such as those of sensitivity, empathy, responsiveness, and taking responsibility, we could perhaps more adequately judge where the boundaries of the market should be.”

Twenty-first century economics and economic policy-making remain predominately masculine, and male-dominated. Despite the biggest economic rupture since the 1930s, the high priests of economics still hold power, but their position has been challenged and it is less clear that they command the credibility to wield it. This presents a challenge, and a unique opportunity to transform the dominant economic paradigm in theory and in practice.

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. We are beginning this process with a series of essays outlining the ideas of the Worldly Women Philosophers 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.