New Times,
New Thinking.

The everyday economists guiding Rachel Reeves

The shadow chancellor’s history of women economists raises profound questions about the future of work.

By Emma Rothschild

Before it was respectable, economics was a substantially female activity. The French critic Hippolyte Taine, in 1872, listed nine articles by women in recent issues of The Transactions of the national association for the promotion of social sciences, started in Birmingham a few years earlier. One of the founders of the American Economic Association was taught political economy at Columbia University by means of weekly recitations from Millicent Fawcett’s Political Economy for Beginners.

The Women Who Made Modern Economics is a terrific history of this long-lost age of women economists, and of women who were practitioners, expositors and popularisers of economic investigation. As Taine also wrote, political economy, statistics and psychology, in England, were matters of “facts alone”.

The Labour MP and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has written the book in three different genres. There are episodes in the history of economic thought, particularly in Britain between the 1830s and the 1930s. There are glimpses of the early life of a young (female) economist, growing up in late-20th century Britain. And there is a preview of the economic policies of the next Labour government. The early chapters are perceptive accounts of the lives of brilliant, determined women, from Harriet Martineau to Beatrice Webb to Joan Robinson, and of the ways in which their own economic ideas changed over time. Reeves writes as an economist and not as a historian (which is how most of the history of economic thought has been written).

The publication of this book has not been entirely smooth. The Financial Times found passages that seemed to have been taken from other sources and Reeves acknowledged that “some sentences… were not properly referenced”. A new edition of the book, with the missing end-notes, will be welcome. I have been looking for years for a history of women economists to use in a class I teach called Women in Economic Life.

The later chapters turn to two major economic thinkers of our time, Elinor Ostrom and Esther Duflo, respectively the first and second woman to receive the Nobel prize in economic science, as well as to a fairly disparate group of women writers on economic subjects and public figures, including Christine Lagarde, Janet Yellen and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who now loom so large over “global” economic policy. (The leadership of international economic institutions has become a largely female activity, like the practice of economics in the mid-19th century; at a time, no doubt, when the institutions are less respected than they once were.)

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The third female Nobel laureate in economics, Claudia Goldin, whose prize was announced a few weeks ago, could appear in a new edition. The prize was awarded for “having advanced our understanding of women’s labour market outcomes”, and two of the insights cited in the prize statement are of interest in relation to Reeves’s themes: that there have been long periods of economic development over the course of which female participation in paid labour markets has fallen; and that wage discrimination – the gender gap between male and female workers in similar occupations – is explained substantially by social norms and expectations about parental responsibilities.

Reeves’s three voices come together in her account of the “everyday economy of work, place and family”, and in particular the care economy of paid and unpaid work. Almost all the economists she describes were interested, at some point in their careers, in women’s work and women’s opportunities. In the glimpses of her own life there are parents and grandparents, a sister and a great-aunt, and a romance.

[See also: There’s nothing moderate about “centrism”]

The rebalancing promised in the likely forthcoming Labour government will also be based on the everyday economy; “our plans for productivity will rest as much on childcare as on roads and rail links”. I was less convinced about the compendious idea that Reeves describes as “securonomics”, or “buy, make and do more in Britain”. “Green hydrogen” and “floating offshore wind farms” are imposing possibilities, but they offer a very different sort of security from the security of reliable health services, education and family support. In the US, at least, the occupation defined as “natural resources, construction and maintenance” has one of the lowest proportions of women workers – less than 6 per cent in 2022.

One women economist who does not appear in the book, Barbara Drake, who was Beatrice Webb’s niece, wrote in 1920 that “those things which cannot be done by women are a diminishing quantity”. This was in her book Women in Trade Unions, written in the aftermath of the large-scale “substitution” of women for men in heavy industry in the First World War. “Irregular timekeeping”, which had been one of the charges made by employers against women workers – the equivalent of contemporary employers’ anxieties about parental responsibilities – was no longer of concern, and it could in any case be “remedied”; full-time women workers should have high enough wages to “assure them of at least that modicum of domestic assistance which is commonly provided to men by their wives”.

The following year, Drake wrote to the New Statesman about the “ruthless application of the knife to vital social services” that had recently been recommended by a “committee of businessmen”. “The present government” cannot “be trusted with children’s interests”, she concluded. Teachers were badly paid, classes were packed; did even the “well-to-do” want “relief from taxation” at the expense of their “neighbours’ children”?

The Women Who Made Modern Economics is short and agreeable; I ended it wanting more. I suppose Reeves will not herself have time to add more episodes. But the long transition – from the feminised semi-profession of the mid-19th century, to the slow incursion of women into the serious respectability of late 20th-century economics departments – is a Europe-wide as well as an Anglo-American story. Perhaps a follow-up study could include two late 19th-century women economists from what is now Ukraine, Salomea Perlmutter, born in Lviv, and Judith Grünfeld, born in Uman. Both wrote PhD dissertations related to the highly theoretical subject of the conflict between abstract and historical methods in political economy. Both, in the absence of any possibility of academic employment, turned to the empirical study of women’s economic lives, or of the “bleak, desperate” situation of women workers in 17 professions in Lviv, and women’s work in the war economies of Germany and the Soviet Union.

There is a question, in the end, that is implicit in Reeves’s evocation of the eminent women economists and policymakers who have had a distinctively empirical way of thinking: is there something unabstract about the economic thought of women? Or is this no more than the outcome of the institutional circumstances of the economics profession, in which the opportunities for making one’s living by being abstract – as a professor in a large university, for example – have been almost entirely opportunities for men, the recent Nobel prizes notwithstanding?

An innate tendency towards the untheoretical can be excluded, and there are multiple female mathematicians. But are women economists irresistibly drawn to the investigation of the everyday economy? Is it because of what Drake described, with an ironical distance, as “irregular timekeeping”, in the sense of always being distracted by domestic life? Or is it because no woman economist – or at least no one who started to study economics, as I did, in the late 20th century – has been without the jarring experience of being confronted with social norms about family responsibilities?

[See also: Richard Tice: “The Tories need punishing, they need firing”]

The Women Who Made Modern Economics raises profound questions about the impending feminised world of work. I felt at various points as though I were replaying my own life. Barbara Drake was my great aunt, and I saw her, once, in the 1950s. As a student, I liked the most abstract parts of economics, and I ended up becoming an economic historian. I had my own economic romance, and my husband, Amartya Sen, is one of the few (male) economists who makes several fleeting appearances in the book. I was in Stockholm with him at the Nobel festivities in 1998, and then in 2001, together with Janet Yellen and Rose Friedman; and there again in 2019, with Esther Duflo’s young children, as a sort of supernumerary great-aunt, while their parents delivered their Nobel lectures. The history of women in economics is itself, more or less, a story of hope.

Emma Rothschild is director of the Joint Centre for History and Economics at Harvard

The Women Who Made Modern Economics
Rachel Reeves
Basic Books, 288pp, £20

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style