The unattractive word “herstory” always makes me cringe but of course I had to read A history of economics by Edith Kuiper. No one interested in economics could fail to notice the welcome discussions about what a male-dominated profession is and how distorting it is. Not much has changed as a result (in terms of the proportion of women, or the selection of research questions, or even the sometimes toxic culture) but at least there is awareness and a plan on the part of professional associations. .
One key thing I learned from Kuiper book is that there have been many more female economists than I would have imagined. In addition to some (now) familiar names – Joan Robinson, Sadie Alexander, Rosa Luxemburg, Elinor Ostrom – the list at the start contains many names I didn’t know, and also some I knew but had never considered. like economists. But the book makes a compelling case that this reflects the exclusion of women from academia until well into the 20th century, and so economics writers outside of academia should be included. The list is nearly three pages long, for the period up to about the middle of the 20th century. Even then, it has a few omissions – Phyllis Deane for example, or Edith Penrose. (Perhaps the latter is a bit too late for this story, but then Ostrom is included.)
The book is organized into broadly thematic rather than chronological chapters, following an introductory chapter on the origins of political economy, covering topics such as property rights, education, production, consumption, and wealth/ finance. The last two chapters focus on government policies and then on the role of feminist economics. While this organization makes sense – a timeline wouldn’t have worked – it does mean that there are some sharp turns as a chapter moves from, say, an analysis of work in the household to an exposition of Ida Tarbell on Standard Oil, in the chapter on production. .
Nonetheless, the book describes women’s significant contributions to the economy over more than a century and, in doing so, illustrates the kinds of issues and social realities typically overlooked by the male mainstream. It ends with a focus on the need for feminist economics to grow. I myself have never been interested in the distinct arena of feminist economics because all economics and economists should be feminists. The ARE should cover the types of questions that appear most often in feminist economics: the macroeconomics of gender and care (the subject of the current special issue)? Absolutely.
However, it is above all a question of tactics. A history of economics gives voice to some of the pioneers never included in standard intellectual histories of the subject.