Diana Strassmann poses for a portrait

She Founded Feminist Economics

She Founded Feminist Economics

We are probably all familiar with the “gendered division of labor”: the idea that society is divided into public and domestic spheres, and that traditionally, men work paid jobs and women care for others in domestic spaces. This is such a common way of understanding society that it implicitly structures virtually all traditional political and economic theories. We are also probably all-too familiar with the devaluing of domestic labor relative to paid work--after all, unpaid care work is not, well, paid, nor does accrue benefits. Most economic theories do not take this labor into account, making it easy to feel like caregivers, who are disproportionately women, do not contribute as much to their societies as their “working” counterparts. This is a problematic way of looking at the world because it ignores the major contributions women make to their societies’ economies and the realities of employed people who are also caregivers. Enter Diana Strassmann, founder of the journal Feminist Economics

Dr. Strassmann is the Carolyn and Fred McManis Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Humanities at Rice University. She co-founded the International Association for Feminist Economics in 1992 and founded Feminist Economics in 1994. I had the opportunity to sit down with her and discuss what she has done to change the field of economics and what she wants to happen next in the discipline. 

Will you explain a little about your start in economics and what inspired you to make innovations to the field?

“Sure. I decided to become an econ major during my first semester in college. I was inspired by the idea that economics could be an effective tool for improving environmental quality. Princeton was pretty academically hospitable to me. I had some great advisors, and I enjoyed my classes. I didn’t feel that way about Harvard. There were very few women in the graduate program--3 of us out of 28 in regular economics, and there were a couple of extra in business economics. In addition, the advisor I planned to work with clearly had an issue with professional women, and didn’t feel that married women should have jobs outside the home” He argued that this as a matter of economic sense. 

This sexist stance, Strassmann explained, “caused me to become interested in how economic knowledge was structured and created, because there seemed to be a flaw. He was using economic arguments to justify what was really a personal value, and I had been trained to think of economics as potentially value-free. This was the beginning of my awareness that it wasn’t.” 

Dr. Strassmann did her dissertation on the deregulation of the airline industry and was hired by Rice in 1983. Her plan was to do earn “standard” credentials so that she could then do “crazy stuff,” for example about gender, without being called incompetent. 

What was your experience at Rice? 

“Well. I was in the econ department doing what they thought was sensible work on the airline industry, even though I did not view it as my long-term plan. But then a bunch of things happened that caused me to think, wait, I’ve got to switch things up a lot faster than I had originally planned. 

Every time some topic came up that was about gender, they would sort of raise it with me as though I was the women’s representative, and often taking weird positions. One guy said, “Well, health insurance shouldn’t cover pregnancy because there’s no risk involved … people either choose to become pregnant, or they don’t.” 

It was just so ignorant. There was just a lot of other stuff that happened that made me begin to think, wait a minute. Here are smart people using their gendered prejudices to argue economic policy, and doing it in a way in which they think is totally sensible.

I then began talking with other faculty not in economics who were participating in a feminist reading group and other forums, and I began really educating myself about a lot of stuff that I had never really thought about.” 

And what did you find? 

“Well first, I had to get over the idea that if they weren’t using math, that somehow meant that it wasn’t rigorous. People would start talking about something as a theory, and I would look at it and say, “excuse me?” I didn’t recognize it as a theory if there are no equations. 

So then I asked, what do equations do? They represent relationships between variables. But you first have to know, what are the variables you’re talking about? For example, in economics, unemployment statistics are not based on some magical fact; they are based on how unemployment is defined. Really all facts that economists use are themselves based on stories and subjective definitions. 

What economists call work is something that happens if you have a paid job. Feminists began to critique classical economic theory, saying, “why should it only be work if you’re paid for it?” There is a lot of value that goes into the economy that’s unpaid. In sum, I began to learn about things I had not thought about that actually mattered.” 

What did you do with these new understandings? 

“I went through a period where I just stopped doing my traditional research, and I just began educating myself. My colleagues did not like that. They thought I was being “unproductive.” And then I had a baby, which as an untenured person they thought was really wrong. Can you believe that? Technically I’m the one using that term “wrong,” but one of my colleagues reported to me that the others had been asking, if I were serious about my career, should I have terminated? I was horrified by this. 

I took this incredible risk to decide to keep doing the research that I wanted to figure out how to do. At the time, I was untenured. So if my colleagues thought I was being unproductive, I could lose my job.” 

Strassmann’s colleagues did vote to deny her tenure, but after intervention by the Provost and a legal settlement with the university, she procured a half-time position without teaching responsibilities, to be renewed every three years.

“It was during that time that I started Feminist Economics and co-founded the International Association for Feminist Economics, but I have to say throughout all of this, I felt very privileged to be able to do this work without relying on a salary.” This was because her husband had just made partner at his law firm. “Part of the problem was,” Strassmann explained, “as long as economics saw that work on gender wasn’t part of the field, they could continue to deny tenure to other women who wouldn’t be in the privileged position I was in to just thumb my nose at them. I decided that I wanted to focus on creating the institutions to make it safe for other people to do work in feminist economics.” 

How did all this turn out, in terms of your professional standing and the growth of feminist economics? 

“In 2004, the then dean of humanities hired me as a Professor of the Practice to teach in the School of Humanities. So I’m a member of the faculty here, but as a member of the school of Humanities rather than the School of Social Sciences. As for feminist economics, the International Association for Feminist Economics has memberes all around the globe, and Feminist Economics is now the premier journal in the field. The only one really. People now have gotten tenure in economics departments based on articles they published in the journal. It’s exciting.” 

I admire Dr. Strassmann both for her approach to restructuring economics and the responsibility she took to create institutions so that other feminists can find their way (hopefully one that is easier than hers). The idea of feminist economics gets at the fundamental misunderstandings we can have if we assume that the systems of knowledge we use as a society are objective, or “value-free.” I believe this awareness is crucial to building a truly equitable world. My last question for Dr. Strassmann was, what are your hopes going forward for feminist economics, economics, the world? Her response resonated with me a lot: 

“I would like to see that women can attain tenure at institutions that train PhD students while also doing feminist work and having that be seen as legitimate, as is the case in English or history, and so forth. It still is not in economics. Ideally, what I would like to see is that we don’t need to have a movement like feminism. That equality, intersectional equality, is more deeply valued. And in terms of the mainstream of economics, I hope that articles that are inherently feminist can be published in mainstream journals, they don’t have to go into Feminist Economics. That’s what I would really like to see.