Ruth Alice Allen, born in Texas in 1889, could be justly called a role model for women economists, if nothing more, and with a burst in feminist scholarship in recent years, it is only befitting that Allen’s work is rediscovered now.
At a time when it was difficult for women to secure academic positions, Allen earned professorship at the University of Texas Department of Economics, one of the USA’s leading centres of institutionalism. Through her career defining work, she paved the way for women economists who followed in her footsteps. She taught a course titled ‘The Economic Status of Women’, which was one of the earliest courses in the US that examined the economic position of women.
But her interest in the subject can be traced back to her dissertation in 1933 on the labour of women in the production of cotton, which was later published as a monograph. In the work, Allen combined socioeconomic approaches to the institutionalist tradition of labour studies as pioneered by John R Commons and investigated the implications of women’s labour in the production of cotton for its price in the market and the living standards of families involved in cotton farming.
Allen’s findings established the role of tradition in leading women to take up unpaid labour, which depressed the wages of paid farm workers and led to overproduction of cotton, which in turn kept the price of cotton artificially low. The work also touches upon the effects of economic change on the lives of the women. This work put Allen in parallel to Margaret Reid and Charlotte Gilman Perkins in placing women’s production at the centre of economic analysis.
‘East Texas Lumber Workers’ (1961) is yet another pioneering work of Allen focusing on the economic conditions of the Texan lumber country, in which Allen viewed people’s physical, social and economic environments as the most important influence on their behaviour. Besides these, Allen worked on a range of collections and monographs on the labour history of Texas, historical account of a famous rail strike that rocked the region in 1886, and other labour issues in Texas, leaving behind a rich historical record that researchers can benefit from even today.
Allen spent six years of her retirement at Huston-Tillotson College, a predominantly black school in Texas, and retired in 1968. In 1979, she died at the age of 90.
BA in 1921 and her MA in 1923 – University of Texas at Austin
PhD – University of Chicago
Professor – University of Texas until retirement in 1959
Post retirement teaching position – Huston-Tillotson College