Ruth Alice Allen

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

Edith Abbott

I am going to blog about 100 women economists and economic historians. I start with Edith Abbott.

Edith Abbott: From Economics to Social Work (1876-1957)

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Edith Abbott, labour economist and economic historian, was the second woman to earn an Economics PhD from the University of Chicago in 1905. Interested in labour statistics and employment trends, Abbott published her first article ‘Wage statistics in the twelfth census’, in 1904 in the Journal of Political Economy. The article critiqued the statistical methods used in a report by Davis Dewey on the wage and employment trends of the 1900 census. Her next article, ‘Wages of unskilled labor in the United States, 1850–1900’, was the first statistical study of the wages of unskilled labour in the USA, often termed the ‘first step toward a complete history of wages’.

Abbott went on to write a large portion of the history of US wages and employment centering on women, all of which culminated in her seminal book, ‘Women in Industry’ in 1910. She wrote many books before and after but her work – ‘Women’s wages in Chicago: some notes on available data’ – led to several contributions that are relevant even today. In her documentation of the work lives of 17th and 18th century American women, she showed that the rate of labour market participation of working class women had remained substantially unchanged over the last century. Her research showed that the movement of women’s work out of the home into the factories was a significant result of the Industrial Revolution owing to the development of specialized machines and the economies of scale and subsequent division of labour, and not the advent of women’s employment.

In 1906, Abbott studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science and secured a teaching job at Wellesley College. However, that didn’t satisfy Abbott, who later took up teaching statistics at Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy while also teaching part-time at the University of Chicago. Over the years, Abbott led many research projects and published several books and scores of articles in both scholarly and popular journals on her ongoing research into a variety of social problems and her opinions on social welfare laws.

Abbott also developed a reputation as an educator. In 1920, University of Chicago renamed the school the University of Chicago Graduate School of Social Service Administration, making it the first graduate school of social work in the US affiliated with a major research university. Abbott went on to become its dean in 1924 and over the years, drafted a curriculum that secured social work’s place as a new field within the social sciences with its focus on social statistics and on the historical, legal, economic and political underpinnings of social problems and public welfare efforts. To this effect, she also authored ‘Social Welfare and Professional Education’ in 1931. She also co-founded ‘Social Service Review’ published by the University of Chicago Press.

Abbott was one among the very small group of super cerebral American women who graduated out of US colleges and universities in its early years of opening to women. Committed to social causes, she started off as a labour economist and economic historian, and eventually pursued an academic career in social work.


PhD in Economics from University of Chicago
Professor and Dean of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Social
Service Administration
Long-time editor of the Social Service Review
Co-founder of Social Service Review published by the University of Chicago Press

Notable Publications:

The Real Jail Problem (1915)
Crime and the War (1915)
Recent statistics relating to crime in Chicago (Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, 1922)
Are women a force for good government? (National Municipal Review, 1915)
Statistics in Chicago suffrage (New Republic, 1915)
The Administration of the Aid-to-Mothers Law in Illinois (1921)
Poor people in Chicago (New Republic, 1932)
Public Assistance (1941)

Joan Robinson

‘[M]y brain is quite congealed. I cannot think of a word to say to anyone.’

In India of the 1920s, a socially awkward young woman said this of her experience at the parties in Gwalior, India. In less than a decade, she joined Cambridge and became one of the foremost economic thinkers of our time.

I couldn’t help but read Joan Robinson while working on a book on unemployment. Her contribution to the understanding of unemployment remains unmatched.

Issue #6 of EconHistorienne, to be out late July, is dedicated to her. Keep watching this space.