In The Women Who Made Modern Economics, Rachel Reeves highlights the work and ideas of women including Mary Paley Marshall, Janet Yellen and Beatrice Webb whose influence on modern economics is often underappreciated. Written from the point of view of the Labour Party’s policies and of Reeves’ own “securonomics”, the book takes a selective approach to the economists and policymakers it includes and the economic policies it champions, writes Tanushree Kaushal.
The Women Who Made Modern Economics. Rachel Reeves. Basic Books. 2023.
Rachel Reeves spoke at a public LSE event, The women who made modern economics, at 6.30pm on Monday 06 November. Watch it back on YouTube here.
The Women Who Made Modern Economics starts with Rachel Reeves’ encounter with a family in Worthing, a town on the south coast of England. The mum and dad worked five jobs between themselves and still struggled to make ends meet and raise their kids. Reeves, current Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and Member of Parliament for the Labour Party, weaves together stories and contributions of women economists along with anecdotes from her personal life and Britain’s political history to make a case for what Labour and Reeves herself would do differently if elected in the next British elections so that families’ lives and futures can be improved.
[Reeves] takes the reader through the works of women economists in ten chapters to show the different ways in which they tackled fundamental economic questions of their times and how they remain relevant even today.
Putting the focus of economics on the “family”, Reeves sets on a journey to argue for her own policy of “securonomics”, which rejects tax cuts and deregulation of the financial sector, and instead argues for strengthening infrastructure, education and labour supply. She takes the reader through the works of women economists in ten chapters to show the different ways in which they tackled fundamental economic questions of their times and how they remain relevant even today. In engaging with the life worlds and contributions of these women, Reeves traces the roots of the current Labour agenda in a long and rich intellectual history.
[Reeves] brings to light women’s unique scholarship, particularly in paying attention to the family and ordinary people’s lives in ways that few other economists were able to do.
This book claims three main purposes: one, to rewrite women into the history of economics as they have been repeatedly erased despite their many contributions to the discipline. Two, in addition to this recognition, she brings to light women’s unique scholarship, particularly in paying attention to the family and ordinary people’s lives in ways that few other economists were able to do. And three, she uses these works to advocate for more women in economics because of women’s unique decision-making skills. As Claudia Goldin’s recent Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on the gender wage gap shows, concerns around the family can no longer be delegated to a subset of “women’s issues”. Rather, these are central concerns of economics and reflect Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo’s appeal for economics to not be “removed from any real person’s life” (183).
Economists such as Beatrice Webb are a significant influence on Reeves’ own thought and policy, particularly her work on chronic unemployment and underemployment that recognise the ‘structural problems that meant men who wanted to work were denied the opportunity.’
Economists such as Beatrice Webb are a significant influence on Reeves’ own thought and policy, particularly her work on chronic unemployment and underemployment that recognise the “structural problems that meant men who wanted to work were denied the opportunity” (46). This theme returns in the chapter on Joan Robinson and her work on “disguised unemployment” that came three decades later. The work of Mary Paley Marshall, who was married to economist Alfred Marshall, revealed why firms and industries cluster in specific geographical regions due to economies of scale that emerge from congregation of manufacturers, suppliers and financiers in one area. Innovation of any kind is dependent on pre-existing infrastructures and specialisations that require long-term investment and development. Mary Paley Marshall’s input went into shaping Alfred Marshall’s publications but she remained vastly under-recognised, a theme that courses through the lives of several other women in the book. At the same time, Marshall herself belonged to a cluster of women who bolstered and facilitated each other’s thought and practice. In fact, all the women that Reeves discusses in this book found support and belonging in other women and shared solidarity.
The chapters on more contemporary women in economics bring women in economic leadership positions in conversation with each other. Reeves shows a clear preference for the policies of Janet Yellen, US Secretary of the Treasury under the Biden administration, for her policy agenda of growth by fostering new industries such as electric vehicles. The chapter on developmental economics shows different perspectives on the question of aid, with some such as Zambian-born economist, Dambisa Moyo arguing for a wholesale rejection of development aid and instead calling for greater reliance on capitalism to “lift people out of poverty” (177). In contrast, UN economist Sakiko Fukuda-Parr focuses on improving aid effectiveness instead of rejecting development assistance altogether. Finally, Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo looks for answers to questions of problems such as effects of aids in specific, social realities. She brings fieldwork into economics and grounds each research question in empirical case studies.
The book is written from the point of view of the Labour Party’s policies and of Reeves’ own “securonomics”, which also shapes the complexity rendered to each of the women economists.
The book is written from the point of view of the Labour Party’s policies and of Reeves’ own “securonomics”, which also shapes the complexity rendered to each of the women economists. For instance, while the chapter on Beatrice Webb, founder of the Fabian Society of which Reeves herself has been a member, is elaborate and overall largely positive, the chapter on Rosa Luxembourg, who was a communist-revolutionary, is less forgiving. Luxembourg’s internationalist-socialist argument is that capitalism did not collapse despite Marxist predictions because capitalists could always find new markets and exploit these through imperialist expansion. However, Luxembourg’s revolutionary response to this crisis of capitalist-imperialism is criticised in the book on grounds that revolutions more often than not have “led to a decline in the quality of life of ordinary workers” (96), and Reeves instead advocates for change to come through parliamentary elections such as that of Joe Biden in the US. This anti-revolutionary position prevents a more in-depth reading of Luxembourg’s scholarship and a careful assessment of her diagnosis of capitalism’s ailments. Another remarkable aspect of this chapter is the absence of any discussion on Britain’s own imperialist history in shaping its capitalist present. This stands in contrast with other chapters that discuss Britain’s contemporary politics and economy in much more detail.
Feminist readings will question the choice of the economists and those that weren’t picked, or even the politics of some of these women economists and if their proposed policies were indeed pro-women or not.
As the book balances multiple goals, the writing is often clunky and lacks transitions between different stories. Feminist readings will question the choice of the economists and those that weren’t picked, or even the politics of some of these women economists and if their proposed policies were indeed pro-women or not. Nevertheless, the fact that “there has never, in the eight hundred years that the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer has existed, been a woman in the role” (4), points to what most would characterise as a long-running and undemocratic inequality informing politics even today.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.
Image credit: Left to right, images of Joan Robinson (via Punt, Anefo /Nationaal Archief, Netherlands), Mary Paley Marshall (via University of Bristol on Flickr) and Beatrice Webb (via Gregorysilva on Wikimedia Commons).