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Barbara Bergmann’s Feminist Economics

Lawrence Bush
July 19, 2017

Barbara Bergmann, a senior staffer for President Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisors, a senior economist at the Agency for International Development, and an advisor to the Congressional Budget Office and the Census Bureau, was born in the Bronx to immigrant parents on this date in 1927. Bergmann was educated at Cornell and Harvard, and taught at the University of Maryland and American University. Her work as an economist dealt with childcare, gender issues, Social Security, poverty, and the grounding of her field in real-life observation. Economist Heidi Hartmann called Bergmann “the Betty Friedan of the economics profession” for seeking to identify and emphasize the distinctive roles played by women in economies and “show how the interests, treatment and personal characteristics of women might affect the way economies function,” writes Martin Weil in the Washington Post. “An author of books and papers often seen as visionary or prescient, she was a believer in using economic knowledge for social betterment. She was an enthusiastic and outspoken participant in policy debates and was credited with groundbreaking work on questions of race and gender in the economy, on employment discrimination and on the underlying assumptions held by majorities of those in her profession.” A co-founder of the International Association for Feminist Economics, Bergmann was “long a liberal voice in the field” and “a fierce critic of the laissez-faire policies” of the Reagan administration, according to Nelson D. Schwartz in the New York Times. She took her own life at age 87.

“To be a housewife is to be a member of a very peculiar occupation, one with characteristics like no other. The nature of the duties to be performed, the method of payment, the form of supervision, the tenure system, the ‘market’ in which the ‘workers’ find ‘jobs,’ and the physical hazards are all very different from the way things are in other occupations.” --Barbara Bergmann

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.