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Department of History

First workshop of ECOINT programme highlights women economic thinkers

Women's intellectual contribution to contemporary conceptions of global integration was a major theme in a recent ERC-sponsored research workshop.

07 March 2022 | Research

Economist Barbara Ward at Habitat: UN Conference on Human Settlements, Vancouver, 1976.

The first workshop of the ERC-funded research programme Twentieth-Century International Economic Thinking, and the Complex History of Globalisation (ECOINT) was held online on 14 –15 February 2022.

The workshop sought to identify ‘international economic thinkers’ – key actors in the creation and diffusion of economic ideas during the twentieth century – and to investigate their work and assess its implications. This discussion stems from ECOINT’s broader agenda of uncovering the contours of international economic thinking – the ideas generated and proliferated within the international organisations and their satellites – in order to deepen our understanding of the historical roots of globalisation. 

The international organisations, which included the many institutions of the United Nations, the International Labour Organisation and the IMF, were unique sites central to the twentieth-century experience. Inside these institutions, thinkers worked with a range of distributional imaginaries to develop conceptions of international economic integration that helped shape our present condition. Surprisingly, many approaches to studying globalisation today tend to overlook its international intellectual roots.

ECOINT will be investigating and profiling a range of thinkers, not just economists but non-economists who thought about economic matters in their day-to-day work. The programme also defines economic policy broadly, to encompass labour, social policy, population, welfare, food and agriculture, development, housing, industry, statistical knowledge and more. Using this approach, and the term ‘thinking’ rather than ‘thought,’ ECOINT grounds ideas in practice while sidestepping the traditional associations and existing canons of economic thought, which tend to exclude women and non-European men.

Pathbreakers on the world stage

ECOINT’s work has already confirmed that many of these key thinkers were women. Several of the February workshop presentations add nuance to the stories of women intellectuals who eventually did achieve ‘star’ status for their contributions.

One study, by David Engerman, highlights the influence of research by Khadija Haq, and her husband Mahbub ul Haq, on the emergence of human development as an economic concept. EUI research fellows Troy Vettese and Or Rosenboim offer complementary investigations of the thinkers Elinor Ostrom and Barbara Ward that show that their focus on the environment anticipated later debates on the interplay of economics and sustainability.

ECOINT fellow Guilherme Sampaio’s paper focused on Margaret de Vries, an economist-turned-historian at the IMF who developed a unique position on multiple exchange rates before being required to leave her job when she adopted a child.

Françoise Thébaud introduces us to Marguerite Thibert – a woman who joined the ILO because she could not find a job in her national academia. Thibert’s extensive studies of women’s rights in the workplace balanced a defence of specific labour rights for women and the aspiration for equal rights with men.

Innovators in obscurity

Others turned their attention to groups of lesser-known women economic thinkers who remain far less visible and whose influence must be actively uncovered.

ECOINT fellow Elizabeth Banks followed the career of Marina Men’shikova, a Soviet economist-turned-translator, to highlight women’s unequal access to international space and the implications of this for the historical record we are left with. Banks also drew attention to the vast intellectual labour performed by women translators, who made the international system run.

Clara Bullock discussed women’s exclusion from land ownership, farming and twentieth-century agribusiness, as well as economic narratives of agriculture, even while women are crucially present in farming labour as the quintessential farmer’s wife.

Maylis Avaro, Cleo Chassonnery-Zaigouche, and ECOINT fellow Johanna Gautier Morin revealed that the work of women economists to render women’s household labour visible was itself repeatedly forgotten and made invisible, as the ‘problem’ of women’s unpaid labour recurred throughout the twentieth century. Likewise, Durba Mitra’s paper on the production of Status of Women reports in South Asia powerfully captured how homogenisation and quantification has meant that women activists writing these reports have less time available to explore solutions to critical issues that often concern them the most.

These studies and the rest of the workshop’s papers introduce us to female thinkers whose various contributions broaden our insights into how global integration has been imagined. If their significance can be made more visible, the work of these women can, like the ECOINT project as a whole, historically inform the current debate on globalisation and our possible global futures.

ECOINT is funded by an ERC Advanced Grant (grant agreement No 885285) and directed by Glenda Sluga, Professor of International History and Capitalism at the EUI.

Last update: 08 March 2023

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