Behind the Most Famous Men in Economics There Have Always Been Women

When the Nobel Committee awarded its prize in economics on Monday to the Harvard professor Claudia Goldin — the first woman to receive the award solo — it was both a vindication of a storied career and a reminder of how male-dominated economics remains. Ever since the early 1970s, when women first entered the field in significant numbers, they have faced discouragement, discrimination and harassment. Today fewer than a quarter of tenured economics professors are women.

Yet statistics like that one obscure a long history of women who have worked, often quietly and without proper recognition, to shape the field. Behind some of the most famous men in economics there have been women whose ideas and research were critical to the development of their work. And in many cases it was precisely because of their marginal place in the profession that they were in a position to see things that their male colleagues overlooked.

Perhaps the best example of this underappreciated form of collaboration is the career of Milton Friedman. Along with John Maynard Keynes, Mr. Friedman ranks as the 20th century’s most famous economist. The recipient of the 1976 Nobelin economics, he made contributions that ranged across fields as varied as monetary policy and consumption theory. A staunch proponent of free markets and small government, he advised Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and became an outspoken public commentator on politics. In 1980, he starred in a 10-part PBS television series called “Free to Choose.”

But he did not accomplish these feats alone. At every stage in his career, he collaborated, formally or informally, with women economists. And while he was not reluctant to acknowledge these debts, the same can’t be said for the profession as a whole.

Mr. Friedman’s most famous work is the 1963 book “A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960,” which analyzed the Great Depression as a monetary crisis, not a crisis of demand — a pathbreaking finding that is still widely accepted half a century later, and has almost certainly helped to prevent a second crisis of that magnitude. Mr. Friedman wrote the book with Anna Jacobson Schwartz, an economist at the National Bureau of Economic Research, but her contribution has often been downplayed. She was not mentioned in Mr. Friedman’s Nobel announcement, which presented the book as if he alone had written it. And she was awarded a doctorate from Columbia only after the book was published — and in the wake of heavy pressure from Mr. Friedman — because male faculty members doubted that her contribution to the work was meaningful.

The reality is that over a period of 12 years, Ms. Schwartz did the research and assembled the data that underlay their analysis. Moreover, her research was the backbone of Mr. Friedman’s monetary economics more generally: His influential forays into stabilization policy, for example, also rested on the empirical bedrock of Ms. Schwartz’s work. Many economists at the time considered such historical research old-fashioned, even retrograde or irrelevant to a field becoming increasingly theoretical and mathematical. But Ms. Schwartz, by force of circumstance an outsider, was willing to defy the conventional wisdom.

Another example of the contribution of women to Mr. Friedman’s work is his 1957 book, “A Theory of the Consumption Function,” one of his most important publications in technical economics. It introduced the idea, which is widely accepted in economics today, of “permanent income” — that people’s spending is influenced by the income they expect over a lifetime, not just at the current moment.

Consumption economics, the study of buying and selling, was at the time something of a backwater in the field, a “female” topic that women economists were often encouraged to study. But thanks to his wife, Rose, a trained economist who did not complete her Ph.D., Mr. Friedman had close ties to several women economists in this field. In a later reminiscence, Mr. Friedman explained that he’d been inspired to write the 1957 book after “a series of fireside conversations at our summer cottage in New Hampshire with my wife and two of our friends, Dorothy S. Brady and Margaret Reid.” All three, he noted, were at the time working on consumption.

Mr. Friedman’s insight about permanent income grew out of Ms. Brady and Ms. Reid’s work on farm families, whose spending could vary wildly from year to year. He generalized their finding, and in so doing revolutionized how economists think about consumption. Although he often cited his collaborators, even calling the book “in essential respects a joint product,” it bore his name alone. Once again, thanks to his scholarly friendships with women, Mr. Friedman was attuned to phenomena that other male economists had neglected.

Rose Friedman also played a central role in the creation of her husband’s public profile. Working from her husband’s lectures, articles and inchoate notes, she fashioned the text for his best-selling 1962 book, “Capitalism and Freedom,” which presented his ideas to a general audience. She pushed him to write a column for Newsweek that ran from 1966 to 1984, and often helped him draft the articles. She was also involved in all aspects of the “Free to Choose” TV series, including co-writing the accompanying book of the same title.

Why was Mr. Friedman, unlike so many of his male peers, willing to take his female counterparts seriously? Part of the answer may have to do with the University of Chicago economics department, where he was both a graduate student and a professor. It had a tradition, seemingly unique among top economics departments, of reserving at least one faculty berth for a woman. As a result, Mr. Friedman was one of the few economics Ph.D. students of his day to have encountered a female professor in his field, and one of the few economics professors to have worked alongside a female colleague.

Still, Mr. Friedman was hardly the only economic thinker to benefit from having smart women around him. John Stuart Mill and Alfred Marshall both had talented wives working by their sides. Mr. Friedman’s rival Paul Samuelson was himself married to an economist, Marion. We don’t always know exactly how these women influenced their husbands’ work, but they were undeniably a part of their intellectual worlds.

In some partnerships, like those of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who helped found the London School of Economics, and Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, who contributed to the development of the modern welfare state, credit between husband and wife was more openly shared. The first woman to win the Nobel in economics, Elinor Ostrom, was married to one of her main collaborators, Vincent Ostrom. (Ms. Goldin has often collaborated with her husband, Lawrence Katz, also a Harvard economist.)

For all his support of his women collaborators, however, Mr. Friedman was not a feminist, at least as typically understood. He maintained traditional gender roles in his personal life, and he did nothing to challenge how the discipline worked systemically. In his later years he expressed skepticism when feminists began to press for greater inclusion of women in economics, arguing in 1998 that men were actively being discriminated against.

Disheartening as the story of women in economics can be, it can also be read with hope. What if these women, long consigned to the margins of the profession, were treated as equals? Imagine the benefits to the field, and to the broader world, if their contributions were properly acknowledged and celebrated. Ms. Goldin’s recognition is a sign that the winds may be turning — and for that, we will all be better off.

Jennifer Burns (@profburns) is an associate professor of history at Stanford, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of the forthcoming book “Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative.”

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