Daughters of Commons: Wisconsin Women and Institutionalism
“Daughters of Commons: Wisconsin Women and Institutionalism,” Handbook of Women in Economics, ed. K. Madden and R. Dimand. Routledge, 2018: 229-249.
36 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2017 Last revised: 22 Jul 2018
Date Written: July 7, 2017
In writing the history of Wisconsin Institutionalism, these women have received little attention (Johnson 2011 and 2015; Kaufman 1993; Lampman 1993; Rutherford 2006 and 2011; Tilman 2008). Yet, the daughters of Commons made important contributions both to the body of work considered Wisconsin Institutionalist as well as to its diffusion. Rather than drawing conclusions from individual cases and generalizing, I adopt a prosopographic approach, investigating the common characteristics of this historical group, whose individual biographies are often obscured. By examining the typical contributions of Wisconsin’s women economists, we can develop a picture of their contributions. This is done by collecting data on more than forty women who matriculated at Wisconsin – PhDs, Master’s students, and undergraduates – and looking for phenomena that transcend individual experiences. In doing so, two important themes emerge. First, by actively including women in his research program, Commons vastly expanded the army of people well-equipped to contribute to his social-political agenda. This allowed Wisconsin Institutionalism to achieve a much larger footprint that would have otherwise been possible, as women made significant contributions to the spread of Wisconsin Institutionalism though publications, teaching, and applications.
However, this is not just a story about the contributions of women to the Institutionalist tradition, but also about using their experiences to elucidate unresolved questions in the history of economic thought. Those that study Institutionalism have long sought to understand its rapid marginalization and decline in the post-war period (Backhouse 1998; Biddle 1998; Johnson 2015; Lampman 1993; Rutherford 2011 and 2015). Second, the story of Wisconsin’s women economists illustrates is how Wisconsin Institutionalism’s broadly defined approach to economics and economic research contributed to its decline. By embracing government work, statistical data collection without underlying theory, and multi-disciplinary studies, Wisconsin diluted its brand of economics until it was no longer clearly recognized as economic theory proper. This was particularly evident in the careers of Wisconsin-trained women economists who became practicing sociologists, social workers, government researchers and administrators of nonprofit organizations, lobbying groups, and government programs.
Keywords: John R. Commons, Wisconsin Institutionalism, Pre-WWII
JEL Classification: B15, B25, B52, Z10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation