Economics Department


Date of this Version



Published in History of Political Economy 51:4 (2019)

DOI 10.1215/00182702-7685185


Copyright © 2019 Duke University Press. Used by permission.


The records in the archives of the American Economic Association (AEA) located in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, offer us a unique window into the role of gender in the struggle of economists to gain status and authority and allow us to better understand the role of gender in the professionalization of economics. While not replete with information about female economists in the early years of the AEA, the records offer important clues as to the challenges facing women academics, shed light on the formation of the profession, and reveal the influence of the financial frailty of the AEA in the decades prior to the 1930s.

In this essay we examine the decisions and policies of the AEA in its early history from 1885 through the 1920s and the impact of these actions on women’s participation and membership in the organization, especially during the three membership drives that took place during this period— membership drives concentrated in 1900–1902, 1909–13, and 1922–26 (Coats 1993: 241, 256). In its earliest years, we conclude that in abandoning the idea of “branch associations,” the AEA lost many potential women members. Our analysis shows that the first membership drive, which targeted academics and businessmen, had a detrimental impact on the pro portion of women members. The second membership drive even more clearly targeted recruitment on businessmen, lawyers, and bankers. We argue that despite the priority placed on expanding membership, the AEA actively recruited a particular constituency outside of academe while ignoring women active in social causes and home economics—women who may have represented a more natural constituency for the organization. Finally, the third membership drive of the 1920s, while not exactly leaving behind its preoccupation with recruitment of businessmen, lawyers, and bankers, expanded recruitment in an effort to bring graduate students and young instructors into the association. It is perhaps not surprising then, that the representation of women as members in the AEA expanded somewhat during the 1920s.

This research allows us to better understand the liminality of women economists’ professional lives in the early years of the AEA. Our analysis reveals not only the financial frailty of the organization, but the ways in which gender played an important role in the drive toward professionalization within the discipline of economics. The records of the AEA cast a revealing light on power and influence in what was emerging as a distinct academic discipline of economics and on the differing treatment of men and women in the academic life of the time.