New Approaches to the History of Gender and the Economy

Endorsed by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA), Business History Conference (BHC), and Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Gender and Sexuality; Politics


This panel explores new approaches to the history of gender and the economy in twentieth-century American history, asserting that a comprehensive historicization of economic life necessarily follows from methodological approaches that foreground logics of sex difference. In what ways have gender and sex difference—reflected in values, traditions, and policies—produced unequal patterns of capital movement and economic development? This is the central question from which our panel proceeds. We expand upon frameworks offered by the historiographies of welfare and women’s labor. Analysis of gender and sex difference, as this literature has shown, is key to unlocking puzzles of political-economic inequity. This framework should be brought to new arenas, especially in light of the emergence of the so-called “new history of capitalism” (NHOC). The NHOC has denaturalized one type of economic arrangement—capitalism—in myriad contexts ranging across slavery, corporations, (de)industrialization, financialization, and other areas of exchange and accumulation. Regarding twentieth-century U.S. history, it has fruitfully brought together labor, business, politics, cultural production, law, and more. The NHOC has revealed how production and consumption are not only organized but also understood and mediated socially and culturally. Despite this success, the NHOC has drawn criticism for failing to adequately account for gender across the wide horizons of economic analysis it has opened. How does re-centering gender contribute new definitions of “the economy”? Where might we locate new spaces and registers in which to understand gender and the economy as constitutive? Together, the papers that comprise our panel explore these questions, contributing new methodological frameworks. Our contention is that gender and the economy must be conceptualized together—not as separate but as imbricated spheres of analysis. This means we embed gendered analysis within our historicization of the economy as both an abstraction and as a daily practice, and within our considerations of economic actors at all levels, including workers, consumers, state-builders, and corporate power-wielders. Our approach considers how gender shapes contingencies of economic life, and how arrangements of production, distribution, and consumption construct gender. Chaired by Professor Katherine Turk with commentary from Professor Nan Enstad, our panel synthesize our research agendas into a cohesive exploration of gender and economic change in twentieth-century America. Teal Arcadi assesses the historiography of gender and the post-World War II administrative state, and denaturalizes networks of male power that structured the inequities of postwar life. Casey Eilbert situates “bureaucracy” as a coded political keyword that some used to wage a neoliberal attack on the diverse race and gender composition of the postwar federal workforce. Kwelina Thompson recounts the history of the Harvard Radcliffe Program in Business Administration as it became the female arm of Harvard Business School; women in the program broke a path toward management in the corporate world and the benefits afforded in such roles. Allison Schwartz rethinks approaches to the expansion of credit and debt in America’s postwar economy by analyzing coercive collection practices to capture how race and gender determined the consequences—often debilitating, unbearable, and violent—for women who struggled to repay their debts.

Papers Presented

Administrative Masculinity and Postwar Political Economy: Historiography and New Directions

This paper denaturalizes networks of male power that shaped the post-World War II American administrative state. The paper begins with a historiographical assessment of research on gender and policymaking. Looking past electoral politics into the substrate of federal power, I examine how the historiography has—and has not—deconstructed the masculinity that defined the administrative spaces from which postwar power-wielders projected their vision of society. A patriarchal, breadwinner-focused social framework produced gendered and heteronormative postwar federal policy. The inequitable consequences that subsequently delimited American economic life are well known. Rather than reflecting cultural consensus, however, the gendered dimensions of postwar social and economic policy were meted out by particular male officials who, I argue, accreted power and insulated themselves from democratic pressures in layers of bureaucracy. The paper concludes with an exploratory study of the Clay Committee, a group of men within the Eisenhower Administration who set forth the economic aims of interstate highway legislation. Committee members shared specific traits: degrees from elite all-male colleges, military service, experience in sharply gendered corporate leadership roles, and an interest in using durable infrastructure to support the industrial arrangements of a national economy predicated on gendered divisions of profit, labor, and opportunity. In summation, the paper argues that historians of twentieth-century American political economy, building on previous literatures, have new questions to ask about the construction of administrative masculinity and its bearing on economic infrastructure we continue to live with today.

Presented By
Teal Arcadi, Princeton University

Gender, Anti-Bureaucracy Politics, and the Rise of Free Market Ideology

This paper explores “bureaucracy” as a keyword in modern American history, considering how gendered and racialized understandings of the federal civil service reflected and shaped ideas about the state and governance more broadly. Throughout the twentieth century, the public sector represented a relatively diverse workforce. Especially following federal civil rights legislation in the 1960s, women and minorities pursued federal employment as an alternative to the more hostile private sector. In this period, the federal bureaucracy increasingly became the target of political and popular criticism. Due to their diverse race and gender composition, and also the progressive politics that they represented, bureaucrats were subject to attacks from conservative political forces that joined ideas of race, gender, and merit to posit bureaucracy as inefficient, incompetent, and ineffective as a form of governance. This paper considers how these critiques of bureaucracy and bureaucrats informed economic planning during the neoliberal turn of the 1970s and 1980s. Without acknowledging the gendered and racialized meanings of the word, politicians routinely reviled bureaucrats to justify policies that privileged a “free market” approach to economic and domestic policy. Citing inefficiency, policymakers posited bureaucracy as antithetical to American ideals of freedom and meritocracy. Relegating governance—including healthcare, education, and welfare—to the non-governmental realm often exempted it from federal efforts at nondiscrimination. By attacking bureaucracy, policymakers prized the free market—absent of bureaucrats and also the progressive racial and gender politics they represented—as the true democratic sphere.

Presented By
Casey Eilbert, Princeton University

“Dancing on the Glass Ceiling": Gender, Work, and Authority in the Postwar Era

This paper recounts the history of the Harvard Radcliffe Program in Business Administration (HRPBA) as it transformed from a single course focused on personnel management, an early precursor of human resources, to become the female arm of Harvard Business School. The program, which ran from 1937 to 1963, brought together administrators and professors at Radcliffe and Harvard Business School, as well as business leaders, and alumnae that debated not only the value of an education in business administration for women but also the content of that education. The history of this pioneering program reveals the networks and pathways that brought women into the orbit of executive management and leadership roles in business firms. The Radcliffe program opened the door to management in the corporate world and the benefits afforded in these roles: higher wages, less rote, routine work, and limited authority. The program also served as an important node in the increasingly tight network that had developed between the postwar university and businesses. In charting the history of the HRPBA, this paper points to the ways in which understandings of gender shaped the intellectual genealogy of postwar management techniques and theories about the rise of the postindustrial society that circulated in academic, political, and business circles during the inter and postwar eras.

Presented By
Kwelina Patrice Thompson, Cornell University

The Gendered Contradictions of Indebtedness: Debt, Collections, and Women’s Autonomy

Throughout the twentieth century, coercive collection tactics were central to policing the gender and racial hierarchies that structured America’s capitalist economy. Despite economic and legal transformations during the 1970s, a woman’s race, gender, class, and marital status still determined the consequences—often debilitating, unbearable, and violent—of being unable to repay her debts. I document the coercive collection practices inflicted on single, divorced, separated, and widowed women to unmask the ideologies that shaped the parameters of women’s indebtedness and their claims to economic autonomy. Until the 1960s, creditors and collectors were often the same person or employed by the same institution. I focus on debt collectors’ instrumental role in sustaining women’s financial exclusion and subordination in the postwar era to show how gendered ideologies inextricably connected policies that denied women credit and collection practices that exploited them. I analyze archival records, civil cases brought by women against debt collectors, and newspapers that reported collectors’ routine racial violence to portray how the power that collectors wielded was both magnified by and predicated upon women’s economic insecurity. Women were denied credit but harassed for the money owed by former or deceased husbands, paid less than their male counterparts but held to the same repayment standards, and pressured to assume debt while denied access to welfare and affordable childcare. In illuminating these contradictions alongside coercive collection practices, I broaden scholarly frameworks around credit and debt by looking beyond the overt discrimination women experienced to the hierarchal power relationships reinforcing gender and racial inequality.

Presented By
Allison Schwartz, University of Minnesota

Session Participants

Chair: Tracey Deutsch, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Presenter: Teal Arcadi, Princeton University
Teal Arcadi is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at Princeton University. His research and teaching explore the built environment through political economy, state-building, gender and sexuality, and the law. His dissertation, “Remapping America: The Interstate Highway System and Infrastructural Power in the Postwar United States,” examines the creation and consequences of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways after World War II.

Presenter: Casey Eilbert, Princeton University
Casey Eilbert is a Ph.D. student in history at Princeton University. She studies twentieth century U.S. history and is interested in gender, the history of work and labor, and political economy.

Commentator: Nan Enstad, University of Wisconsin
Nan Enstad is the Robinson Edwards Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, an affiliate of the Gender and Women’s Studies Department and the Afro-American Studies Department, and the current Director of the UW Food Studies Network. Her research and teaching interests include the history of capitalism, cultural history, and the history of food systems. In all of her work she foregrounds race, gender, sexuality, and labor. Enstad is the author of Cigarettes Inc.: An Intimate History of Corporate Imperialism (University of Chicago Press, 2018), winner of the 2019 Albert J. Beveridge Award from the American Historical Association, and Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Popular Culture and Labor Politics at the turn of the Twentieth Century (Columbia University Press, 1999).

Presenter: Allison Schwartz, University of Minnesota
Allison Schwartz is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation—“Banking on a Woman’s Worth: Personhood and the New Patriarchy of Debt, 1961-2008”—explores how debt and credit served as sites where American women both challenged and experienced gender and racial inequality. In analyzing financial reform passed during the 1970s, she illuminates the myriad ways in which a woman’s capacity to repay her debt conditioned her claim to legal personhood.

Presenter: Kwelina Patrice Thompson, Cornell University
Kwelina Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Cornell University. She specializes in U.S. economic history during the twentieth century with a particular focus on the influence of finance and technology on labor processes and gender stratification. Her dissertation explores the ways in which management and finance practices evolved after World War II in response to the expansion of computing technologies and a labor market comprised of highly educated men and women.