In Memoriam – Barbara Bergmann

I became a feminist at age five, when it became obvious to me that you needed your own money to be an independent person, which was what I wanted to be when I grew up. – Barbara Bergmann

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IAFFE notes with sadness the death of Barbara R. Bergmann, a passionate advocate for women, children, and disadvantaged minorities and one of the most important figures in feminist economics.

Bergmann was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1927, the daughter of immigrants who had fled the anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. She remained a New Yorker at heart throughout a life journey that led her to high-level government posts in Washington, DC, and top positions in academia. While attending Cornell University on a scholarship, she developed a strong concern for racial discrimination, which later extended to a concern for gender discrimination.

Graduating with a BA in mathematics and economics in 1948, she found that the forces of recession and discrimination had narrowed her job prospects to typing. She was eventually hired for a position in the public inquiries division of the New York office of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, becoming head of the unit after a year. Bergmann continued her education at Harvard, where, as a woman, she was at first not allowed to be a teaching fellow. She developed an interest in computer-simulated economics, which helped convince her that economics should be based more on observation and field research than solely theorizing. The belief that “economists’ theories… are by and large nothing but (possibly untrue) stories made up by economists sitting in their offices,” stayed with her through her career. She received a PhD in economics in 1959.

In the 1960s, Bergmann served as Senior Staff Economist in the Council of Economic Advisors during the Kennedy Administration, Senior Economic Adviser for the Agency for International Development, and as an advisor to the Congressional Budget Office and the Bureau of the Census. She later became a faculty member at the University of Maryland and at American University, with a two-year stint at Brandeis University. She was a founding member and President of IAFFE, and a contributor to the first issue of Feminist Economics, which honored her work and concern for real people more than airless theories in a 1998 special issue (Volume 4, Issue 3). The issue includes Marianne Ferber’s eloquent biographical note: http://ow.ly/LmJiV.

Bergmann also served as President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (ASE). In 2004, she received the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award of the American Economic Association (AEA) for improving the status of women in economics and creating an understanding of how women can advance in the academy. Upon retirement, she was named professor emerita of economics at American University and the University of Maryland, but it is fair to say she did not retire. She continued writing, as a regular contributor of articles and book reviews to Feminist Economics and later as a blogger for the Huffington Post.

Bergmann did groundbreaking work on the economics of race and gender, social policy on employment discrimination, childcare, and poverty, and the computer simulation of economic systems. In the early 1980s, she took the lead in analyzing the position of “housewife,” noting the economic and other risks for women of this “peculiar institution”; in the 1990s, she critiqued Gary Becker’s new household economics using her trademark blend of intellect and irreverence, finding his theory of the family “preposterous.” Over the last few decades, she actively engaged in public policy debates ranging from social security to affirmative action, childcare, and welfare policies. Her books include: The Economic Emergence of Women, In Defense of Affirmative ActionSaving Our Children From Poverty: What the United States Can Learn From France, Is Social Security Broke? A Cartoon Guide to the Issues,and America’s Child Care Problem: The Way Out. A generous mentor, she inspired generations of economists, statisticians, sociologists, and others through her significant contribution to feminist scholarship and her promotion of feminist economics in the economics discipline and curriculum.

She was married for 46 years to Fred H. Bergmann, who died in 2011 and was a biochemist who served as head of the genetics grants program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She is survived by a daughter, Sarah Bergmann, a son, David Bergmann, and three grandchildren.

American University, in Washington, DC, will hold a memorial service celebrating the life of Barbara Bergmann on April 28, 2015, at 3:00 p.m., on the second floor of the Katzen Arts Center.

[Repost from IAFFE]

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Categories: Economisses

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