Marianne Ferber died

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 17, 2013

Marianne Ferber died a few days ago, at age 90. Ferber was one of the founding feminist economists. There is a nice Obit by Frances Woolley here.

I remember Marianne from the IAFFE conferences that I visited as a grad student. One of the most striking memories I have about her is how she would, despite her seniority and fame/status in the field, talk to anyone – indeed, perhaps she even looked out for those who were young or new to the feminist economic community – a virtue one does not always see among the most senior/famous people in a field, and which was definitely not my experience at other economic events. I also remember some of our conversations – how courageously she was in thinking independently and fearlessly and taking the analysis where the argument goes, rather than where the model forces you to stop. As for other women of her age, you can only dream of how she could have been even much more influential if she had been given the same opportunities as men of her generation.

Marianne Ferber will be much missed, not only by her family and friends, but by everyone in the feminist economics community.



Frances Woolley 05.17.13 at 1:27 pm

Ingrid, thanks for sharing those memories and also for the link. You’re so right about the way she reached out to people. She had the rare ability to be both encouraging and critical – that is, to make you think that you had ideas worth pursuing, and make you want to strive to do more and better work, but at the same time, she had too much good judgement, and was too honest, to praise the unpraiseworthy.


dbk 05.17.13 at 2:55 pm

Ingrid, I too thank you for noting Prof. Ferber’s passing. She was my first economics lecturer (Econ 108) at UIUC, and I have carried with me for + forty years a memory of her as excellent and informative lecturer, as very demanding (108 was not the gut course Intro to Micro), and in retrospect, as a role model for aspiring young female academics. I took her course in my first semester at UIUC, and had only one other senior female faculty before receiving a degree (a humanities degree, no less), apart from two female TAs in modern language courses. Glancing at the roster of UIUC’s current Economics “Regular Faculty”, three of twenty-three are women, one of whom is an Assistant and another of whom carries the responsibilities of UGA. I suppose one might characterize this as progress, though it seems rather glacial somehow.


Katherine 05.18.13 at 8:25 am

That is sad news. I’ve often thought I should read more of her kind of work, and this spurs me onwards to do so.


Colin Danby 05.18.13 at 5:36 pm

Thank you for posting this and linking to Frances Woolley’s excellent obit. I also remember her encouragement of other people’s work, in the joyful book events she ran for some years at IAFFE conferences and in the two editions of _Beyond Economic Man_.


Witt 05.18.13 at 9:00 pm

From the linked obituary:

Marianne had children at a time when it was practically impossible for women to balance work and family, and she didn’t. When Bob Ferber took up a position at the University of Illinois, anti-nepotism rules prevented Marianne from being hired.

In 1955, however, faced with a severe teaching shortage, the department hired Marianne as a “visiting professor”. She describes her experiences in Engendering Economics:

“I usually worked part-time. And they would always call me at the last minute. In fact, once or twice they didn’t ask me to teach until after classes had started. It was embarrassing. How do you explain to your students why you missed the first class? Do you tell them that you weren’t asked until they were desperate, or do you let them think that you were negligent? It put me in an awkward position. But I was glad to have something. It was better than being unemployed.”

When Marianne finished her doctoral dissertation she put research aside. Then, when was in her late 40s, a colleague involved in the American Association of University Professors suggested she do some research on the salaries of female academics. This kick-started Marianne’s career as a labour economist, and led to a long run of publications and fruitful collaborations.

I wonder how many women professionals’ stories have a turning point like this — making lemons into lemonade by doing a study of something that is all too close to home.

The Economics of Women, Men and Work epitomizes Marianne’s strengths: it is clear, well-written, and insightful. Moreover, it shows wisdom, a deep understanding of human behaviour, and a sense of what matters and what doesn’t. Beyond Economic Man demonstrates Marianne’s openness, and her willingness to think about a totally new way of doing economics.

Marianne had minimal patience for the formal theorizing that is often the route to high status within the profession. She believed that formal modelling was open to abuse, to being misused to support pre-ordained conclusions, while increasing formalism risked producing a generation of “idiot savants”; formally trained but economically illiterate graduate students.

I like her prejudices.

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