Saying Goodbye to Marianne Ferber

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marianne_ferberThe Champaign-Urbana community lost a pioneering “second-wave” feminist scholar and social justice advocate with the passing of Marianne Ferber at her Clark-Lindsey home on May 11, 2013 at 90 years of age. Marianne’s rich life history began in 1923 when she was born into a Jewish family of cattle dealers and farmers in a small village in Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia. Upon the Nazi invasion of their homeland in 1938, her father, Karl Abeles, led an extended family clan (Abeles-Popper) across the Atlantic to Canada. The 39-member clan had first attempted to immigrate to the United States, but due to strong anti-Semitic attitudes among Congressional representatives and even Roosevelt Administration bureaucrats, the miserly quota for Jewish refugees had already been filled. Abeles turned next to Canada, where anti-Semitism also influenced public policy, but given a shortage of farmers in the country, Marianne’s father applied for entry for himself and his relatives as farmers. The clan was allowed entry and Marianne arrived in Canada at the age of 15.

For a year, she worked on the farm and then stuffed envelopes with advertisements in an attempt to earn enough money to return to high school. Impressed by her gymnasium education in Europe, the high school principal suggested that she instead apply for admission to McMaster University. To her surprise, Marianne was accepted at McMaster, where she earned an undergraduate degree in economics and then moved on to the University of Chicago for her doctorate during World War II. As she repeatedly observed, the University of Chicago’s Economics Department was not then the bastion of neo-classical conservatism that it would later become with the arrival of Milton Friedman in the 1950’s. However, not surprisingly, she encountered no female faculty in the department and only two other female graduate students.

Marianne married Bob Ferber while at the University of Chicago and was pregnant with their first child when Bob received a job offer from the University of Illinois’ Economics Department, which he joined in 1948. Having done well in graduate school, Marianne expected shortly to find work in the same department, but she would have to wait until 1955 before being offered a job as a visiting lecturer. During her time as a lecturer, she had a second child and although she always credited Bob with being a “feminist”, her less demanding work schedule meant that in traditional fashion she assumed the major portion of childcare and household work responsibilities. She would remain in the highly contingent Visiting Lecturer position for fifteen years before receiving, not least because of her great success as a teacher, the title of Assistant Professor with tenure in 1971. She became a Full Professor in 1979 and worked at the University until her retirement in 1993

Once slotted into a regular faculty position and with her children now attending high school, she initiated a rigorous research agenda. Her first major effort was an examination of female academic salaries. Her substantiation of major gender inequities in pay, combined with her own experiences of discrimination in academia and with the growing influence on her thinking of second-wave feminism after the late 1960s, spurred her to concentrate her efforts on women’s economic condition, both in paid and unpaid labor markets. Her most well-known contribution in this regard is the textbook she co-wrote with Fran Blau and Julie Winkler, The Economics of Women, Men, and Work. She also became a trailblazer in the development of feminist economic theory, co-editing along with Julie Nelson, Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics and was a founder and first President of the International Association of Feminist Economics. She also served as the head of Illinois’ Women’s Studies Unit in 1979-83 and in 1991-93.

Her list of journal articles is lengthy and she continued to publish into her late eighties. I had the privilege of being her co-author on two articles on social security reform and the especially deleterious impact on women of conservative proposals to privatize the system.

With regard to theory, Marianne was always uncomfortable with the neoclassical perspective. As she observed, “I always had reservations about neoclassical theory.… At the most fundamental level, I don’t think people are rational maximizers. This is something that bothered me for a long time.”

That Marianne should be a critic of neoclassical economics is hardly surprising. This framework lends to a vision of humans as isolated, self-seeking units of conspicuous consumption. Although some neoclassical economists would hardly want to be aligned with such statements, there is much within neoclassical theory that harmonizes with Margaret Thatcher’s dictum: “There is no such thing as society.” Alternatively, with her strong aversion to inequity and commitment to social justice, her profound sense of the importance, indeed the necessity of social solidarity, Marianne set out – along with other feminist allies – to swim courageously against the mainstream currents. There was cost to her in terms of professional rewards and accolades, in terms of being rebuffed and derisively dismissed – but although small of stature and never vindictive or deliberatively unkind, Marianne was a fighter who ever valued her own personal integrity over personal advancement.

Her family, colleagues, and many, many friends (myself included!) will miss her.

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