Nancy Folbre’s Feminist, Unorthodox Economics

The renowned feminist economist discusses the importance of heterodoxy, radicalism, and social justice to the discipline

As part of our “Masters Series” we interviewed Nancy Folbre, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts and one of the pioneering feminist economists of our times. Previous interviewees have included Axel Leijonfuvud, Jim Crotty, Anwar Shaikh and Deirdre McCloskey.

Watch the complete interview

In Folbre’s wide-ranging career, she has fruitfully melded many traditions and shed light on areas usually ignored in economic thinking. Her work as an activist and a scholar has been valuable in the context of both political struggles and academic economics. She has helped widen the lens of economic thinking and set up the basis for a robust feminist political economy. For example, her work at the Center for Popular Economics and other venues has been critical in empowering activists to understand how the economy functions.

Folbre’s work is inspired by radical traditions such as Marxism as well as more standard mainstream approaches—both of which she argues provide an inadequate explanation of critical human functions such as care work. Over decades, she has sought to provide better analyses of human social reproduction and labor in such classic books as Who Pays for the Kids, The Invisible Heart, and Valuing Children (for a catalog of her work see here). For this and other work, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1998, as well as the Leontief Award in 2004.

In this interview, Folbre speaks about her introduction to political and social enquiry, the development of her social consciousness

and the intellectual origins of her unorthodox approach.

Folbre’s perspectives on gender and economics are especially relevant today, as the position of women in the economics profession is being widely debated today—prompted most recently by a paper revealing rampant misogyny in an online site frequented by junior economists and graduate students. Folbre spoke to us about the evolution of women’s role in the economics profession, the field’s limited understanding of concerns surrounding care labor, and about the journal Feminist Economics and its founding.

Folbre spoke about the importance of the heterodoxy in economics for maintaining a vibrancy in economic thinking. To Folbre, a key role for heterodoxy is keeping spaces open for people to engage more critically with the world than they would otherwise.

Despite the challenges she sees, Folbre remains optimistic that the younger generation of economists can have a much better and freer approach to thinking about the economy and society. She hopes this will allow for a much richer and textured understanding of economics.

In all, this series of videos featuring Folbre reveals the power of combining rigor and creativity in economic thinking with a deep commitment to social justice.

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