THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I keep thinking we are somehow going to emerge as a social democratic country with a strong safety net. That is my goal.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, November 2021
HH: My name is Heidi Irmgard Hartmann. I was born on August 14, 1945, otherwise known as V-J Day, in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
JW: Please tell us a little about your childhood. What do you think in your childhood may have led you to the career you ultimately took?
HH: I do recall having a strong sense of injustice when I was a child. I was the youngest in the household, and I always felt picked upon. My older brother was three years older than me, and my mother had a job actually as a live-in housekeeper. There was a boy a couple of years older than my brother that she was helping the father take care of because he was separated from his wife. He was a businessman and he needed a live-in housekeeper.
One of the earliest things I remember is being made fun of or being picked on. My mother is an immigrant from Germany and spoke with a German accent. So actually, I spoke English with a German accent as a child before I went to public school and we had a very low-income life — would be the best way to describe it. My father was a gambler, and he never contributed anything to raising the two children. My mother did it on her own. She had graduated from high school, but in a foreign language.
She never learned to type and wasn’t able to get an office job. She worked after housekeeping. She did work in a fabric store because she is a sewer and able to make her own clothes and our clothes. And that was a very good job. She had that job for at least 20 years, and she got a nice retirement package out of it and decent health benefits and wages. And this was because the owners of the store were progressive liberal people in southern New Jersey, a small town which is very conservative. I just saw the results for Ocean County last night in the election of the governor of New Jersey, which we don’t know the answer to yet.
Ocean County is a very Republican conservative area. I grew up on the Jersey Shore, always had summer jobs, did well in school and high school, got a scholarship to go to Swarthmore College and that was a very progressive liberal college. And I think that also influenced me to take political action as an adult.
JW: When did you become aware of the women’s movement and what motivated you to get involved?
HH: Probably not until I moved to New Haven after I graduated. I graduated college in 1967, and Swarthmore was coed, and we noticed that women didn’t do quite as well as men in things like the outside fellowship competition, and most of our faculty were male. But I don’t think we paid that much attention to it. One of the big issues besides the war and civil rights was parietal hours. And of course, that’s something definitely sexist where the women have to be in at a certain time, but the men do not.
There was a certain amount of agitation, but I didn’t know about the National Organization for Women or anything like that. I moved to New Haven because I married a week after graduation, which was not that unusual in 1967 and my husband was a year ahead of me at Swarthmore, and he had two more years of law school left at Yale, and I had applied to the economics graduate school. Economics was my major, but I hadn’t gotten in at Yale.
I said, that’s fine. I’ll work for a couple of years, and then we’ll be free to go anywhere in the country because he’ll be done with law school. It was in the fall of ’69 and we wound up staying in New Haven. And I reapplied to the Yale Graduate School and got in. That fall in 1969, I either heard through the grapevine, because there was a strong left movement in New Haven. People were living communally. We had run a peace candidate for Congress at one point. We were against the Democratic machine. We had Vietnam summer signing petitions in the summer of ’67 I think that was. I was introduced to the left movement as soon as I moved to New Haven.
I think it was in the fall of ’69 that I heard about New Haven Women’s Liberation, also meeting in the offices of AIM, American Independent Movement, which was our peace candidate movement office. And I went to the New Haven Women’s Liberation meetings, and we organized ourselves into small group consciousness raising meetings. It’s actually hard to remember some of the activities that we did. I was thinking about our accomplishments and it’s really hard to say, but there were a few things. I found out about it through the graduate school at Yale and the left movement in general in New Haven.
JW: Can you remember any of those accomplishments?
HH: I certainly remember the ones around Yale. And this involved some of the Yale law students who were very concerned that because when Yale became coed, the social club, Mory’s, a very famous club in song and culture was not admitting female undergraduates because it was dominated by the rich alumni who lived in the area who were all men. They were on the board and they did not invite the undergraduates. Now the graduate students, females or males were generally not invited anyway. But the male faculty were all invited.
And in the Economics Department, we discovered that the Economics Department was having its business meetings on the second floor of Mory’s. There was a meeting room up there, and because the Econ Dept had one woman who didn’t teach but she was on the staff (she had a PhD in economics), she had to go up the outside steps to go to the meeting. She wasn’t allowed to go through the dining room. You couldn’t go through the dining room unless you were escorted by a male member. She always had to go up the outside steps, literally.
This became a campus wide activity, and the law students figured out eventually that the way that Mory’s had gotten its liquor license was to tell the State of Connecticut that it was a social club for Yale undergraduates. And they had, of course, omitted the word male at the time. It wasn’t necessary. They stood to lose their liquor license if they didn’t change. And they did change. But overnight they raised like a $200,000 legal defense fund for Mory’s back in ’69. That’s how committed the “old blue” were to keeping it single sex.
The other funny thing that happened. Well, not funny, but significant thing that happened in connection with that campaign was that every single woman in economics at Yale, which, believe me, was not very many – but it was about twelve or 13, and it included Janet Yellen, who was a couple of years ahead of me and some other fairly well-known economists. We signed a letter saying that the Yale Economics Department should not hold its business meetings at Mory’s. And I believe they did agree not to hold their business meetings there until the co-education was established. The only other unit apparently that did that was the law school. It is interesting that we were able to get the Economics Department to do something that very few other departments did. So that was a victory.
And New Haven Women’s Liberation was definitely involved. For example, we had demonstrations outside of Mory’s one week, every day at lunchtime, and most of those women were in New Haven Women’s Liberation. Some of them, like me, were also at Yale, but a lot of them were more tangentially connected to Yale than I was, like one or two were research assistants for one of the professors, but not students at Yale. We had a question to all who the men who entered and we formed a gauntlet on both sides of the doorway going into the club.
One day I was demonstrating. I saw Professor Tobin, James Tobin, later a Nobel Laureate, walking back and forth on the opposite side of the street at the back of the main library. I thought, oh, he’s casing it to see if it’s safe to come in. Let’s see if he decides it’s safe to come in. He comes down the gauntlet, and I asked him the question which was, “tell me, sir, are you a racist as well as a sexist or only a sexist?”
I was taking Professor Tobin’s money and banking class, which was a very famous class. And most people didn’t take it as first year students, I can tell you that. But I didn’t know. I just thought this sounds interesting, I’ll take it. I was able to address him as Professor Tobin. So of course, he did a double-take, but he did go in, and several months later he wrote me a long, heartfelt letter about why he was neither a racist nor a sexist, which I have somewhere, but I haven’t uncovered it lately, but I’m sure it’s around. So that was one of the things.
We advocated for child care on campus. We had a big child care demonstration at the Yale campus. One of the things that happened was New Haven Women’s Liberation attracted other Yale students, and the Yale University gave us our own meeting room, two rooms actually. It was on Chapel Street, on the main street of town, near the center of campus. And they gave us that as our meeting place. And we did have a lot of Yale undergraduates coming there.
We also formed, and I don’t think it was just the influence of New Haven Women’s Liberation, but there was also a graduate student women’s group at Yale that met about monthly, and we discussed various things that the University could do. We were sometimes consulted about how to improve co-education at Yale because graduate students had been at Yale for almost 100 years at the time that Yale decided to admit undergraduates. We had some conversations with the administration.
In New Haven itself, I would say we generally supported various New Left activities. We did some demonstrations against President Ford’s Whip Inflation Now program. We hated that slogan, and we went out to shopping centers, and we tried to raise consciousness about the real economic issues and what the issues really were. We had our reading groups and studied. One of the exciting things about that time was that there was like a mimeograph network all up and down the East Coast. You’d get the latest from Redstockings or the latest from Boston, the latest from New York and here and there and everywhere.
And everybody would be reading these papers that people were writing about feminism, radical feminist, socialist feminist. Mainstream feminist wasn’t really on our agenda. I mean, we weren’t involved with NOW. I didn’t even know about NOW at that time. But in New Haven, we were part of the socialist feminist orientation at the time. We did a lot of peace things. There was the Bobby Seale trial in New Haven. There were a lot of anti-war demonstrations on campus.
Another big, significant thing in New Haven was the abortion issue. We did organize on that. We had teach-ins, speak-outs, people talking about the abortions they had. We were very involved in supporting that through the law school as well, and also the Women in Economics Conference, of which I was a key mover, but not the main person who organized it. We had a large conference on Women in Economics. I think it might have been in the spring of ’71 or around that era. After that the class of ’70 joined us.
There was a great organizer in that class named Laurie Nisonoff, who had a career as an economist at Hampshire College, now retired. And we had about 500 to 600 women come, mostly from up and down the East Coast for a conference on Women in Economics. It was just such a heady, exciting time. It’s just hard to remember that you could light a match and start a bonfire easily with any activity.
We organized within the Economics Department. We said we didn’t want the mainstream curriculum. We wanted different professors and different classes. We wanted to take independent reading and research, and we took over the graduate student treasury for the speakers, becasue we were the majority of graduate students. The graduate students controlled some money for inviting speakers and we invited radical speakers. It was the faculty at Yale and the President who were very liberal and basically allowed all these things to happen. They were very accommodating. They thought the way to deal with it was not to be like Columbia or Harvard, but to be accommodating. And it was a great place to be.
You could study what you wanted. I wrote a lot of papers on women in the economics classes. I took a law class on women and constitutional law. One of the main effects of the women’s movement was to make me much more committed to getting my PhD in economics and studying women. Because when I first went into it, I actually thought, well, I know that Yale gives you a master’s degree if you just complete one year and drop out. And I thought, with that, I can teach at a community college and be the radical professor who helps to organize the students.
I thought more of myself as an organizer, but I got really interested in the intellectual issues that the whole women’s movement was writing about, but also in the history of women and the changes in their economic roles. I found these studies that women had done on women in economics in the Industrial Revolution and subsequently. And they were very fascinating. I decided that I should use economics to work for the liberation of women through research and writing and teaching. I also was active in URPE, the Union for Radical Political Economics.
The class of 1970 entered that fall a year after I entered graduate school. Virtually that entire class of graduate students joined the Union for Radical Political Economics (resulting in our invitations to radical economists to speak at Yale). You can see what a heady political time it was because that would be very unusual for people to say, oh, yeah, we need something different than mainstream economics. In that group, which was national and also had regional conferences, I did contribute. We had a women’s caucus, and we had a women’s economic education project where we wrote pamphlets on women’s wages and women in the labor market and poverty and so on and circulated them nationally.
I have to put those materials together someday. I’m working on my archives now, and I haven’t gotten to that period yet, but in the next few months I will, and I will definitely remember to share with you. Until we had the Floyd demonstrations all over the country, we really hadn’t seen a period of activism that way, like those years around the war. It started with civil rights and then moved to the war and then women’s rights and then gay rights, gay and lesbian rights, and the ecological movement.
It was all just a very heady political time. The funny thing is, as I was thinking about it I realized what happened in our youth gave us a very different perspective from many other generations. We were all in our 20’s, basically, and we thought that if you demanded something, you got it. We said they shouldn’t have their business meetings at Mory’s, and they stopped holding their business meetings at Mory’s. We said we wanted different courses and they tried to give us different courses. We took this sense of empowerment with us.
JW: What did you do after that?
HH: I completed my PhD there in ’74, and I taught at the New School for Social Research, where they were starting a new political economy program. Again, radical economics. And they wanted specifically, an assistant professor to teach gender and economics. And since I wrote my dissertation about that, I got that job and it was a two-year visiting appointment so I had it for two years. And there were two people that were hired in that same wave, and neither of us was renewed. But afterward they did hire people that they did keep longer. So that was good.
The New School for Social Research became one of the main places in the United States where you can study radical political economy and feminist economics. And the other one is the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. And there’s a couple more there’s, like Riverside, California, University of Utah, UMass, Boston as well as UMass, Amherst. Another major one is American University, here in DC. It’s a specialty now, political economy of gender or gender and economics. And in the early 1990s, an International Association for Feminist Economics was formed.
And this is an association that is called part of the heterodox movement. It’s not as Marxist or socialist. It’s not as anti-mainstream neoclassical economics, which is what we called mainstream economics, so neoclassical economics is included in feminist economics. Heterodox just means that feminist economics is open to all viewpoints. And I’m active in that association today, and I was active in its founding. After I taught for two years at the New School and did not get renewed, I looked at academic jobs, but I didn’t get one. And I moved to Washington to work specifically in research at the US Commission on Civil Rights, where they were also starting a research office and wanted to work on gender as well as race.
From there I moved to the National Academy of Sciences, where they were doing a study on comparable worth or equal pay for equal value, which I was very attracted to because that was a brand-new concept to raise women’s wages that I had never heard of. I didn’t know it dated really from before World War II. Mostly labor union women and women in Europe had talked about that. The idea wasn’t just that women couldn’t get into a better paying job. The idea was that their whole job was discriminated against and the whole wage rate was lower because women did it. We’re still struggling with that.
That movement had a lot of traction in the 80’s, and then it fell apart because it stopped being upheld by the courts. And people stopped going after it. But I get asked about it again today, more and more, because people are still looking for a solution to solving the wage gap. I worked at the National Academy of Sciences for about eight years, and while I was there, I turned back to an idea that I had in graduate school.
I didn’t know what it meant when I was in graduate school, but I said we needed a feminist think tank on women in economics. I thought, now is a good time to start that. My funded studies at the Academy are ending, and I should try to start this institute. And a friend of mine, an anthropologist named Terry Odendahl, was then working for the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation, and she had studied philanthropy for her dissertation. She helped me write the proposal and do the early fundraising.
That’s when I started IWPR in about the summer of ’86. I began the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which became a well-known think tank working on women’s issues, primarily economic issues, but not exclusively. And I retired as the head of it about two years ago, and I worked part time until March 2021, and I’m now finished with that. Currently, I have a desk at the Urban Institute and also an appointment at American University. I’m still trying to keep my hand in on public policy issues with a little writing and things like that. I’m on the board of the IAFFE, which I mentioned: International Association for Feminists Economics. And also just recently, I joined the board of the African American Policy Forum, AAPF, which was founded by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Luke Harris. And they’re doing a lot right now on critical race theory and how it’s being misused in the elections going on right now.
JW: How would you say your involvement in the women’s movement affected your life, personally and professionally?
HH: Early on, I was a young married person. I did chafe against the unequal burden of housework. I had many discussions with my then husband, which led to communal living. I think someone very famously diagnosed all of the communal living that was going on in New Haven at the time, which was that the women were looking for shared housework and the men were looking for shared sex. Now, I don’t know that’s true about the men. I don’t think it was all that common in the commune I lived in.
I think that sense of wanting equality within personal relationships as well was important. The personal is political was our mantra, of course, and women’s liberation and our consciousness raising groups. I think that affected me to really want a more egalitarian relationship. We had one child together, and then we broke up and I was able to get custody of our daughter, which was important to me because I knew I would be planning to pursue a career in economics in Washington, DC. There were not many opportunities in New Haven, CT. When I moved down to Washington, I became a single parent. I did bump into a friend who reminded me that we were both in Washington. There was a graduate student from the class of 1970 named Jack Wells, who was living in Washington, and he turned out to live only a couple of blocks away from me.
So long story short, Jack and I got together and we had two more children. And I would say that he is really fantastic at doing his share of housework. And Barbara Bergmann, a very famous economist who died a few years ago, she always said the most important thing for a woman who wants to have a serious career is that she finds a man who really wants to be supportive of her and do at least half the work. And in Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we have another example of that, a husband who was totally dedicated, and Nancy Pelosi. I read that her husband buys her suits.
JW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
HH: Your questions revolve around activism, and it’s a little bit of a different type of activism than what I did in the 70’s, where we were always thinking about what’s the next demonstration we could plan and what’s the next way to protest. And in Washington, working at the National Academy of Sciences, which is a think tank for public policy and wanting to use economic research and education to change public policy for women, I realized there was an opportunity to do a much different kind of activism. With IWPR, through social science research, we were supporting groups like the National Women’s Law Center, the National Partnership for Women and Families, NOW, AAUW, and other groups that were actively lobbying and working on demands.
At IWPR, we tried to provide the intellectual background to support the demands. And paradoxically, when I came to Washington, I did attend Women’s Liberation meetings for a while. I remember it involved some women who work for Quest, and it did involve women involved in different women’s groups around town. But it was a little bit also on the left side. I went to some meetings at the Institute for Policy Studies, IPS, for example, about women’s issues, which is a left think tank. And I quickly realized in Washington, DC, NOW was considered one of the more radical women’s groups.
We had always thought of it as very mainstream. But now they’re the crazies! NOW and LDEF are the crazies, the ones who wanted to do demonstrations and wanted to make tough demands. The other groups were more insider, more moderate, working with the administration, the Congress. Of course, NOW lobbied but it was just so interesting to me that I think that radical part of the women’s movement did recede. We had a lot of professionalization of the women’s movement, a lot of effectiveness because, collectively, we learned how to support legislation with research, how to lobby effectively, how to get people on our side.
And of course, one of our biggest early victories was early in the life of IWPR – the Family Medical Leave Act in 1993. That was one of the first things we did research on, and we, like many other groups, claimed that was one of our successes. We did learn to do that effectively. And all the groups together gained a lot of significant policy changes that we worked on over this period, but it wasn’t the same sort of headiness of women’s liberation.
It’s interesting just to watch how it has changed. And one of the interesting things is certainly in the last ten or 15 years, young women becoming really angry about unequal pay, and sexual harassment on the job. We’re seeing some of that sense of militancy and anger again. And a lot of new women’s organizations being founded. Generally, I worked on economic issues which were always of greatest interest to me, having grown up poor and having a mother who was poor because women’s wages were so low.
But what I noticed is that they don’t, for the most part, grab people as emotionally as what I call the “biological issues” like abortion, sexual harassment, rape, violence against women. That’s understandable. Our bodies are our most personal, most significant thing, the wellness and wholeness of our bodies. But it is hard to organize around economic issues. Were it not for the labor movement, I just don’t think we would have been able to make as much progress as we have on equal pay, or even unpaid family medical leave.
Now we’re still trying for paid family medical leave at the national level. We are having success with sick days and paid family medical leave state by state. But of course, it’s only the most liberal, most progressive states. We have about eight or nine now with paid family medical leave, and more with paid sick days, especially if you include a lot of cities which have done paid sick days on their own. There’s a big movement there. Women’s organizations are involved in these campaigns, but they’re often not the main driver.
They’re among several other main drivers as well is one way to put it. It’s shared with the labor movement, with workers’ rights movement, with religious groups and civil rights groups all trying to get higher minimum wages, living wages, health care, all those kinds of issues. It’s just not in a militant phase, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not being successful. We are. And then also we see in the United States the limits of our ability to get liberal and progressive change. It’s very disheartening from time to time.
I keep thinking we’re somehow going to emerge as a social democratic country with a strong safety net. I feel that’s my goal. I feel like some generation will make it, and I thought we had a good shot here. I think we do. I think some of the things that are at issue right now in the pandemic are exactly what we’ve been fighting for, and Biden’s plan will pass in the Congress and we’ll get some of it. And it’s just a question of whether we’ll be able to keep it. Interestingly, we’ve been able to keep Obamacare all these years, even though the Republicans organized against it, because they had nothing better and they couldn’t take it away. We’re just going to see whether the things that Biden is able to put in can be taken away. I sincerely hope not, because that is the way to get them. Get them bit by bit and inch by inch.
JW: I was going to ask you as a final question in terms of where we see the difference between men and women’s pay. In your work life, have you seen an improvement in the percentage that women are paid as compared to men?
HH: Absolutely. I mean, when I started actively being involved in New Haven Women’s Liberation, it was about 60%. Women made 60% of what men made. And the most famous thing that NOW did, I think, was the 57% pin and then it moved to 59%. 59 is the number most people remember, but it actually started at 57 and then for about ten years, even 20 years, that sat still in the high 70s, low 80s. I like to say we closed half the wage gap. We went from 60% of men to 80% of men. Now it’s actually creeping up. I think it’s about 84% right now. We are creeping up, but it’s still not enough. I mean, there isn’t any reason for it not to be equal.
It’s not that no one thinks women are less competent than men, not as smart. Men are definitely more able to do certain physical things than women. But women have skills that men seem to lack a little bit. I mean, these are primarily socialized skills that women have, like caregiving. Men can learn them. A lot of men are moving into health care because that is growing as we age, and that’s going to continue to grow. I do expect to see continued progress. And women are ahead of men now in college graduation. Unfortunately, it’s easier or in any case more common for women to major in female dominated fields, which pay less well.
The discipline of economics is having a terrible time integrating women. That’s something I’ve been active again on in the last five years. They haven’t made as much progress as physics in getting women into economics, and it’s been identified as a hostile field. There have been many articles written about it, including on the front page of The New York Times and The Washington Post, about how horrible the field is to women and how the field has to change. They are trying to change, but it’s difficult. There are these holdout areas that are difficult for women to make progress in, and economics is one of them.
Some things work very well. When they started having hidden performances, auditions for symphonies, all of a sudden, women got more jobs. Claudia Golden has a book out talking about when jobs can be organized in a way that doesn’t depend on the amount of time you spend on them, generally through computers. Working as working as a pharmacist is her primary example. Any pharmacist can start her/his shift, you walk in, they look up your record, they know all about you. They give you the advice you need. They give you your prescriptions. They have good information sharing, it’s automated and everyone can get access to it. And that’s an example of a very equally paid field that Professor Claudia Golden has found.
There are some solutions, but they’re not all technological like that. I think in economics, what’s going on is that the men, the white men, have really dug in and are trying to protect their turf and keep women out as well as many minorities. Now there has been success for Asian Americans. Asian American men and women are doing pretty well in economics compared to their numbers and African Americans, Latinas and Latinos, and white women very poorly, nowhere near their representation in the field that they should have.
When you have the economics profession in such shape, it’s not that surprising that we haven’t been able to get a more equal wage. But again, we have made slow progress over the years, and I do expect to see progress continue. I don’t know how far we’ll get, but without major change we would need something like comparable worth to get to 100%, but we might be able to push it closer and closer to that. I’m optimistic in that slow, inch by inch way. It is something to be able to say half the wage gap got closed. And when I say that, I’m always so excited about it. And the people go “Half? only half?”