These Remarkable Women in Economics Inspire Me

Before my birth and for several years afterward, my mother worked as a professional musician, traveling the country on the Coffee House Circuit. When she “retired” from singing professionally, she started what would become a 38-year career at the Social Security Administration. As a result, I grew up surrounded by musicians, her colleagues at SSA, along with nurses, teachers, and engineers. Not economists. 

In high school, I had my sights on one career: to be a shoe designer. I was so intent on this career path, I only applied to one college (and thankfully got in!). Well, as you know, I made quite the pivot. 🙂

My career path to focusing on behavioral finance is one that unfolded over time, before I even had the words to describe it as such. Yet, as I look back, there’s one person I’ve admired ever since college: Dr. Julianne Malveaux. 

Dr. Julianne Malveaux

Dr. Malveaux is an economist. As I write, I cannot remember the first time I became aware of Dr. Malveaux and her work. It might have been through her appearances on PBS, or the articles she wrote for Essence Magazine. But I do remember it was in the late 80s/early 90s, and I remember being mesmerized – tuning in whenever I knew she’d be on PBS (or some other TV show) and reading her articles.

Dr. Malveaux received her Ph.D. in economics from M.I.T. in 1980, and has worked as a professor and president of a college. She’s a sought-after intellectual and in more recent years she launched a non-profit – Economic Education – to focus on the intersection of personal finance and economic policy.

Back in the day, I remember thinking, “I want to be like her.” Because, for me, she was not only the first person, but definitely the first Black woman, who talked about economics in a fun and accessible way. She made economics cool! Because of her, I briefly considered getting a masters degree in economics; I opted for my MBA, in finance, instead.

Working on Wall Street, especially in the 80s and 90s, I knew there were only a handful of Black women on the P/L side of the business – aka those who worked as traders and investment bankers and asset managers. I had a front row seat to that reality. 

And if Black women are under-represented in the field of high finance,  it’s even more stark in the field of economics. 

What I didn’t know then and find astonishing (still) today is how few Black women were awarded doctorates in economics and work as economists. For context, “In 2017, universities awarded a total of 1, 150 economics Ph.Ds. Only 7 of them went to Black women.”

Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander

Now, I could lament (and rightfully so) about this number. But I’d rather focus on Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander.

You see Dr. Alexander was the first Black woman, in the United States, to receive a doctoral degree in economics. She earned her degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. But…she couldn’t find work in the economics profession.

So, she did the next best thing: she became a lawyer! And is the first Black woman admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar.

“On being the first [B]lack woman to earn a PhD in economics and first [B]lack woman admitted to Pennsylvania bar:] I never looked for anybody to hold the door open for me. I knew well that the only way I could get that door open was to knock it down: because I knocked all of them down.”  

~ Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander

While Dr. Alexander never worked as a professional or academic economist, the discipline of economics and her interests in economic justice seem to have been woven into the myriad of roles she did hold. She worked as the Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia; as secretary for the National Urban League; and was even appointed by President Harry Truman to serve on his Committee on Human Rights in 1947. Oh, one more thing: she and her husband are said to be one of the earliest husband and wife legal teams.

Last week I talked about pioneering women entrepreneurs. Today’s focus is on these pioneering women economists. 

They are inspiring to me because, whether they were the first or are one of a few, they’ve created the pathway for others to follow. Not just for aspiring economists, but also for folks like me who aren’t trained economists, but who, like Fanta Traore says, are interested in “exploring who gets what, where, when and why.” 

In our own ways, we are standing on the shoulders of Dr. Alexander, Dr. Malveaux and others by exploring intersectionality and context when it comes to how individuals, families, companies, and governments use their resources. And their power. And aim to influence public policy. 

And, we honor them by continuing to challenge assumptions…just like them.

This series continues with next week’s installment. But in the meantime…

Who is the woman who paved the way and created a path for the work you do today?

photo: of Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander

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