Marianne Ferber was proud to have been a Canadian economist, if only for a little while.
The "Canadian" part was due to astute planning by her father, Karl Abeles. Marianne was born in Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, in 1923. Canada was exceptionally hostile to Jewish immigration in the 1930s and 40s - we accepted by some estimates just 4,000 refugees, far fewer than Australia, Argentina, or any other remotely comparable country. But the Abeles were dairy farmers, and Canadian immigration policy was as pro-agriculture as it was anti-Semitic. The Canadian Pacific Railway representative who visited the Abeles farm liked what he saw, and fast-tracked the approval of their immigration. The 39-member Abeles-Popper clan escaped Sudetenland in the nick of time, and made their way to Hamilton, Ontario.
Canada in the 1930s was the kind of place where job advertisements in store windows might specify "British stock only", but Marianne encountered unexpected kindness. The Registrar at McMaster admitted her to the university on the basis of nothing more than a half-complete Czechoslovakian high school record and her older sister's stellar performance. It was his decision that made her choose economics. As Marianne explained in the wonderful book Engendering Economics, because she had not graduated:
I knew I'd better not major in anything that I would be expected to know from high school, like math or history. So I asked for a catalog as a sort of stall tactic and started leafing through it. In those days, McMaster was a very small university and didn't have many esoteric majors, so it didn't take me long to find economics. I was pretty sure no one took it in high school. I thought - great, I'll start out even. I also remember thinking that I would see how things went and switch later on. That's how I chose economics...And when I told my parents that my major was economics, they asked "What's that?" I told them that I would tell them as soon as I found out.
Marianne found out that economics suited her down to the ground, and went on to do a PhD at the University of Chicago. It was there that she met Bob Ferber, and lost her Canadian passport.
At the time, Canada did not grant married women an independent right to citizenship. Thousands of War Brides were automatically granted citizenship, because they were married to Canadians. Other women, like Marianne, were stripped of theirs, because they were married to non-Canadians. Marianne described to me how a consular official not only refused to renew her passport, but actually seized it and refused to return it, as soon as he learned she was planning to marry an American. Anti-Semitism? Petty bureaucratic officiousness? In Canadian immigration policy, the two were inseparable.
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.
She wrote many articles on women in the workforce, and especially on gender, economics and the academy. She is best known for two works: her textbook, co-authored with Francine Blau and later Anne Winkler, on The Economics of Women, Men and Work, and the collection, co-edited with Julie Nelson, Beyond Economic Man: Feminist theory and economics.
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.
She was, at heart, a radical, fiercely committed to equality and social justice. She fought to improve women's status in the economics profession the hard way: by taking concrete action. Many women and men benefitted from her willingness to write supportive letters of reference, her sound practical advice, and her inspiring example of what can be achieved with intelligence, conscientiousness, and a complete and utter lack of strategic career planning.
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 suspect that she had similar reservations about feminist flights of fanciful theorizing too. She was a practical person, looking to understand the world around her.
Marianne Ferber was, physically, a small woman, especially in her later years. Yet she loomed so large in so many people's lives - those of her family, friends, colleagues, students, and the thousands who read and were touched by her work - that she is, to me, a little giant.
Marianne Ferber passed away on May 11, 2013, after an illness.