A Celebration of Women Writers

"Women as Political Economists." by Mrs. Brainerd Fuller.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 491-494.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 491] 




Those of you who have come from homes within sound of the Pacific's surf, or from within hearing of the Atlantic's angrier waves, from the North or from the South, must have been impressed all along the route with the evidences of our present civilization. You saw cities lying here and there with their spires, their stately buildings and their warehouses of every kind and description; you observed railroads winding in and out in all directions; you noticed the surface of great artificial water-ways and mighty rivers alive with commerce.

Seeing the marvels, standing as we do this morning in the midst of this accumulated mass of witnesses to a civilization which we know has progressed slowly and by stages from out of the haze enveloping the primitive life of man into the full blaze and meridian glory of to-day, I am asked, as I frequently am, why I, a woman, have selected for the subject of my talk so broad and difficult a subject as political economy, you can readily understand why I reply in the good old Yankee fashion of answering one question by proposing another:

"What is political economy, and why should I not study it?"

And then, as it often happens, when I am obliged, as the Irishman said, to sustain the dialogue alone, I go on to remark that political economy is nothing more nor less than the "art of getting the nation's living." It is the science that inquires how these conditions that we find here have been developed, how all these enjoyable things that surround us have been produced? In other words, it is the study of the economic forces that maintain the life of the social organism.

There are certain phrases in use which very often appear to suggest that great perplexity of mind must be experienced in order to fully master their meaning. Unfortunately, political economy is such an expression. And "women as political economists" sounds to some more appalling still. In the limitations of language I know of no better phrases to convey the desired meaning than these which I have mentioned. All they need is simplifying, and this we have just done with "Political Economy." Let us now see what we can make out of "women as political economists." Let us find out why they are pushing their way into the realms of science.

Writers, in their treatises on general economics, usually divide their books into four parts, and these divisions are, as you remember, "Production," under which head we ascertain how wealth is created; "Exchange," or the transferring of goods from one to another; "Distribution," and I think this part particularly interesting, because it discusses the share each one receives of what is produced–it treats of what you get, [Page 492]  of what I get, and of what each of us ought to get. The fourth division is "Consumption," which has been wisely defined as "the end of all production."

Now, I argue that, inasmuch as it has always been conceded that women shall look after the distribution and consumption of the private economy, why may she not at least look into the national economy? She only broadens and extends her interests in doing so. Having served a long term in the administration of family economics, I take that fact to be presumptive evidence that women are natural born political economists. The very least they can do is not to push the subject away from them as too difficult, too dry to be annoyed with. On the contrary, it includes topics of vital importance to every woman in the land. The social and economic life of a nation very materially affects women. Social laws, customs and conditions decidedly influence the home life of every girl and woman; they control all things a woman holds most dear. Hence a study of, and an interest in, the civilization in which she lives should be neglected by none.

In this comparatively new field of work I have found that certain ideas invariably pop up on all sides for argument and discussion. People naturally enough look about them with searching gaze when women undertake anything unusual. Women themselves often say to me that they have never heard of any women political economists in history. It is true that they have not read of any such, that is, as we understand the term political economist. In regard to the economic life of the past, the annals of history are, indeed, willnigh vacant. The pages of history are heroic with the deeds of warriors, heavy with the smoke of battle, brilliant with marching and counter-marching armies, glittering with the rise and tarnished with the fall of many dynasties.

This department of sociology certainly does have more to do with ourselves than many other branches of knowledge. Therefore, we feel there must have been causes that account for the small role which political economy has played in the drama of history. There were such causes, as we shall see, if we take the trouble to seek them.

At the outset we discover that one influence felt by the historians has been "the knowledge that dramatic incidents make more impressions on the minds of readers than dissertations upon the more hidden forces that operate just as effectively in the national organism. Dramatic incidents make more impression on the minds of the historians themselves." "Certain epochs excite and certain lives impress the dramatic sense. Both furnish a wide scope in which the genius of the author can exhibit itself. Yet there are causes more potent still which have confined the historic muse ever within sight of the nodding plumes of knights and within the hearing of the 'clash of resounding arms.'"

These more influential reasons lie in the fact that two conditions must be fulfilled before historians can to any extent write of the economics of their days. The first requisition, says one author, certainly is that social phenomena must be exhibited on a sufficiently extended scale to supply adequate matter for observation; consequently for the recording of such observations, and after social phenomena are provided, historians or writers must be trained for their tasks. Dr. Ingram believes, as he says, "Sociology requires to use for its purpose theorems which belong to the domain of physics and biology, and which sociology must borrow from its professors. On the logical side the methods which sociology has to employ–deductional, observations, comparative–must have been previously shaped in the cultivation of mathematics, in the study of the inorganic world, or of organisms less complex than the social organism."

We must never forget that scientists base their theories on the fact that society is an organic whole, and each individual is a member of the same. Hence it is plain that, although some laws or tendencies were undoubtedly forced on men's attention in every age, yet it is also plain that really scientific sociology, including political economy, must be the product of a very advanced stage of intellectual development.

Accepting these reasons for the silence of historians in regard to economics, we are not so much inclined to blame them for their seeming shortcomings. [Page 493] 

Today all is changed. The exigencies of our times demand that the social and economic conditions receive more and more attention. Today philosophers are rising to the emergencies of their environment.

The environments of the past did not develop political economists, and it is true that in bygone civilization we discover no women distinguished for their theories of wealth or their speculations upon the production, distribution and consumption of wealth. But have we no records of women who left the impress of their influence upon the times in which they lived? None who were interested and versed in the social conditions of their country, and in kindred topics? Were there none who exhibited ability to grapple even with the affairs of state? Who will say that that beautiful Egyptian queen of the Ptolemaic dynasty was not a successful ruler? Was not her kingdom, in spite of her grievous faults, prosperous during her reign? Were not the politics of Athens once shaped and guided by Aspasia? Did not the giant intellect of Socrates bow to her? Coming nearer and more clearly into the light of our own times, we behold Elizabeth Tudor, a sovereign, reigning as sovereigns have rarely reigned–by the sovereignty of her own intellect and nature; and Maria Theresa, mother of emperors! Did these have no thought for, no comprehension of, the problems of their day?

Lacking scarce three months of being one hundred years ago this very time, the tall, elegant figure of a white-robed woman was passing from out the gray, grim gates of the Conciergerie. The preparations at the guillotine were speedy. The breezes of distracted France played but briefly wit the dark, beautiful hair. The figure in white murmured, "O Liberta, comme on t'a jouèe!" and the bloodthirsty fishwomen from the San Antoine, who, like harpies, sat "knitting, knitting, counting dropping heads." Tell me, was not the lovely Roland in her day a power, a factor in that civilization for which she lost her life? I am well aware that it may be argued that these women, celebrated in history, have reigned and influenced through their personal attractions. To an extent this is true, but they maintained their distinctive power through their intelligence. A woman may attain her ascendency through personal charms, beauty, and that wonderful, subtle thing, called fascination; but she must maintain her sway through her mentality, her intelligence. None can depreciate the potency of physical beauty; few can resist its seductive spell. All lament its ephemerality. But add to beauty of person, to fascination, strength of intellect, and then you discover the secret of the deep and lasting influence of these "Beacon Lights of History." These women I have just mentioned were not political economists, but they were women who, had they lived today, would of necessity have become such.

So much for the past. What of the present?

The spirit of progress is abroad. It is advancing with rapid strides. We who are living in the twilight of the dear, old nineteenth century, see–we must see, whether we wish or not–that women are being pushed by the trend of the times out into a broader sea of life and responsibility. Great responsibilities are hurrying toward us. They will soon be ours, and I would have American girls add to their world-acknowledged beauty, their charms and fascination, an intelligent ability to meet these new responsibilities. This can only be done through a familiarity with political economy. If we are, as has been recently asserted, "on the verge of a decisive conflict between the conservative and destructive forces"; if the "safety and the perpetuity of our civilization is menaced"; if mighty problems, greater than any that have shaken our beloved country since the days of slavery, are crying for solution; if amid scenes of æsthetic splendor the shadow of an impending danger falls, if the drums beat, if your city is encircled with the gleam of bayonets, as my Buffalo during the great railroad strike within a year has been, if a conflict of ideas and principle is waged at your door, then I ask have women no desire to inquire into the whys and wherefores of such occurrences?

Sometimes the social problems are less noticeable than at others. I do not contend that a knowledge of the theories of political economy will settle such troubles. [Page 494]  But I do say that an observance of and study of the economic forces that have been developed, especially in the last one hundred years, give a clearer comprehension of present phenomena and their causes.

To trace the feeble beginnings of the economic life of man through the period of barter and exchange shows us how money came into use. To follow money into our own intricate financial and credit system will give us some idea of the difficulties that beset our nation and Congress today. It is by the study of the simpler and earlier national organisms that we come to better understand ourselves. To inculcate in her sons the noble passion of patriotism by means of her own knowledge of national conditions is a work for the American mother more glorious than that accomplished by the women of Sparta. If there are any present who fear that in developing our girls and women into political economists, or in the broader education which teaches them somewhat of national conditions, that we are in danger of having the devoted wives and mothers swept away, I beg such to remember that human nature is not going to change simply because women have some knowledge of "the art of getting the nation's living." Whatever woman's occupation is, whatever she thinks about, she will always be a woman at heart. Believe me, in the coming days of the twentieth century, if we should see political economists among our girls and matrons, we will find the song of love still the same, "old, and yet ever new, and simple and beautiful always." The stalwart American youths will fall in love, and gentle American maidens will reciprocate the passion none the less fervently than in the older days when political economy was unheard of, and when "Priscilla rode out through the heat and the dust of noonday to the home of John Alden, her husband." Then as now, the highest responsibility, the noblest function of woman, the most potent feeling that dominates her being will be motherhood. This is not going to change in the heart of a single woman political economist. No, though she will become a deeper thinker, a more potent factor in national life than either Madame Roland or Elizabeth Tudor. In the coming time, as now, woman will retain her old place at the side of man, but a better companion, a better counselor, and as true a friend and wife. You may rest assured that the stars will shine upon our fair and prosperous land, and Liberty, not only glorified as she is today in the figure of woman, but proclaiming to the world the increased patriotism of the American woman, will still stand guard in that beautiful harbor of the "Empire State," while gentle Motherhood will rock the cradle then as now of the children of the Nation sleeping at her feet.

[Page 491] 

Mrs. Brainerd Fuller is a native of Middletown, Conn. Her parents were Norman L. Brainerd and Leora Campbell Brainerd. She was educated at Miss Payne's Young Ladies' Seminary, Middletown, Conn., and has traveled in Great Britain, Continental Europe, Canada, and to some extent in the United States. She married Samuel R. Fuller. Mrs. Fuller is a delightful and charming lecturer and contributes many articles to the press. She is a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Her postoffice address is No. 960 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, N. Y.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Simone Fluter.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom