Escaping Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, joining an academic field with few women and holding a position with little job security are just a few of the many accomplishments of the early feminist economist Marianne Ferber.
Marianne Ferber was born Marianne Abeles on Jan. 30, 1923, to a Jewish farming family in Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia. With the 1938 German invasion, the family emigrated to Canada. The Abeles had initially tried entering the U.S., but at that time, the U.S. had a quota of Jewish refugees, which had already been met. Canada had a shortage of farmers, which enabled them to move to Canada faster.
Ferber was able to go directly to college at age 17 thanks to her strong preparatory schooling in Europe. During her initial meeting with McMaster University, she was unexpectedly asked to pick a major. She decided on economics without knowing much about the subject but believed she would be able to compete with other students in it.
She excelled in her undergraduate years. Following encouragement to go to graduate school, she was accepted to both Harvard and the University of Chicago. She learned that at Harvard, she would be a Radcliffe student and, while able to take her courses with men, would not be able to use the economics library. Disliking that option, she chose Chicago. There she was one of only three women graduate students with no women faculty members in her department.
This is where she met her husband, Robert Ferber, who was two years ahead of her. Robert moved from Chicago to New York after completing his Ph.D. in 1945, and Marianne joined him once she finished her classwork. With the move, having her first child and her advisers taking a long time to look at her dissertation, she did not receive her Ph.D. until 1954, 10 years after she had started.
In 1948, Robert Ferber became a professor at the University of Illinois. Marianne Ferber also wished to be an economics professor, but the nepotism rule prevented her from being hired. In interviews, she recalls even after the nepotism rules had ended, some faculty did not want a Jewish woman immigrant joining the department. She was hired as a visiting professor on a semester-by-semester basis because there was a teacher shortage. She found it embarrassing since sometimes she would not be hired until after the semester started. Finally, in 1971, she received an appointment as an assistant professor when an economic department member’s wife, a sociology professor, pointed out there was no reason not to hire her. Eight years later, she would be promoted to full professor.
Because Ferber wanted her research to have an impact, she decided to look at the wages between men and women faculty, specifically at the University of Illinois. Ferber was still one of the earlier woman economists, and not many others had looked at wage gaps between men and women before. She did this work with Jane Loeb from the College of Education. Due to this study, there were changes and pay raises for women faculty at the university. Her work often focused on women in paid and unpaid labor, and she co-wrote several books including “Economics of Women, Men and Work” and “Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics.” Ferber later founded the International Association of Feminist Economics.
Ferber died in 2013 in Urbana. Her work on women in the labor force became a strong foundation for many others to continue this work. Ferber overcame many obstacles, but she was always willing to rise to a challenge.
Check out other women innovators at distributedmuseum.illinois.edu for Women’s History Month. The Illinois Distributed Museum has online content about the innovations that have come from the UI as well as self-guided tours of campus. The Illinois Distributed Museum is a project under the direction of the University of Illinois Archives. The Illinois Distributed Museum is also a member of the Champaign County Museums Network. Learn more at champaigncountymuseums.org.