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Breaking Ground and Exploring New Fields

Economist Claudia D. Goldin

By Jonathan M. Berlin

If you didn't know better, you might think that economist Claudia D. Goldin, like so many other women academics, broke into a traditionally male-dominated discipline by studying something the men had always ignored: women's issues.

But while women's issues have dominated Goldin's work recently--her newest book is called Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women--it wasn't always that way.

Goldin, who this year became the first woman ever tenured by Harvard's Economics Department, didn't start out studying women's issues. In fact, she didn't even study economic history--the mainstay of her professional career--until she was well in to graduate school.

Instead, Goldin describes her foray through the world of academia as one of constantly taking new directions. She says that ever since her days as a graduate student at the University of Chicago--what she terms her "best academic experience"--she has been exploring unknown territory.

"I was there [at Chicago] to learn and I didn't care that I didn't know a lot," she says, relaxing in her new office. "Every day I learned more and more. The process hasn't ended...that's why I'm here today."

Goldin got "here" by working her way through some of the nation's most well-respected institutions. From 1982 until last spring, Goldin held a tenured post at the University of Pennsylvania, and for several years she was the editor of The Journal of Economic History, the premier journal in the field.

Throughout that time, Goldin was exploring new fields. When she entered economics graduate school at Chicago in 1967 after having written an undergraduate thesis in regulatory policy of satellite communication systems, she says she was primarily interested in the fields of industrial organization and labor economics. She eventually wrote a dissertation in economic history titled "Urban Slavery in America," but it was not until the late 1970s, when she was well into her career as a professor, that she began to consider specifically women's issues.

In fact, Goldin was not the least bit interested in economics until she got to college. During her high school years at the Bronx High School of Science in New York, she says she confined most of her interests to "what went on under a microscope."

That's why, Goldin says, she enrolled Cornell's School of Agriculture in 1963, with every intention of studying bacteriology. But when advisors hassled her about taking too many liberal arts courses, she transfered to the College of Arts and Sciences, a move she terms "the smartest thing I ever did."

"I went to Cornell thinking I was much better than anyone else," she says. "I realized just how limited my high school life had been, and I didn't want to limit it."

The summer after her first undergraduate year, Goldin took what she says was a poorly taught summer school economics class. But she says she was "hooked" by the subject's combination of analytical reasoning and concern with the "big questions."

So she decided to major in economics, and when graduation came, she chose graudate study in economics over her other options--law school or a masters' program in public administration.

After polishing her graduate dissertation on slavery while an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Goldin left to become an assistant professor at Princeton.

Princeton denied the young Goldin's tenure bid in 1979, but it was there Goldin first discovered women's issues. While teaching at Princeton, Goldin wrote a series of articles on the evolution of the family. Several years after writing about the subject from various angles, she says, she realized that looking at it from the perspective of women interested her most.

"I realized that [the role of women] had always been in the back of my mind when studying the family," she says.

Her newfound interest led her then to embark on a ten-year project, which eventually culminated in a book that was published this spring, "Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women."

In it, Goldin says that various "subrevolutions" in the early part of the 20th century--better and more accessible education, plus a shift toward a more white collar and service-oriented economy--paved the way for the larger female work force later.

Just as Goldin has not limited her scholarly attention to the exact same field over the years, she says she has not limited her perspective to any specific ideology. She says that she is "out to learn," rather than "out to make a point." She cites as an example her dissertation, in which she challenged a widely accepted notion that slavery and industrialization are incompatible.

Still, Goldin admits that studying economics has forced her to become more conservative. Although she says her mother would only vote for candidates from liberal parties, she says her studies have led her to "question the precepts of liberal ideology, which is send the government in all the time."

Goldin says that the figures who most influenced her were older economists like former Cornell professor Alfred E. Kahn and Bob Fogel, who taught her at Chicago. But even though she had no women role models, she says she hopes future generations have it different.

"It may be that because that was the way I viewed the world, I didn't see a lot of things," she says.

And Goldin, who this spring will teach "American Economic History," says she will not shy away from assuming such a role. Already, she says, she is planning a meeting with the recently formed undergraduate group Women in Economics, which was formed last spring in an attempt to provide a support group for undergraduates in the field.

Says Goldin, "If my presence here serves as a role model, I'll be very happy."

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