Women in Economics: Nina Banks

September 15, 2021

This 31-minute podcast was released Sept. 15, 2021.

Nina Banks

“It's not lost on me that I have gone through a lot of the same struggles as the early women economists,” says Nina Banks, president of the National Economic Association and associate professor at Bucknell University. She talks with Maria Hasenstab, media relations coordinator at the St. Louis Fed, about her new book: “Democracy, Race and Justice: The Speeches and Writings of Sadie T.M. Alexander,” as well as her research on community activism by marginalized women.



Maria Hasenstab: Hello. I'm Maria Hasenstab, and you're listening to the Women in Economics Podcast Series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today, I'm speaking with Nina Banks, an associate professor at Bucknell University and the president of the National Economic Association. Thanks for joining us today, Nina.

Nina Banks: Thanks, Maria, for having me.

Hasenstab: Nina, you've done considerable research on community activism by Black and other marginalized women. You've said recognizing this collective activism as work reveals the extra burden Black women and other women of color are under. Tell me about how you came to study that area, what you're finding, and why this work is so important to you.

Banks: Sure. Thanks. Great question. So, this is an area or research that comes out of feminist economics. I'm a feminist economist. And feminist economists tend to look at gender disparities between men and women either in the formal workplace, where goods and services are bought and sold and channeled through markets, workers are paid, or in the private household.

And so, decades ago, feminist economists argued that women disproportionately perform unpaid work within the household that tends to benefit other household members, and so feminist economists argued that, that work is valuable and that it contributes to the well-being of household members. And they even argued that in a market-based economy, goods and services are typically valued when they have a price attached to it, and so we could come up with a way of getting a sense of the value of this unpaid non-market work that's performed within the household by looking at, the market equivalent in terms of laundry services or childcare services.

When they did that, they came up with an assessment of the economic contribution of women's unpaid household labor to our economy in terms of the contribution to gross domestic product. But at some point, I came to realize that that approach really overlooks, as you said, a lot of the work that women of color, racially marginalized women in the United States, are producing for their communities.

My approach really expands what it means to perform unpaid labor as a woman in the United States, because racialized women's identities as women is informed by membership in communities that are racially oppressed. When I look at the experience over time of racialized women in the United States and in the article that I published in The Review of Black Political Economy that came out in December, I focused on the experience of African-American women, and what I find is that a lot of activities that we have been thinking about as political, as activism, also incorporate a lot of unpaid work.

The framework that I developed is one that reconceptualizes political activism as also incorporating unpaid work. And it's important, I think, for a number of reasons. One is that not only am I reconceptualizing work, but I'm also arguing that we should think about the community as a site of unpaid work in a similar way in which we think about the household as a site of unpaid work. And so, I'm calling for a paradigm shift in the way that we think about economic activity. So, we think about it in a, you know, in the mainstream framework, there is the firm that produces goods and services sold through a market. Feminist framework, there's the household, where unpaid labor is producing goods and services not channeled through the market. That's elevated as a site of production.

And I'm saying, the community also needs to be elevated on par with the firm and the household as a site of production. And if we do that, we can have a much more meaningful analysis of the way in which racial inequities are reproduced and sustained within communities because of racial exclusion, and isolation, and various forms of violence, physical and structural violence.

What we see is that during periods of severe economic crisis, or natural disasters, or public health crisis, as we've been experiencing with the COVID crisis, women's unpaid community work ends up increasing in response to loss of jobs, services, and so on. So, I think that this is a framework that is better at capturing systemic effects on communities.

And even though I focused on the experience of African-American women, the framework applies to racially marginalized women in the United States and also abroad. For me, that's what is also really important about it, is that it's a framework that is applicable to women globally who experience marginalization and engage in unpaid collective work on behalf of their communities.

Hasenstab: What's next with that work?

Banks: The next step is that I need to get funding for my field research. The article that was published is part of a book project. I signed a contract back in 2017, was not able to get funding for it. But the project involves going into about eight different racially marginalized communities in the United States, different racial and ethnic groups, and observing and documenting the work that women are performing. So, that's the next step. And I'm hopeful because of the New York Times article that I can generate some, some funding for it this time around.

Hasenstab: Okay. Wow. You just mentioned a potential book. You've just released a new book on Sadie T. M. Alexander, the first Black American to receive a Ph.D. in economics. Sadie went on to become an attorney, so a lot of her economic contributions largely went unnoticed until your research findings in 2003. Just this summer, you've released a book. Tell me about that book: What will readers learn? And tell me about the process of creating this narrative?

Banks: Sure. So, I started researching Sadie Alexander in 2003. I went to the archives at the University of Pennsylvania; that's where her papers and records are stored. And I was motivated by the work of feminist economists who were also doing archival work to excavate the thought of early women economists that had been lost to the profession or attributed to men, and motivated by an article that was published by Economist Julianne Malveaux which looked at the loss to our economics profession of not having the first African-American economist thought incorporated into it.

And so, when I went to Penn's archives in 2003, I was amazed to find a treasure trove of information that took the form of speeches that she gave from the 1920s well into the 1960s and '70s. And what I found is that her speeches focused on the economic condition of African Americans and that Sadie Alexander challenged policies, public policies that created racial inequities for African Americans.

And so, I started to disseminate information on my findings through conference presentations in 2005 and '06, and then publishing articles. 2005 I published an article again in The Review of Black Political Economy that really situated her economic framework within the context of earlier African-American women activists. And then I published what I think is a really important article in the Review of Social Economy in 2008. And that's the article that pulled together a lot of her economic ideas and said that Sadie Alexander promoted economic justice through her activities over a period of time. And since that time, I've really been speaking about her economics more so than publishing, had a lot of difficulties after a while publishing on Sadie Alexander; found lots of things about her, number one, that, people thought that she was really the second African-American economist. But I found that, in fact, she was the first African-American economist. It was not George Edmund Haynes.

I also found that she was the first economist in the United States to advocate for a federal job guarantee. We thought that Hyman Minsky was the first in the 1960s. So, those were some of the things that I found early on which helped to set the, the historical record straight. But doing this research was a huge undertaking because I was a lone parent, and so I faced constraints tied to parenting. The archives is located some distance from where I live. It's a three, three-and-a-half-hour drive, and so trying to find a way to juggle childcare responsibilities with getting to an archives that's only open during the week, 9:30 to 4:30 proved to be very, very difficult.

And so, I ended up having to wait until my children were older so that I could then spend summers with them, weeks during the summers with them in Philadelphia and go to the archives to do research, which, of court meant getting funding to live in Pennsylvania. That was another struggle

So the other struggle that happened with this research is that Sadie Alexander's handwriting was practically indecipherable. A lot of her early speeches were handwritten, and so the archives gave me permission, because I needed permission, to be able to publish her speeches. They gave me permission back in 2005, and it has taken me this long to be able to do the research because of all of the constraints that I met.

In addition, a huge constraint was her handwriting: indecipherable, practically. Over the years, I had a lot of my Bucknell students trying to interpret, to decipher her handwriting. And that eventually shifted a couple of years ago when I had a dedicated research assistant. Her name is Lily Shorney. She's a Presidential Fellow at Bucknell, an undergraduate student who spent two academic years working with me on deciphering those, the, handwriting and the speeches because it wasn't just the handwriting. The speeches were in very poor shape. They had strike-outs, cross-out, omits. They had arrows going in all different directions, and scribbles across them and writing along the margins and on the back of the pages.

What readers won't know when they take a look at that book is that nearly every sentence involved blood, sweat, and tears because it involved a process of trying to reconstruct her, her thinking on the book. So, I'm really excited about the book, and I think that what readers will find when they read the speeches and writings of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, is that for many decades, she was focusing on a lot of topics that we are thinking about today as a nation. We're having discussions about Black farmers. She talked about Black farmers. She talked about policing and over-policing. She talked, about, as I mentioned before, full employment and the need for federal job guarantees to deal with the persistence of racial discrimination in labor markets. I mean, just a lot of issues tied to democracy.

The book is called Democracy, Race, and Justice because most of her writings focused on the denial of civil liberties and protections for African Americans as well as her thinking on the role of economic uncertainty and racial discrimination in that process.

Hasenstab: Thanks so much for talking about that process, sharing some of the challenges you faced not only as a parent doing this research but also, trying to decipher handwritten notes. It's really interesting to think that almost a century later, we're having the discussions about the same topics she was giving presentations on. So, thanks so much for doing that work, and I hope people check out your book.

Banks: Thank you.

Hasenstab: Nina, you're an associate professor of economics at Bucknell, which is a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. You're also an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies, and also in Africana Studies, which is a program you co-developed at Bucknell. Tell me a little bit about the classes you're teaching and how those topics all weave together.

Banks: Sure. And they do weave together, I think, very well. So, I was hired to teach courses that focus on women's experiences using an intersectional feminist framework. And within intersectional analysis, lived experience is a really important concept, and it helps to I think explain the different experiences of groups of women. So, lived experience is a really important aspect of my courses as well.

A commonality of all of my courses is that they incorporate historical analysis in providing explanation for women's relative experiences as well as their current position. And then, if I look at the courses that focus on women in the United States, the commonality for those courses is that they center the experience of African-American women, and they do so because of African-American women's centrality as women workers in our history not only in terms of the contribution that African-American women have made to production, but also, I think, critically because of the presence of African-American women in our economy and the reaction to African-American women has really shaped public policies over a long period of time.

So, when students take, for example, my course on Economic History of Women in the U.S., that's a course that focuses on lots of different racial, ethnic groups, but the primary group of women is really African-American women, women who were enslaved, laborers, but also women who were very active in the economy in the 19th century. In the late 19th century, African-American women had higher labor force participation rates than other women. And that has been true since that time, although there has been convergence. So, one of the takeaways from that course is, I think, an enhanced understanding of why it is that African-American women were disproportionately likely to be essential workers during the COVID crisis.

Hasenstab: You are the president of the National Economic Association. Tell me about your role as president of the NEA and why you would encourage students and those in the profession to consider membership.

Banks: So, the National Economic Association was formed as the Caucus of Black Economists in 1969. It the professional economic association of Black economists. And it addresses systemic and institutionalized practices of anti-Blackness that generate economic and social inequities that oppress the Black community

The National Economic Association and its members have done a lot of really important work within the profession, work that is often unheralded. But I think that members of the NEA have always been at the forefront among economists in challenging racial inequities and disparities, within the economy and calling attention to public policies that are problematic in terms of generating racial disparities. But we've also done that within the discipline.

And the NEA is also really important in creating the pipeline for Black and brown economists. It was the efforts of the NEA, for example, that led to the AEA Summer Program. And lots of other activities that were created by NEA members have also been put into place to try to strengthen the pipeline and to provide support to Black and brown economists.

So, I think that those are some of the reasons why people should be interested in becoming a member of the NEA. It's a very, very supportive environment. We are non-partisan. But, of course, we take a stand against systemic racism. Last summer, we were the first economic organization to issue a statement that denounced acts of violence against Black people and to express our solidarity with people who were protesting against anti-Black racism. We did that in response to the murder of Mr. George Floyd. And more recently, we also issued a statement that condemned the wave of voter suppression that states have been trying to implement, which are targeting Black and brown communities disproportionately. So the NEA is a very active organization in challenging racial and ethnic disparities.

Hasenstab: And I'm sure as the president of that organization, you've been really involved as the ongoing topics related to diversity not just around the country but also specific to economics have emerged over the past several years. So, thanks for your work with that group, and thanks for telling us more about it.

Now I'd like to back up and learn a little bit more about your story before you started your career. You went to Hood College in Maryland and went on to earn your Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Why did you choose to study economics?

Banks: I studied economics as an undergraduate along with sociology and history. I had a wonderful economics professor. His name was Joseph Dahms. He was a heterodox economist, and he was a phenomenal professor. His courses were exciting. And when he taught economics, he taught it in terms of contending ideas, just really exciting approach to thinking about economic issues.

But I was really torn about which direction to go into for graduate school: history, or sociology, or economics. And ultimately, I chose economics because there were so few and are so few African-American economists compared to sociologists and historians. I thought that I could end up having a greater impact in the discipline given the fact that there were so few African Americans. So, I think that's the reason why I ended up studying it. I was also interested in issues of economic development for African-American communities and also, I think, especially international economic development in Sub-Saharan African countries. So, those are the reasons why I was attracted to the discipline of economics.

Hasenstab: And you certainly are making your mark with the research and the work that you're doing.

There's been a lot of conversations in recent years about the struggles women and, as we recently just discussed, underrepresented minorities face, specifically in the field of economics. Are there any struggles that you've faced? And how have you overcome them?

Banks: What I realized in the process of doing research to excavate the economic thought of Sadie Alexander is that a lot of the struggles that I have faced and continue to face are the same struggles that the early women economists also faced.

So, the early women economists, late 19th, early 20th century, probably even later than that, were facing struggles of, financing their research. They faced struggles of publishing their research. They also faced the dilemma of what to do when they got married. How would that impact their career? So, they faced the struggle of family-work issues. And in many cases, they ended up leaving the discipline because of the difficulty of balancing their responsibilities to their families with a demanding career.

And then, of course, there's the problem of the attribution of their ideas to other people and even the erasure of their economic thought. And so, when I look at this 20-year struggle that I've had to excavate the economic thinking of Sadie Alexander, who also faced a lot of those struggles and more because she was an African-American woman in the field who ended up doing economics in a nontraditional manner, what I find is I have faced a lot of the same struggles.

So, early on after I was divorced, I had great difficulty conducting my research as a lone parent. That is a struggle that a lot of women face because it's very difficult to juggle the demands of this profession with loan parenting.

I faced struggles of financing my research. Because my research is so different from the research that other economists are doing, I don't have funding sources, and so that was part of the long delay in being able to do the research on Sadie Alexander. It is part of the reason why I have not been able to do field research on racialized women's unpaid collective community work; because it is so different from what other economists are doing, I haven't been able to find funding for that.

And then there was the difficulty of publishing on Sadie Alexander after a while, again, because this is not a discipline that values history of economic thought, unfortunately. There are not a lot of economists anymore who are even trained in history of economic thought. A lot of graduate programs no longer offer that subject. And the challenge with finding readers for articles that I submitted is that Sadie Alexander's economic thought — was informed by African-American women's economic thought. That is very rare within the economics discipline to have people who are knowledgeable of that intellectual history, so I had a lot of difficulty publishing on Sadie Alexander. And because of that, I signed a book contract, but I also ended up giving a lot of talks, and podcasts, and videos, things that are accessible online and that, are part of, I suppose, an oral tradition. And what that has meant is that it has been very easy for people to appropriate my ideas without acknowledging it. And then, too, in the process of, other groups of people and websites, I'm noticing talking about Sadie Alexander. Not only do they not attribute my research to me, they are also erasing me from the process.

So it's not lost on me that I have gone through a lot of the same struggles as the early women economists. I don't know what the takeaway is from that except that it makes me really sad to think that in 2021, as an African-American woman economist, that I'm still dealing with issues that women economists dealt with a century ago.

Hasenstab: I was going to have the same sentiment, that it's sad to think that 100 years later, you're facing some of the same challenges. But I definitely admire the work that you're doing, and I hope by sharing your story, we're doing a small part to overcome some of those challenges.

Banks: Thanks, Maria. I appreciate that.

Hasenstab: I wanted to ask you, Nina, why would you encourage women and underrepresented minorities to study economics and pursue careers in the field?

Banks: I would encourage them to pursue economics because it is a fabulous discipline. I have absolutely no regrets about becoming an academic economist because I think that it's a wonderful way of thinking about, what I'm interested in, which is structural oppression, thinking about the ways in which various forms of oppression interact and are sustained over a period of time.

But what I would say more generally is that economics is a very broad discipline, and it's also a discipline that has a great deal of influence in shaping public policies. So, economists have more influence, I would say, than the other social scientists in really shaping and framing public policies in our nation. Economists tend to be held in high esteem for, example, in Washington, D.C. So, there are enormous opportunities for people who are interested in going into the profession. I have lots of opportunities, and so what I would say is that for young people who are thinking about a career in a discipline where they can have an influence on regional or national policies, that economics provides an excellent discipline to be able to do that.

Hasenstab: We've talked a lot about your career, and your studies, and even the challenges that you've faced, Nina. Is there anything else you'd like to discuss today about women in economics?

Banks: So the American Economic Association has been taking steps in recent years as a result of the climate survey that it conducted to find out information about the experiences of people within the profession. And what they found is that there were a lot of problems that women and racialized men were experiencing with respect to inclusion and respect, and for women in particular, issues around harassment.

So, the American Economic Association has put some policies in place to address that and also policies that try to increase the representation of women and men from racially marginalized communities. They formed a task force several years ago. I was a member of it. It's a task force for outreach to undergraduate students from underrepresented groups and high school students from underrepresented groups. And so, they are trying to come up with an assessment of the problems and to then put steps into place to increase representation.

The other key issue that we found within the discipline is that economic journals have tended to really publish articles from a mainstream perspective that are largely by white men. And so, economic journal editors are also much more aware of the important role that they play in helping to make the discipline much more inclusive.

So, the spotlight that was put on the economics profession several years ago is starting to pay dividends because I do think that the profession is taking steps to be more inclusive and more welcoming.

Hasenstab: I love to end on that positive thought. Nina, thank you so much for your time today.

To hear more from the Women in Economics Podcast Series, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. You can also stream Women in Economics on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks for joining us today.

This podcast features conversations with women and underrepresented minorities who are making their marks in the field of economics. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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