Giving economist Nancy Ruggles her due
When Yale’s Economic Growth Center was founded in the 1961, three women, all with Ph.D.s, were hired as researchers or administrators. All three also happened to be married to Yale economics professors.
Five years later, amid a flash of concern about nepotism, the three women were required to leave their positions, despite being fully qualified.
For one of the women, Nancy Ruggles, the injustice was particularly acute given that she co-authored essentially all of her tenured husband’s academic work — a partnership she and her spouse, Yale economist Richard Ruggles, acknowledged and treasured.
“The situation with Nancy Ruggles was a shame, because she was someone who had all of the necessary qualifications to be a professor, should have been, and would be under present circumstances,” Yale economist and Nobel laureate Jim Tobin would later lament.
As Yale marks Women’s History Month and continues to commemorate the 50th anniversary of coeducation in Yale College and the 150th anniversary of female students at the university, it celebrates the visible achievement of women students and faculty. There’s also fresh appreciation of scholars whose accomplishments went unrecognized because of their gender.
Nancy Ruggles was born in 1922 and grew up during the Great Depression and World War II, formative experiences that exposed her to the importance of economics. She completed her undergraduate degree at Pembroke College, the women’s college affiliated with Brown University, in 1943. Immediately afterward, she took a job with the Office of Price Administration. There, through a co-worker, she met her future husband, Harvard economics Ph.D. Richard Ruggles.
Their daughter, Patricia Ruggles ’74, said Nancy’s experiences in Washington, D.C. during the war led her to study economics, and that Richard encouraged Nancy to enroll in a Ph.D. program once the war was over. At Radcliffe College, Nancy wrote her thesis on marginal cost pricing, an innovative idea at the time, and received her doctorate in 1948.
Patricia Ruggles said her mother, like other women, was made to accept less illustrious degrees from women’s colleges.
“My mother was very insulted when she was offered to trade her [Radcliffe] Ph.D. for a Harvard one both because it implied that a Radcliffe degree was second class and because she had been denied a Harvard degree in the first place, even though all of her courses were at Harvard.”
The Ruggles moved to New Haven in 1946, after Richard was appointed a professor at Yale. Together, their main research focus was developing the rules for national income accounting, which measures economic activity in a country. In 1947, the Ruggles worked on the implementation of the Marshall Plan and helped develop assessments for measuring the aid’s effectiveness in stimulating the health of European economies. Later, the Ruggles’ framework was adopted for calculating U.S. national accounts.
“As far as I know, my father never wrote anything without my mother as a co-author during the time they were married,” Patricia Ruggles said.
In a review of the Ruggles’ work, economist Utz-Peter Reich remembers Richard’s response to a question about the authorship of their work as, “It does not matter — it’s always been both of us who have been at it anyway.”
Still, gender barriers were a common theme in Nancy Ruggles’ career. She was a founding member of the International Association for Research on Income and Wealth and its secretary for many years. Though her husband served as editor of the association’s journal, she in fact did the bulk of the editorial work with manuscripts, according to Patricia Ruggles, because Richard was dyslexic.
The pair did much of their research out of their home on Prospect Street, which Sterling Professor of Economics and Economic Growth Center founder Lloyd Reynolds remembered as a “two-person, computerized data factory.”
According to Professor Emeritus Bill Brainard, the Ruggles had installed a 24-volt system to control all electricity in the house and created a sophisticated data storage center in the home. He also recalled a Ford van the Ruggles outfitted with plumbing and communications infrastructure, allowing them to work on road trips across the country and even around the world, going as far as Russia after World War II.
The Ruggles’ dynamism as a research duo was recognized and appreciated by many of their contemporaries. Said Tobin, “[The Ruggles] were probably the best husband-wife team in the history of economics.”
Unfortunately for Nancy Ruggles, the prevailing view at Yale during her time was that appointing spouses to faculty positions was immoral nepotism, especially within the same department, Tobin said.
After being let go from Yale, she went on to work for the United Nations, where she was assistant director of the Statistical Office from 1975 to 1980. In that role, she helped develop the rules for national income accounts published by the United Nations, especially for developing countries for whom the accounting rules of developed countries were less applicable. Her work had important implications for crafting economic development policies globally. After 1980, Nancy Ruggles returned to Yale, becoming affiliated with the Institute for Social and Policy Studies as a senior research economist. Back in New Haven, she resumed her joint research with her husband. She died in 1987.
“My parents were a very effective team except for the fact that my mother got no recognition for her part of it,” said Patricia Ruggles, who earned an economics degree as a member of Yale’s second fully co-ed undergraduate class, in 1974.
Following in her parents’ footsteps, she also went on to earn a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard, in 1980.
It would not be until 2001 that Yale had its first tenured women economics professor, when the department hired Penny Goldberg from Columbia University.