‘Not a man’s field’: Mariam Chamberlain and the Yale Economic Growth Center

Chamberlain was a founding member of the Yale Economic Growth Center, and a leading figure in the establishment of women's studies in the United States.
Mariam Chamberlain (right) with the Ford Foundation’s Fred E. Crossland in 1981

Mariam Chamberlain (right) with the Ford Foundation’s Fred E. Crossland in 1981 (Photo courtesy The Ford Foundation/Rockefeller Archive Collection)

Mariam Chamberlain — a leading figure in the establishment of women's studies in the United States, and, later, a key player in the ongoing struggle to create a level playing field for women in economics — was a member of the Yale Economic Growth Center’s (EGC) founding team.

In 1961, Chamberlain was appointed executive secretary, tasked with overseeing the EGC’s day-to-day operations. She was one of three women hired for research and administrative support, all of whom had Ph.D.s and were married to Yale economics professors. 

Five years later, all three were asked to leave their positions, despite being overqualified for them, amid a flurry of concerns about nepotism.

Chamberlain, who had a Ph.D. in economics from Radcliffe College, went on to become a prominent champion for women in academia, securing funding for many of the first women’s studies departments and research centers at universities across the country. In doing so, she became known as the “fairy godmother of women’s studies” for giving scholars and teachers the opportunity to highlight and address discrimination facing women in academia and society at large.

A women’s equality awakening

In 1967, after being asked to leave the EGC, Chamberlain took a job with the Ford Foundation, where she had worked previously and which had, in fact, funded the establishment of the EGC. Chamberlain became a program officer in the foundation’s higher education and research division. 

Chamberlain had not been involved in the women’s movement of the 60s. Later in life, she would recall stumbling upon the Women’s Equality March on Fifth Avenue on Aug. 26, 1970 and having “no idea what it was all about.”

However, her work began to shift towards women’s issues when, recognizing the merit of the women’s movement, the Ford Foundation established formal programs in 1971 to address gender discrimination. Visits from women proposing projects raised Chamberlain’s awareness. 

Florence Howe, the founder of The Feminist Press, was especially influential. Heidi Hartmann, M. Phil. ’72 Ph.D. ’74, knew both Howe and Chamberlain, and recalled a story that Howe told about giving Chamberlain a presentation on the growing number of women’s studies courses being offered at universities.

Mariam was quite surprised, and quite taken with the data. She felt she could use the data for her work at the Ford Foundation,” Hartmann said. “Florence strengthened Mariam’s connection with the movement for women’s studies.”

In response, Chamberlain secured $500,000 for the foundation’s Women in Higher Education Program and began distributing grants for faculty and dissertation fellowships. The foundation’s support is widely seen as having conferred legitimacy upon the burgeoning field of women’s studies. 

Women’s studies and women’s research centers

Over the next 10 years, Chamberlain would distribute more than $8 million from the Ford Foundation to advance women’s issues in research and academia. This included more than $1 million in fellowships, grants to 15 research centers on women’s studies, and funding for numerous publications, including The Feminist Press and Signs: The Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Both publications continue to publish work that advances scholarship on women.

Myra Strober, professor emerita of education and economics at Stanford University, met Chamberlain in 1974 while working to establish a Center for Research on Women at Stanford.

[Mariam] took me in hand and became a mentor within the first 10 minutes,” Strober said. “Not only did she tell me how to apply for a grant, but she also told me how to negotiate with the provost so that when the grant was done, Stanford would step up and support it. She taught me all the tricks.”

Hartmann recalled once asking Chamberlain how she had convinced the Ford Foundation to fund women’s studies when no other foundations were interested. Chamberlain explained that she looked at Ford’s priorities in higher education and reasoned that the foundation could not accomplish its goals without including women.  

Mariam was really good at finding seemingly small bits that wouldn’t threaten anyone like starting a research center on women. How could that be bad at a university, which is all about research, and has had women students for a long time?” Hartmann said. “She figured out what [people at Ford] had to fund because if they didn’t, they would be contradicting their own beliefs.”

Yale’s women’s studies program received funding from Ford in 1984. The gift came after Chamberlain had left the foundation, but was undoubtedly part of her legacy. 

Economics is not a man’s field’ 

Chamberlain had a lasting legacy in addressing gender discrimination in the field of economics. 

A group of women economists called for a Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP) at the 1971 meeting of the American Economic Association (AEA). Their proposal noted the barriers facing women in academia and resolved that “the American Economic Association … is not exclusively a man’s field.” After the proposal passed, Chamberlain awarded CSWEP a Ford Foundation start-up grant of $25,000

We would have been a much less forceful presence without the additional funding from the Ford Foundation,” Francine Blau, a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University and founding board member of CSWEP, said. “I doubt that the AEA was funding us lavishly.”

After leaving Ford, Chamberlain founded the National Council for Research on Women, a coalition that boasted about 100 research centers and advocacy groups at its peak. She served as a founding member of the International Association for Feminist Economics, and both Hartmann and Strober remembered the pragmatism that she brought to board meetings, especially in her area of expertise — funding. Strober characterized her as “always a voice of reason, but never a voice of restraint.” 

Mariam Chamberlain continued to be active until late in life, and passed away in 2013. 

The Yale Economic Growth Center, which inadvertently set Chamberlain on a path toward women’s advocacy, continues to support research advancing the wellbeing of poor and marginalized people in developing countries. The EGC will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2021, and this is the second in a series of articles recognizing influential women who have been a part of its history.

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