A Historic Nomination…with a Precedent

You may have noticed a somewhat curious wording about Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination yesterday. Most media outlets are reporting that she is the first woman to win the nomination of a major political party, not the first woman to win a nomination.  Continue reading A Historic Nomination…with a Precedent


Economics of Downton Abbey: Echoes of Marx

(Season Five, Episode Seven)

Portrait of Karl Marx taken in 1875.
Portrait of Karl Marx taken in 1875.

While watching episode seven, I kept thinking about how it could be used to teach some of Karl Marx’s fundamental principles.  Marx is a polarizing figure in a lot of ways – most economists don’t think much of his economic theory – but many of his observations on inequality and exploitation retain a powerful impact. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Marx continues to be cited in contemporary academic works exploring issues of class, wealth accumulation, economic inequality, and labor.

There are several directions to take this analysis – Downton Abbey is a gold mine for examination of everything Marx saw wrong with capitalism – but I’ll stick with three topics that stood out in Episode Seven: labor, ruling ideas, and property. Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: Echoes of Marx

Economics of Downton Abbey: Not Just a Haircut

(Season Five, Episode 6)

If any are tempted to rail against modernism there is a vague, anticipatory comfort in the thought that when another half-century has passed our present surroundings will have taken on a rich stain of the antique.

…Our great-nieces will laugh, and we shall sigh, while we tell of the ancient battle of Bob and Shingle, and how bold their great-aunt felt when first she was fashionably shorn.

– The Times, September 22, 1924

In this episode of Downton Abbey – where the women seem to be finally taking charge of something, be it big or small, upstairs or down – Mary decides to chop her hair into a bob. This wasn’t a coincidence. Historian Mary Louise Roberts looks at the politics of women’s fashion, including bobbed hair, in 1920s France. She argues that the bob was interpreted as “visual fantasy” of female liberation. Mary’s decision to cut her hair resonates with this argument. Earlier in the episode Mary makes a remark that Lord Gillingham doesn’t think she can know her own mind, ostensibly because she is a woman. By chopping her hair she is outwardly asserting her independence and challenging the traditional view of a how a woman should behave.

Short hairstyles are prominent in this 1926 Vogue cover by artist Eduardo Benito
Short hairstyles are prominent in this 1926 Vogue cover by artist Eduardo Benito

Roberts writes that in France, a woman’s bob, along with her modern “boyish” dress, presented a “visual language for upheaval and change and figured in a political struggle for the redefinition of female identity” (p. 684). In Great Britain, a similar redefinition was occurring: women’s organizations were on the rise to fight for equal pay and equal franchise and young women gleefully shocked their elders through their dress and actions (Horn [1995] 2010).  As Mabel remarks in this episode, Mary seems “more than able to choose which laws to keep and which to break” – and she is doing just that. Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: Not Just a Haircut

Economics of Downton Abbey: A Place for Ms. Bunting

Sarah Bunting
Sarah Bunting, played by actress Daisy Lewis, on Season Five of Downton Abbey

(Season Five, Episode Five)

On Episode Five we watch Sarah Bunting say her goodbyes. A polarizing figure in the Downton universe, she deserves her own post for her final appearance on the show. So today, I’m making my case for her to join a teachers’ union.

First, a little background: In the 1920s women’s employment opportunities rested in a narrow band of job options.Ms. Bunting was one of the lucky women who made it into the professional ranks. The majority of women worked in the service industry – mainly in domestic service – and those lucky enough to join professional fields were pushed toward “caring positions;” 90% of female professionals worked as teachers, nurses and midwives (Horn 2010 [1995]).   Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: A Place for Ms. Bunting

Book Review: The Richest Woman In America

Recently the Gilded Age has been cropping up in economic and social discourse as a parallel to today’s wealth inequality and ostentatious elite. So it seems quite timely to review a biography of a woman living in this very era.

The author of The Richest Woman in America, Janet Wallach, describes the Gilded Age as an era of “avarice, opulence, and easy credit, [one which] burst from gluttony” (p. 201). But the biography focuses on a woman whose critics would not dare mention opulence and easy credit alongside her name: Hetty Green.

A Savvy Investor

Hetty Green, circa 1900.
Hetty Green, circa 1900.

Hetty was thoughtful, astute investor who never strayed from her own advice: buy when everyone is selling and sell when everyone is buying. She was a one-woman example of how to resist herd behavior: trust your instincts and don’t worry other people’s decisions. When it came to how she did business, Hetty did not care in the least what people thought about her. In his classic, The General Theory, Keynes would write of the long-term investor, “worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail than to succeed unconventionally” (as cited in Scharfstein and Stein, 1990). It is almost as if he is describing the public reaction to Hetty a half century earlier.

Hetty succeeded – well beyond the wildest dreams of most men – and yet, because her approach was so unconventional, her reputation suffered. She was often vilified and mocked in the press and became known as the Witch of Wall Street (though oddly, Wallach chooses not to mention this moniker in her book; perhaps this indicates a soft spot for Hetty). A 2001 article in The New Yorker noted that this nickname was not fully derogatory – there was a certain awe that came with Hetty and her approach. And indeed, as a lone woman succeeding in a man’s world, Hetty should inspire awe. Continue reading Book Review: The Richest Woman In America