History of Department

Economics Department Est. 1900, First Chair, Katherine Coman

The Economics Department has a history steeped in firsts, expertise, and innovation

The Founding of the Department (1880s-1940s)

Katherine Coman—a young, self-taught economist hired by the College in 1880 to teach rhetoric—offered a course on industrial history in the History Department in 1883; here begins the rich history of the Wellesley College Economics Department.

Coman quickly began to influence the field of economics at Wellesley and beyond. In 1885, at just 28 years old, Coman was named Professor of History and Political Economy. That same year, she was the only woman among the founders of the American Economic Association (AEA), an organization promoting economic research that today has over 20,000 members. Coman was the "first American woman of statistics," according to a history of the teaching of statistics and a leader in quantifying social changes as institutions grew or declined. She would go on to author the lead article in the first issue of the American Economic Review in 1911, a paper on the economic history of irrigation in the American west that is still cited by economists and historians today.

As Coman became more prominent in the field of economics, the College recognized the need to separate economics from the Department of History in the President's Annual Report of 1886:

“Professor Coman, on her return from Sabbatical leave, finds herself more than fully occupied with her large classes in Economics and History. The interest in economic studies is a sign of the times: Professor Coman’s own line of industrial history is attracting ever increasing attention. It seems high time to release her from the charge of a dual department, and to allow her to give her full strength to those lines of investigation and instruction which she has made her own.”

Katherine Coman founded the Department of Economics and Sociology in 1900. In the early years, nine courses were offered by three faculty members. Coman focused her own research on questions related to industrial change including studying the effects of greater economic efficiency. She recognized that the rise of powerful corporations that were more economically efficient would lead to a threat on worker’s rights. Never one to sit back, she helped organize the Chicago Garment Worker strike in 1910, in which 40,000 factory workers, mostly immigrant women, protested poor working conditions. Coman chaired the department until her retirement in 1913. That year, Wellesley College awarded 16 degrees in economics and sociology.

Throughout the next two decades, student interest in economics remained steady as the world came out of the Great Depression and Keynesian economic theories took hold. In 1940, the College reorganized several departments, resulting in economics and sociology being separated into distinct departments. In the first year after the split, the department graduated 17 majors. Over the 1940s, the stand-alone Economics Department continued to grow, graduating 32 majors by 1950.

The Rise of FEMS (1950s-1960s)

In the 1950s, Carolyn Shaw Bell and Marshall Goldman joined the Economics Department, bringing the number of full-time faculty members to five. These two dynamic faculty members were highly influential in the department for the next several decades. 

Carolyn Shaw Bell joined the Wellesley College faculty in 1950 believing there was no point in applying to teach anywhere else because a female economist would not be hired. During her time at Wellesley, she coined the term “FEMS” for “former economics majors” and became a champion for women in the field. She was part of a movement at the 1971 American Economic Association (AEA) meeting that called for an end of discrimination against women in the economics profession, leading to the creation of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP). CSWEP became a standing committee of the AEA to promote the careers of women in economics and monitor their advancement in the field. Bell studied consumer economics, focusing on consumer expenditure and saving, and promoted rigorous statistical analysis of survey data. She carried this into her role at CSWEP, initiating an annual survey of female faculty members and graduate students in economics that is still in use today. The survey continues to document the number of female faculty at all levels and the number of female economics doctoral students. To recognize her fierce dedication to promoting women in economics, the AEA established the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award in 1998, given annually to recognize a person who has furthered the status of women in the economics profession. 

Marshall Goldman came to Wellesley College in 1958. As the Cold War ensued between the U.S. and Russia, students petitioned the College to offer a Russian Studies program. When Goldman, an internationally respected expert in Russian economics and politics, joined the Economics Department, his courses were a big draw for all Wellesley students. During his long career at Wellesley, he traveled frequently to the Soviet Union, at times meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin. He met with U.S. presidents, George Bush and George W. Bush, and was often called upon by other government and business leaders. Goldman was a prolific writer, publishing more than a dozen books on the Soviet and Russian economy and numerous opinion pieces in U.S. newspapers and periodicals. His expertise was widely sought by the media, putting the spotlight on Wellesley College and the Economics Department. In 1991, Marshall Goldman was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a testimony to his leadership in academia and on the world stage. To enrich the study of economics for Wellesley students, Marshall and his wife Merle generously funded the Goldman Lecture Series in 1992. Many notable economists have been speakers, including Janet Yellen in 1995 and John Kenneth Galbraith in 1999.

Both Bell and Goldman were strong advocates for Wellesley’s FEMs, especially promoting their advancement in business. A 1995 New York Times article documented the considerable number of Wellesley women in top level executive positions and accepted to Harvard Business School; it credits Bell as a major reason for this level of success. When Goldman was Chair of the Department in 1971, he launched the department newsletter in order to promote a strong connection between the Department and its alumnae. In the first newsletter, Goldman shared what the world held in store for Wellesley’s economics graduates:

“The business-world... seems to be opening up more and more to our students. Apparently, the training our students are receiving is very much desired by many business firms and in fact we sometimes feel like a university sports-team. Firms try to raid the Department and entice our students into the field even while they are completing their degrees. There is considerable demand for economists who are able to handle econometric models and do market research or do investment analysis and we have found in fact that this year there are more job opportunities than there are graduating seniors.”

An Expanding Role in Educating Wellesley Students (1970s-1990s)

The Economics Department experienced explosive growth throughout the seventies, fueled by strong student interest in economics and the arrival of charismatic new faculty members.

A popular course called “The Corporation” was first offered by visiting lecturer Stanford Calderwood in 1972, leading to an immediate boost in department enrollments. A former business executive and the leader of a wealth management company, Calderwood returned to Wellesley many times over the next ten years to teach the course, developing a strong affinity for the Economics Department. The department later received generous funding from the Calderwood Charitable Foundation, establishing the Calderwood Fund for Economics in 2006, which funds the annual Calderwood lecture and a department seminar series.

In 1976, Karl “Chip” Case joined the department. In his 34-year tenure, Chip Case endeared himself to Wellesley students in the Economics Department as a passionate teacher and devoted fan of College athletics. In the field of economics, he is celebrated for his creation (with Robert Shiller of Yale University) of the Case-Schiller index, a seminal house price index. The Case-Shiller Index is now licensed to Standard and Poor's and remains the industry standard for measuring house price changes. Case published extensively on housing markets and prices, including many papers that indicated the risks associated with housing booms. In 1989, he co-authored an introductory economics textbook that became a best seller and was most recently reissued in a 12th edition in 2017.

Rodney Morrison, Julie Matthaei, and Ann Dryden Witte were other dedicated faculty members who taught during this era, adding to the depth of the department's course offerings and influencing countless students during their long tenures. Morrison, a member of the department from 1965 to 2000, authored books on macroeconomics, political economy, and the Portuguese economy. He continued the department's tradition of teaching excellence by winning the College-wide Pinanski Teaching Prize in 1985. Julie Matthaei joined the department in 1978, sharing her expertise in the then-emerging field of feminist economics with students until her retirement in 2019. An activist academic and co-founder of the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network, Matthaei encouraged her students to question the status quo in order to build a more just and sustainable economy. Ann Dryden Witte was a member of the department from 1984 to 2011. A prominent scholar who taught at the University of North Carolina for over a decade before coming to Wellesley, Witte's specialties were law and economics, urban economics, and public finance. Witte did important work to help shape social welfare and childcare policy, often involving her students in research on issues of critical importance for women and families.

Led by this group of faculty, the department doubled in size in five years, with 72 graduates in economics by 1978. During the 1977-1978 academic year, the Department introduced the "Economics Complement," an innovative precursor to a minor in economics. Designed for students who want to demonstrate a solid background in economics without a full major, the "Economics Complement" attracted many students to the department; students were required to complete the principle courses in microeconomics and macroeconomics, statistics, and two additional courses.

By the early eighties, a large proportion of Wellesley students took at least one economics course. The growth of the department led in turn to an increase in departmental activities for students and more innovative course offerings as new faculty joined the department. The Department began to offer stipends for research positions with faculty to enhance the study of economics for the students. In the 1983-1984 academic year, the Senior Fellows program was launched. Now known as the Case Fellows program, the program pairs students with faculty in order that students can became involved in aspects of economics teaching or research and have an enriched experience in the field of economics. In the second semester of 1984, the Economics Department became the College department with the largest number of enrollments, teaching more than 1500 students. In 1986, the Economics Department broke past the 100 mark for the first time with 106 graduates. The next year, to further enrich the academic program, the Department launched the Economic Research Seminar (ERS), which provides opportunities for students conducting independent research to discuss best practices, and to present their work to other students and faculty as they develop their thesis.

By the turn of the century, the Wellesley Economics Department's reputation as a top liberal arts college Economics Department was solidified. Department faculty were publishing top notch research. A 1997 study of research output published in the Journal of Economic Education ranked the Wellesley Economics Department at number two (behind Swarthmore) out of 161 liberal arts colleges. Furthermore, FEMS were being accepted with regularity at top ranked Ph.D. programs. A 2000 study produced by the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium found that Wellesley had produced the second-highest for number of female economics Ph.Ds. over the previous 30 years (after Harvard), out of 31 elite colleges and universities.

During its first 100 years, the Wellesley Economics Department has made significant contributions to breaking down barriers for women in the economics profession, from faculty members' role in founding the AEA and CSWEP to their work training and encouraging women to pursue graduate study in economics. Department faculty have prepared FEMS for careers in business and beyond, while producing highly influential scholarship. In its second century, the Wellesley Economics Department aims to build on this rich history and prepare the next generation of students for a new century of challenges.