Alfred Marshall’s “Lectures to Women”: Some Economic Questions Directly Connected to the Welfare of the Laborer

Alfred Marshall’s “Lectures to Women”: Some Economic Questions Directly Connected to the Welfare of the Laborer – Review

Robert W. Butler

Alfred Marshall’s “Lectures to Women”: Some Economic Questions Directly Connected to the Welfare of the Laborer. Edited by Tiziano Raffaelli, Eugenio Biagini, and Rita McWilliams Tullberg. (Aldershot, UK and Brookfield, Vt.: Edward Elgar, 1995. Pp. xv, 198. $63.95.)

The importance of primary sources is undisputed in historical endeavors; unfortunately, most of these sources remain in manuscript form in obscure locations. In the best of all possible worlds, the source will be reprinted in a critical edition, which provides an intellectual guide through the current interpretation of the problems at hand. The result is a more accurate portrait of the important figures of the past. In modern economics, there is no more significant figure than Alfred Marshall, the Victorian economist whose work helped shape our world. An important part of Marshall’s early work has now been made available in a remarkably useful book.

The volume consists of Marshall’s Lectures to Women, a series of talks delivered in 1872-1873. Marshall was doing more than simply explaining supply and demand; he was trying to create a group of women social workers, virtually a caste of economic priestesses, who would minister to the needs of the poor. The lectures therefore combine scientific precision and moral passion. Three scholars have produced insightful and thought-provoking essays placing the lectures in context: Tiziano Raffaelli on Marshall’s intellectual method, Eugenio Biagini on the political implications of Marshall’s proposals, and Rita McWillams Tullberg on Marshall’s relationship to the women’s movement.

Raffaelli emphasizes Marshall’s lifelong continuity in intellectual methodology. Grounded in ethics, the economist was as much a preacher as a scientist. He believed that a speaker who intended to move an audience must take their perspective into account; Marshall therefore tailored his message for a well-to-do female audience. He told them that society in the nineteenth century was changing rapidly–hence the importance of education for the future. State intervention was justified in this instance, he told his listeners. But because he was aware of how complex society really was, his call for action was a cautious one indeed. At the deepest level, his optimism was combined with an intense, almost obsessive sense of caution, which was to dog him throughout his life.

Biagini examines Marshall’s liberal and Anglican heritage, aspects of the economist too rarely explored. If Marshall’s call for education reform was not truly radical by 1870, his novel twist–that economics was the key to moral regeneration–had quite conservative political implications. His lectures ignored the religious question in education reform, thus tacitly siding with those who believed in a continuing role for the established church. The women he lectured would, he hoped, look after the “extended hearth” of the nation: a larger sphere for women, but far short of true emancipation from traditional roles. Politically and morally speaking, Marshall was less a Radical than an erastian Whig.

McWilliams Tullberg considers Marshall’s complicated attitude toward the women’s education movement at Cambridge. A dedicated proponent in his youth, Marshall later turned into a vociferous opponent. Was it more than simply hardening of the mental arteries? McWilliams Tullberg suspects so; in a skillful synopsis of the women’s movement, she shows that although Marshall was a leader in the early movement, his motive was largely moralistic. He wished to expand women’s traditional sphere, not prepare them to compete with men. He never considered, for example, how his students would support themselves. It was a significant omission for an economist. In 1870, an expanded sphere was sufficient; but by the end of the century, when women demanded a share of men’s social, economic, and political power, Marshall’s attitude hardened. His essentially conservative nature moved to the fore, and he struggled to restrain the tiger he had helped loose.

At this point, the reader may follow Marshall himself in the six transcribed lectures, as well as in three other pieces of related Marshalliana: the lecture outlines, a talk on the future of the working classes, and a debate with a trade unionist on what economics can and cannot do. All are annotated in an informative yet unobtrusive manner. Altogether, this is a fascinating book that will repay anyone who is interested in the key figures and problems of the nineteenth century.

Robert W. Butler

Elmhurst College

COPYRIGHT 1999 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

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