This piece is the third in the series “Episodes in the Life of an American, Woman, Development Economist.” Future episodes will be posted over the coming months.
I was 26 years old and three months pregnant when I got a job in the summer of 1972 as an “analyst” at a USAID-funded program in Washington, DC, on think tank row (now home of the Brookings Institution, the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as SAIS, where I’d gotten a master’s degree in international studies). The program had been set up thanks to a USAID grant to the Smithsonian Institution meant to foster scholarly work on population issues in developing countries.
It was the heyday of US funding for population, and the Office of Population at USAID had more money than it could easily spend on promoting family planning and paying for contraceptives. Steven Sinding, one of USAID’s enlightened staff (he became a friend and a co-organizer and co-editor years later, decided it made sense to encourage individual scholars, mostly university faculty in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, to work on population issues. I was the analyst meant to seek out proposals from African scholars, help manage the peer review process of proposals with academic advisors to the program, and coordinate with colleagues assigned to other regions.
Was I lucky to get the job? Yes and no. I had an MA in international relations including a regional specialty on Africa (see episode 2 in this series)—and a lucky work trip to Tanzania in 1970 as a lowly research assistant in my first post-MA job. But I also had a “professional work” gap in my resume, having followed my first husband to Brazil (more on who follows whom in a future episode). And I was pregnant. I doubt I mentioned that in my job interview with the 6’2” rather officious ex-Navy COO of this new operation, and since I wouldn’t have lied, he must not have asked—though at the time it was not at all inappropriate to do so.
Three other “analysts” had been hired—all men. William (Bill) McGreevey was in his mid-30s with a PhD in economics from MIT. The other two were about my age and like me had masters’ degrees in one or another social science.
I was the second of the four to start in early August—only Bill with his PhD was there before me, installed in the nicest of the three offices with windows in the section of the office complex where the four analysts were to work. On my arrival the first day the COO told me to sit at a desk in the open space outside the three offices—a desk that had the distinct appearance of the desk for a secretary. (There were secretaries then, they were inevitably women, and they sat outside the windowed offices of “professionals” that were, then, almost inevitably men.) It was a dark spot where that empty desk stood; the dark and perhaps the pregnancy made it hard to just sit and read without getting sleepy, and in that first month there was nothing else to do except study up on population issues. I remember struggling to skim through a National Academy of Sciences book sponsored by USAID on the consequences of rapid population growth in developing countries.
Within a week or two, I’d made friends with Bill. He’d arrived in Washington a year or two earlier from Berkeley, California—then about five years ahead of the East Coast in the business of resisting: the Vietnam war especially, though not so much sexism or the reality of a patriarchic culture, even there.
A second fellow analyst appeared a week or two later. He was assigned to the second of the three offices. Why? He wasn’t particularly older than I was, nor was he more pedigreed. Hmmm.
I hope that I complained about the situation to my then-husband, but I’m not sure I did. It was an earlier era, and I was pregnant. He might have suggested I just quit while I was ahead. He was older than I and his salary alone was sufficient for our household. He supported my having a job but not (in retrospect) a career with family tradeoffs. I knew the situation wasn’t “fair,” but it didn’t register as what we call today systemic injustice, any more than had Princeton’s graduate program in public policy seven years earlier (episode 2).
I did complain to sympathetic Bill, who supported my doing something about it before male analyst #4 showed up and was directed to that third and last windowed office.
Women’s Liberation was then in the air. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was being pushed in the Congress by NOW, the National Organization for Women founded by Betty Friedan, author of the 1960s classic The Feminine Mystique.The first issues of Ms. Magazine had been published in early 1972; Our Bodies, Ourselves had come out in the late 1960s; and books by Germaine Greer and Kate Millett (with titles The Female Eunuch and Sexual Politics) had been published in 1970.
I went to the front section of the office to see the retired Navy official. I pointed out the issue from my point of view: that a windowed office was being saved for a fourth analyst who looked on paper like me. I knew instinctively that a good outcome required a polite, implicit ask, not a noisy complaint. I certainly didn’t refer to the possibility that my being a woman mattered.
The next day I was quietly reassigned to the third of the three windowed offices. The entire episode lasted no more than a few weeks.
I don’t know anymore where the fourth analyst sat on arrival, except that it was not at the desk in the dark corner. Indeed, I don’t remember the desk still sitting in that corner for the subsequent three years I worked in that job.
More important (than the window!) is that the “analyst” job introduced me to economics as a field. Why? The best proposals from African scholars came, in my view, from economists; they had hypotheses they wanted to test—not today’s randomized control studies, of course—but studies that involved doing empirical work. I had in PhD’d economist Bill McGreevey a mentor and a co-author. And work on “population” became an introduction to the economics literature on women and fertility: from Nobel economist Gary Becker on the theory of the family—that the rich would have more children than the poor but for the opportunity cost of children when educated women work outside the home (neoclassical and controversial); to the critique of Becker by feminist economists—e.g., that a married pair cannot be treated as having a single utility function—see more on that from Nancy Folbre; and to Ester Boserup on why fertility was historically high in Africa and bride price not dowry was the rule—where land was plentiful labor scarce.
The casual sexism of the desk episode did not in itself make me a self-conscious feminist. What mattered more was that senior women on think tank row began holding informal meetings for women to talk together; this “Women’s Lib” movement among smart, thoughtful women was the turning point for me.
The job and the women’s movement awakened ambitions and expectations for myself of a “career,” inspiring me to take a much bolder step than asking for an office with a window. Two years later, when I was approaching age 30, a divorced mother of a two-year old, with minimal background in economics, and no course in high school or college in calculus, I went off to Yale to do a PhD in economics.
In a future episode I’ll relate how personal privilege as I describe in episode 1 of this series, and the luck of good timing as a woman, combined to make such a move possible—indeed, easy.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to be added to a mailing list for future episodes.
Find me on Twitter: @nancymbirdsall
 Population Matters: Demographic Change, Economic Growth and Poverty in the Developing World. Eds Nancy Birdsall, Allan Kelley and Steven Sinding, Oxford Univ Press, 2001. https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/0199244073.001.0001/acprof-9780199244072
 Published in 1971: Rapid Population Growth: Consequences and Policy Implications, Committee of the National Academy of Sciences with the support of the US Agency for International Development. I remember the chapter by Paul Demeny on “The Economics of Population Control.” Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb had been published in 1968.
The ERA was approved in the Congress within a few years and has since awaited approval by the necessary three-quarters of states. In 2020, almost 50 years later, Virginia became the necessary 38th state to approve it; it is now in limbo until and unless Congress voids the initial 1982 deadline for enough states’ approval.
E.g. William McGreevey and Nancy Birdsall, “The Policy Relevance of Recent Social Research on Fertility,” Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, Interdisciplinary Communications Program Monograph No. 2, 1974. https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNAAD344.pdf.
 Gary Becker’s seminal work was “An Economic Analysis of Fertility,” in Demographic and Economic Change in Developed Countries, NBER, Columbia University Press, 1960. https://www.nber.org/system/fles/chapters/c2387/c2387.pdf
Ester Boserup summarized much of her work in her memoir My Professional Life and Publications 1929-1998, Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 1999. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=b1eFAwoNR80C&oi=fnd&pg=PA7&dq=Africa+Fertility+Bride+Price+Ester+Boserup&ots=9qe5wro7-T&sig=XBRRY9oFxF6TxafSD_QPNu8yZKk#v=snippet&q=Africa&f=false
Nancy Folbre: For example “The Production of People by Means of People: https://www.opr.princeton.edu/seminars/papers/Folbre2014spring.pdf, draft manuscript for UN Women
 “Casual sexism” as my CGD colleague Ranil Dissanayake put it here (https://www.cgdev.org/blog/economics-marginalia-may-6-2022). That is apt language for the prevailing (male) attitudes in Washington DC in the early 1970s – when the Women’s Liberation movement was just getting its legs.
 For example Irene Tinker, a few years later the founding Chair of the International Center for Research on Women, led for many years by Mayra Buvinic, now a colleague at the Center for Global Development.
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