Veteran Feminists of America

Dr. BARBARA BERGMANN
ECONOMIST, WRITER, LECTURER, SENIOR STAFF MEMBER OF PRESIDENT KENNEDY’S COUNCIL OF ECONOMIC ADVISORS

I was born Barbara Berman in Bronx, NY in 1927. My father was a union typesetter and earned a good wage all through the Depression of the 1930s, so we were not in want. However, the terrible state of the populace was obvious, even to a child in elementary school .

My grandparents had come to the United States from Eastern Europe in 1914, fleeing anti-Semitism. Neither of my parents finished high school, because their families needed whatever they could earn. But my generation was expected to succeed financially. The hope for a boy was that he would become a lawyer or a doctor, and for a girl , that she would marry a lawyer or a doctor.

I became an atheist at age four, when I failed to receive a favor I had prayed for and believed I deserved.
I became a feminist at age five, when it became obvious to me that you needed your own money to be an independent person, which was what I wanted to be when I grew up.

My Depression childhood left me a strong believer in having government provide help when people face problems beyond their power to control. There was a brief period, at age 17, when I hated the idea that the riches I felt sure to earn during my glorious future career might be taxed away and transferred to those less talented and hardworking than I. It soon passed and I have been left of center in my politics ever since.

However, I never became an advocate of getting rid of capitalism. That I probably owe to the a sixth grade teacher, who was a fanatical admirer of Stalin’s Russia and on the slightest pretext dragged Russia into our lessons on all subjects.

Our class was taken to the New York World’s Fair in 1940. The most popular exhibit was put on by General Motors, showing the marvelous capitalist world of the future, an auto-dominated landscape, all in miniature, through which one rode, seated on a moving sofa.
The Russians also had a huge exhibit, and our teacher saw to it that our class spent much of our time there. In one corner of each room of the Russian exhibit building was a mammoth piece of agricultural equipment. Most of the rest of the space was devoted to the iconography of Stalin. He was depicted in paintings, in bas reliefs, in busts and in full-length statues. There were plates and cups with Stalin’s picture, spoons with his picture on the bowl, and others with his picture on the handle. Spending a school year in the class of that teacher inoculated me for life against admiring any such regime, and taught me to beware of fanatics.

I applied to MIT, but was rejected, probably because my ambition to become an engineer was thought ridiculous. I won a scholarship to Cornell University and majored in mathematics. While in college, I read Gunnar Myrdal’s book
An American Dilemma, which presented the racial regime that prevailed in the southern part of the United States. The book sparked a lasting interest in racial discrimination, which later extended to an interest in sex discrimination.

I graduated from Cornell with a BA in 1948, and went back to living with my mother in New York. She was quite angry at me for not having “caught” a husband, and told me so frequently. My mother didn’t like the fact that it was a man’s world, but she felt that for a successful life one had to conform.
“You’re nothing without a man,” she said to me, which further strengthened my feminist propensities.

It was the midst of the first post-World War II recession, jobs were scarce, and there was discrimination against Jews. And, the Help Wanted ads were segregated by sex. All of those for women were for maids, salesladies, and clerical workers. I looked for a job in the male category, but never got a nibble. In desperation, I took a job typing names and addresses, but couldn’t endure the boredom for more than two days. Luckily, I had applied for a job with the federal government, and that finally came through. I was taken in on the lowest professional rung at the
New York office of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, where I was part of the unit that answered inquiries from the public.

After a year I was the head of the inquiries unit. At BLS I found that racial discrimination was not confined to the South. There was just one black employee there, Harvey Purdy, who ran the mimeograph machine and distributed the mail. Our unit had a vacancy, and I got him appointed to it. But it was decreed that he couldn’t sit with the rest of us, where the public could see him. He had to sit next door in the stock room and take inquirers’ phone calls. It was soon decided that somebody else was to have that job, and so he was sent back to the mimeograph machine. My attempts to get him a job visiting employers and collecting wage data were unsuccessful.
I was told that BLS couldn’t send a Negro around to employers; that employers would not cooperate with such a person.

In 1962 I was working in Washington. The Civil Rights movement had been in progress for a decade. I visited the wage survey branch in the central office of BLS and told everyone Harvey’s story, expecting to hear that those things were no longer tolerated. To my surprise, these very nice people told me, with no sign of guilt , that they still “needed” to follow the same practice.

The experience of working for the Bureau of Labor Statistics left me with an otherwise good impression of government employees and operations, and of the capabilities of government agencies. Years later, in the early 1980s, while teaching at the University of Maryland, I was writing a monthly column for the New York Times Sunday business section and wrote in one of them that many government workers were capable, hard-working people. The young Times editor who checked my columns said I should omit that. His impression was that government employees were stupid and loafed all the time, an anti-government attitude that was becoming widespread. Based on my own experience with BLS and other government agencies, I believe it is in many cases based on false impressions. Unfortunately, it feeds the reluctance to use government as a means of providing needed services.

While I was working for the BLS office in New York a visiting economist asked me whether my job left time for “doing my own work.” I hadn’t the vaguest idea what he meant, and he explained that he was talking about the economic research he assumed I would be wanting to do. He said I ought to apply to graduate school, and after thinking it over, I did. My BLS boss wrote a letter of recommendation saying I was “a young lady of culture and refinement.” I don’t know whether that helped my chances, but probably thanks to my math degree I was admitted to Harvard.

At Harvard I wasn't allowed to be a teaching fellow at first, but after a few years they relented. Although I was a star pupil , I didn't get any offers of academic positions. However, my attitude has always been that anger is bad for the career.

My future work at Harvard was influenced by Guy Orcutt, who introduced economists to computer simulation. Later, when teaching at the University of Maryland, I coauthored a book
A Microsimulated Transactions Model of the United States Economy, in which simulated individuals, businesses, governments, and banks make trades of commodities and capital instruments for money.

The lesson of scepticism I learned from my professors enabled me to apply to Econimist Gary Becker’s theory that race and sex discrimination in employment could not long persist. Becker claimed that any employer who discriminated would be driven out of business by competitors who didn’t and who would be able to hire labor cheaper, and produce the product at a lower price. Becker’s theory gained wide acceptance, and continues to be quoted with approval today. Most economists are not capable of seeing that wage setting and other employment practices were and are affected by societal systems of status differences, whether in the harsh regime of the pre-civil rights South, or in the subtler regimes of race and sex favoritism that are still in force everywhere today.


At age 38, I married my husband, a microbiologist, whom I’d met on a blind date. We had a daughter and a son, both feminists, of course. Pushing for women's equality is not a big thing in my husband’s life, but he is a very fair person. He has always done half of the housework and child care, and with his support and aid I was able to produce books on issues of social policy mostly concerning race and gender. We are still married after 44 years.

I've been a member of the NAACP since 1945 and very much regret not having taken part in activism for civil rights. And I’ve been a member of NOW from early on. I went only once to a local chapter meeting. In recent years, I have tried to interest NOW in getting local chapters to lobby for more money for government child care programs, by emphasizing the existence of waiting lists. However, I have not made any progress with it.


My book, The Economic Emergence of Women explains why sex roles have changed so greatly in the last century, and what policies are needed to accommodate that revolution. In Defense of Affirmative Action explains why discrimination and exclusion by race and sex won’t go away without quotas. Saving Our Children from Poverty: What The United States Can Learn from France shows what a country that is determined to give every child a decent upbringing and education can do, and what the budgetary cost of doing it in the United States would be. I teamed up with an artist to put together Is Social Security Broke? A Cartoon Guide to the Issues. The answer to the question, contrary to what the politicians of both parties have been saying, is that Social Security is not broke, and does not now need fixing. The most recent book I have published, America’s Child Care Problem: The Way Out labels subsidized child care as one of the country’s chief needs, and proposes a $50 billion a year program of government subsidies and quality regulations.

I would like to write one more book -- on the decline of the institution of marriage, which has meant the decline of male support in money and services for the raising of children. (Every year in the last three decades, the proportion of the married population drops. Gay marriage, believe it or not, is really not the most important marriage issue we face.) The solution is not abstinence education, but turning the country into Sweden -- lots more public spending on health care, childcare, education, housing.

____________________________________________________________

NOTE: In the early 1970's Barbara testified on a case involving pension inequities by TIAA-CREF, a pension management company for teachers and nurses not covered by state plans which were sending pension checks amounting to only 80 percent of what men received on the grounds that women lived longer. That fight went all the way to the Supreme Court, where women won. Also in the 1970's, as an advisor to the US Census Committee, she persuaded the Committee to collect data on child support, and to stop designating the husband as the "Head of Household." She has served numerous government positions, including that of Senior Staff Member of President Kennedy's Council of Economic Advisors.

Comments to Jacqui Ceballos: jcvfa@aol.com

Back to VFA Fabulous Feminists Table of Contents