Five Questions: Joanna Rostek on Women’s Economic Thought in the Romantic Age

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Joanna Rostek is Junior Professor of Anglophone Literature, Culture and Media Studies at the University of Giessen and Interim Professor of English Literature at the University of Munich. She has published extensively on literature and culture; her work includes the monograph Seaing through the Past: Postmodern Histories and the Maritime Metaphor in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction and articles and edited volumes addressing Brexit, issues of migration, women’s writing and economic concerns. This last research area informs her new monograph Women’s Economic Thought in the Romantic Age: Towards a Transdisciplinary Herstory of Economic Thought, which was published by Routledge earlier this year and which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in exploring women’s economic thought?

Having finished my first book on contemporary Anglophone fiction, I was looking for a topic for my second book. Within the German academic system, the second book must focus on a different subject matter, explore a different period, and preferably investigate different genres than the first. The financial crisis of 2008/9 had occurred by then, the marketization of universities was accelerating, and so the question of how the economy shapes societies and knowledge formation became pressing for me on both an academic and a personal level. I was moreover increasingly interested in women’s and gender studies and was working on a project on Harriet Martineau, the 19th-century populariser of Political Economy. All these aspects converged to make me wonder what women had to say about economic matters in the past.

Scholars of Victorianism had already produced substantial research on literature and the economy, not least because economic considerations play a central role in the works of canonical 19th-century novelists, such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell. But with regard to the Romantic period, research was sparser, despite the fact that Romanticism saw the rise of Political Economy and its institutionalisation as an academic discipline. This is why I chose to focus on the period around 1800.

In the early stages of my work, I spoke vaguely about “women’s contributions to the economic discourse”, because I followed the established conviction that proper “economic thought” can only be found in scholarly books, which women, at the time, did not and could not write. However, in the course of my research, it became clear to me that this conviction is problematic and that economic thought can be and was conveyed in other genres as well. This is why I now speak of “women’s economic thought”.

2) You begin your introduction by challenging the reader to name any English woman who made an original contribution to economic thought around 1800. Is your project one of recovery or of revision? 

It is both. Let me begin with the revisionist aspects. Drawing on feminist economics, which is a heterodox approach to economics, I argue that there is an androcentric bias at the heart of many conceptions surrounding ‘the economy’. What, for instance, do we count as forming part of the economy? Feminist economists point out that mainstream economics often considers topics such as money, waged labour, public spending, taxes, or inflation as ‘hard’ economic topics. In contrast to that, activities such as parenting, education, marriage, household work, or emotional work, are frequently coded as private and, at best, ‘soft’ economic topics. This distinction is problematic in at least two respects. Firstly, these activities are indispensable for the social fabric and form part of the social management of resources. They are therefore economic – just as much as waged labour or inflation. Secondly, historically, women have predominantly undertaken these activities. Deeming them non-economic or ‘soft-economic’ thus obscures women’s very real contributions to the economy – both in the past and today. So the first major revision that is called for is a more gender-sensitive and more inclusive definition of what ‘the economy’ is in the first place.

The second revision pertains to the epistemological value of genres of writing. As I had mentioned earlier, we tend to assume that ‘proper’ economic knowledge is contained in scholarly treatises, such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. But when Political Economy took shape as a realm of knowledge during the Romantic Period, women could not partake in the scholarly discourse on a par with men, due to cultural and institutional obstacles. My argument is that women used those genres that were available to them at the time – e.g. novels, pamphlets, or public letters – to express their thoughts and ideas on the economy and other social concerns. This is why when looking for women’s economic thought around 1800 the distinction between genres of writing – especially between ‘literature’ on the hand and ‘economic theory’ on the other – doesn’t make sense. So the second major revision that I propose is that of abandoning this distinction and instead of considering (women’s) literature as economic thought if it deals with the production and management of social resources. Once we accept that marriage, for example, is an economic topic and that it can be theorised in a novel, it becomes much easier to identify women’s contributions to economic thought. Being a novelist and being an economist is no longer mutually exclusive.

But my project is one of recovery as well. The relatively strict differentiation between ‘literary texts’ on the one hand and ‘economic texts’ on the other that we have in the 21st century was not as pronounced in the period around 1800. Boundaries between genres of writing and between academic disciplines were more malleable. As a result, texts by authors such as Priscilla Wakefield (founder of the first English savings banks) or Mary Ann Radcliffe (the namesake of the Gothic novelist) were more readily considered as contributions to Political Economy by their contemporaries than they would be by 21st-century economists. My book recovers these thinkers for today’s readers.

3) Why did you feel that a transdisciplinary approach was particularly important for this book?

I am intrigued by the blank interstices between academic disciplines, because this is where a lot of knowledge remains hidden. When I began my research on women economists, I realised, for example, that standard textbooks on the history of economic thought contain almost no references to women – especially to those that lived prior to the 20th century. But parallel to that, English scholars have investigated how women were addressing economic topics in literary texts of the 18th and 19th centuries. There is therefore an obvious mismatch between what economists know about women and the economy and what literary scholars know about women and the economy. The problem is that both ‘camps’ only see a part of the picture. To paint a fuller picture and to have women economists come into view, it was indispensable to work across disciplines and piece together the items that the respective disciplines hold – not just economists and literary scholars, but also historians of ideas, cultural scholars, and social historians.

I would hope that as a result, the disciplines involved can now learn from each other. For instance, I wish to make economists aware of what English scholars already know, namely, that women used their writing to process economic ideas. At the same time, by incorporating research by feminist economists into my work, I want to make literary and cultural scholars aware of the androcentric biases surrounding ‘our’ established notions of what the economy is. Coming across feminist economics was a breakthrough moment for me, because it has made me aware of my own biases and paved the way for the revisionist perspective that I have outlined above. So without the input from another discipline, I would not have been able to chart the new field of knowledge that my book explores.

My general belief is that conventional academic mapping cannot fully grasp and respond to today’s challenges, such as climate change, mass migration, digitalisation, or social inequality. Academic disciplines have to adapt to new social realities and become genuinely curious about the work done in other fields. Transdisciplinary work enables knowledge to travel; it stimulates cross-fertilisation. To a certain extent, it is also a process of epistemological translation. This is where the humanities can make a vital contribution.

4) How topical are the concerns raised by female economists around 1800?

In my book, I explore the economic thought of seven women: Sarah Chapone (1699–1764), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), Mary Hays (1759–1843), Mary Robinson (1756/1758?–1800), Priscilla Wakefield (1750–1832), Mary Ann Radcliffe (1746–1810?), and Jane Austen (1775–1817). Some of the issues they address have lost their immediate relevance, at least for many women in Western societies, mainly because the legal framework has finally changed. Today, women are allowed to pursue gainful employment as well as to keep and dispose of their earnings. They don’t lose the right to their property upon marriage as was the case in England until the late 19th century. They have access to education and therefore do not have to consider matrimony as the most viable economic option to secure lifelong provisioning.

But some concerns examined by women economists around 1800 remain surprisingly – and depressingly – topical. For instance, Priscilla Wakefield criticised the fact that women earn less than men for the same kind of work, and we know that the gender pay gap still persists. Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Robinson wrote about the consequences of the sexual division of labour and the relative devaluation of care and household work, which is another problem that is with us today. Jane Austen explored how to balance moral behaviour with economic necessity, and this question is one that also preoccupies contemporary societies. In general, women economists of the Romantic period highlight that economic practice and outcomes are strongly tied to gender – and this insight unfortunately still holds true.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I work within the German academic system, which is why my research interests tend to cover a wide range of periods and topics. The project to which I am currently devoted the most is a research network on “Methodologies of Economic Criticism”, which has begun its work in April 2021 and is funded by the German Research Foundation. I set up and coordinate the network together with two colleagues who also work in English studies: Ellen Grünkemeier (Professor at the University of Bielefeld) and Nora Plesske (Senior Lecturer and Researcher at the University of Magdeburg). The project has points of convergence with my book insofar as together with other scholars, we explore the manifold and historically variable interrelations between literature, culture, and the economy. Over the past decade or so, there has been a strong interest, within English studies and the humanities more broadly, in investigating how economic theory and practice affect literature and culture – and vice versa. But despite an outpour of publications, the field has not been systematised yet, particularly as regards the methodologies that are available for an economically informed analysis of literature and culture. We use the term ‘Economic Criticism’ to designate research that takes the economy as the primal focal lens of analysis, and it is our aim to map the field, among others through the publication of a handbook. We hope that our network will contribute to establishing Economic Criticism as a fruitful and innovative critical paradigm within literary, cultural, and postcolonial studies. For more information on our work and if you would like to get in touch with us, visit our website,, and/or follow us on Twitter: @EconCrit.