Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Thorstein Veblen's Neglected Feminism

Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Thorstein Veblen's Neglected Feminism

Article excerpt

Women . . . were the original subservient class, and to some extent, especially as regards their nominal or ceremonial position, they have remained in that position down to the present.

- Thorstein Veblen, 1899

Critics have rarely failed to remark that Thorstein Veblen was quite the gallant. The story goes, for example, that in 1905 the dean of the University of Chicago called Veblen into his office to inform the young professor that he was being dismissed for having dallied with the wives of various colleagues. The dean began by saying, "We have a problem with the faculty wives." "Oh yes, I know," Veblen allegedly rejoined, with a solemn shake of the head. "They're terrible. I've had them all." Veblen left the school at the end of that semester. Despite this presumably chastening experience, Veblen continued to philander. No sooner had he arrived at his new appointment at Stanford than he was forced to resign under circumstances similar to those at Chicago [Tilman 1992, 3]. The new episode led him to exclaim publicly, "What is one to do if the woman moves on you?" [Lerner 1948, 9; Dorfman 1934, 295]. Following this incident, Stanford President David Starr Jordan wrote to University of Chicago President Harry Pratt Judson:

I have been able, with the help of Mrs. Veblen, to find out the truth in detail as to Mr. Veblen's relations. He seems unable to resist the "femme mecomprise." It is fair to say, that in my final talk with him, he... behaved in a manly fashion, with no attempt at denial or evasion [Tilman 1993, x-xi].

Veblen's reputation as a roue followed him everywhere. When in 1904 the notorious sexual liberationist Parker Sercombe proposed to begin publishing a new magazine named Tomorrow, his first invitation for the editorship went to Veblen [Dorfman 1934, 254]. As much as his actual behavior, it was Veblen's refusal to respect the canons of discretion that landed him in trouble and which, no doubt, accounts for his continued reputation as something of a campus Casanova. As C. Wright Mills remarked with envy, Veblen was never a "decent man" [Mills, quoted in Fine 1994, 460].

It is striking how much of the biographical literature on Veblen has discussed this particular aspect of his private life. Unfortunately, many of those who have explicitly taken up the question of Veblen's womanizing have resorted to distasteful apologism. His biographer Joseph Dorfman, for example, attempts to pin the blame for Veblen's infidelities on the women:

Women were much attracted to Veblen, and he knew how to hold their interest. But in these friendships he seems to have been the pursued rather than the pursuer. His interest in women was usually only a passing desire for amusement and diversion, but their interest in him was often so tenacious that for him the affairs became baffling and in some cases even appalling. Veblen seems to have needed the maternal qualities in women... [Dorfman 1934, 254].

On the other hand, Rick Tilman offers a different exculpation by suggesting that Veblen's wives may themselves have been responsible for his infidelity. He writes, "Much has been made of Veblen's 'womanizing,' but insufficient attention has been paid to the mental state of his wives as a plausible explanation of this." As evidence, Tilman cites the testimony of Veblen's brother Andrew as to the theosophical tendencies of Veblen's first wife, as if this were somehow proof of her psychological instability [Tilman 1992, 5].(1) Even if Veblen's wives suffered from greater mental infirmity than Tilman demonstrates, this would in no way prove that these instabilities caused or justified Veblen's womanizing. It might be just as well to assume that the causal process was precisely the reverse.

Though we might dismiss such attention as so much prurient curiosity, the notoriety of Veblen's habits helps to explain why some commentators have ignored the centrality of gender in Veblen's theories and the egalitarian vision of gender relations that grounds his ethology. …

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