We know College Feminists Care About Sexual Assault. What About Abortion?

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 24, 2014.

In the past three years, more abortion restrictions have been enacted in the United States than in the entire previous decade. At the same time,85 colleges and universities are now under federal investigation for their handling of sexual violence. While these two issues are not divergent, campus feminists have devoted much of their energy to challenging their universities’ failure to adequately handle sexual assault cases—often at the expense of abortion rights advocacy.

But the growing threats to reproductive justice—like the Texas law that could shut down most of the state’s abortion clinics, and looming ballot measures in Colorado, Tennessee, and North Dakota that could result in women losing their legal right to terminate a pregnancy—have catalyzed the ongoing efforts of national pro-choice organizations to invest in student leaders. Campus activist priorities and national women’s rights goals might finally be aligning—sort of.

For many students attending schools in East and West Coast states, the legislative efforts to restrict abortion access commonly found in red states can seem quite distant from their own daily gender struggles. Changing local culture around rape and sexual assault, on the other hand, seems far more urgent.

“Campus activism tends to be reactionary, and women are generally kept on the defense,” says Sarah Beth Alcabes, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s hard to organize for coherent proactive action beyond the immediate threats we face. Maybe if campuses were safe for women, there would be energy for them to focus on places not in their immediate vicinity. But that’s not the case.”

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, students have filed an anoymous Title IX complaint alleging that the school failed its responsibility to ensure the safety of students when it allowed a fraternity to continue throwing parties even after police began an investigation into an alleged gang rape that took place at the frat house. One of the complainants says that the focus of leaders on her campus has been the enforcement of federal sexual assault laws for a simple reason: “There’s no equivalent to those sorts of laws for abortion,” she explains, “so the pro-choice movement doesn’t occupy the same place as gender-based violence on the college campus.”

But geographic distance from the most pressing abortion battles and political momentum around sexual assault prevention are only part of the story. Even in those states where access is regularly threatened, many college feminists have avoided tackling the issue of abortion directly—in part because the abortion debate is so polarizing, and in part because many campuses are unwilling to institutionally support such activism.

At Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Sophia Dominguez, the president of the Texas Tech Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), says she believes that reproductive rights are an important feminist issue, but her group must “recognize the political culture of Texas and adapt [its] advocacy accordingly.” She says her peers feel “repressed in the ways in which to openly discuss and address reproductive freedom.” As such, Tech FMLA has been fighting Texas Tech’s rape culture, which students believe is a more immediate problem to tackle, even in light of the Texas legislature’s anti-abortion efforts.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of URGE, a national campus organization committed to reproductive and gender equity, says that the leaders of many URGE chapters tend to focus on sexual assault because there is less official support for abortion work, even when a group is affiliated with a campus women’s center. “We might be able to push for more access to contraception,” Johnson says. “But the more the conversation centers around abortion, the more uncomfortable the administration is with getting behind it. Regardless of how people feel about abortion, when you talk about it, it charges an environment, and that’s the last thing campus administrators want.”

Several national organizations—the Feminist Majority Foundation, Planned Parenthood for America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and URGE—are trying to change these campus dynamics by building networks of college students who will advocate for reproductive justice and gender equality. While coordinated inter-campus solidarity is currently pretty minimal, efforts to build a larger college pro-choice infrastructure are growing.

But even with support from outside organizations, building a student pro-choice movement is tough. Molly Waters, a senior at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri, works as one of NARAL’s campus representatives for the Choice Out Loud campaign, an effort to help millennials engage in conversations about reproductive rights.

“I don’t think abortion is the first thing feminist students would organize around, just because it’s so polarizing and has such a stigma,” Waters says. “I understand it. I myself am a Christian. I think a lot of people are more tempted to discuss birth control or general reproductive rights and not so much abortion rights.”

NARAL donates supplies to campus chapters, organizes conference calls between campus representatives in different states, and facilitates national communication through Facebook groups. Yet Waters observes that many students just seem to have a general lack of interest in political activity. “One thing that can be really frustrating is just how many people don’t want to protest or be active as much,” Waters says. “And that’s understandable; we’re in college, we have a lot on our plates. But there does seem to be a lack of energy for action.”

Kaori Sueyoshi, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, feels more optimistic. “The student movement here in North Carolina has been growing quickly with the Republican takeover of our state,” she explains.

In 2010, Republicans won the majority in the state legislature, and won the governor’s mansion in 2012. Since then, North Carolina has enacted a controversial set of abortion restrictions, as well as a stringent voter ID law. In turn, over the past two years, college students across North Carolina have gathered together to network, strategize, and advocate for reproductive rights in their communities. Sueyoshi has been involved with Planned Parenthood’s network of campus activists, known as Generation Action, and attended the Youth Organizing & Policy Institute, a national student conference that Planned Parenthood hosts in Washington, D.C. “I think the national college advocacy movement is growing much stronger,” she says.

She may be right. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Marlies Biesinger, co-president of the Vanderbilt Feminists, says that advocacy around abortion politics has never been a real priority for them. But for the first time, in light of the political buzz around Tennessee’s Amendment 1—which could give the state legislature, not the state Supreme Court, full authority to decide the legality of abortion—the Vanderbilt Feminists have started to hold educational events to raise awareness about the ballot measure’s implications and push students to vote this November. And at Rice University in Houston, Rice for Reproductive Justice formed just last year to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and organize around a broad set of issues that inhibit reproductive freedom.

If threats to safe and legal abortion access continue to drive both college advocacy and the formation of relationships between student leaders, the questions then become: What can these activists actually do together? How, when anti-choice measures are primarily passed through state legislatures, can national advocacy play an effective role?

“The movement has shifted,” Johnson says, because anti-choice activity has moved from the federal to the state level. “For a long time there were lots of opportunities to engage on a national level. But we’re not going to mobilize people in Alabama to work on Texas. No matter how much noise you make, at the end of the day the elected officials only care how people are voting in their state and districts.” While broad-based online petitions exist, like those organized by Change.Org and Moveon.org, right now there just are not a lot of opportunities for pro-choice activists, in or out of college, to campaign on the federal level.

Despite the relatively limited array of federal policy opportunities, the need to mobilize and educate students about reproductive rights remains pressing. The All* Above All campaign, which is focused on lifting health insurance bans on abortions, is one possible avenue for students to pursue. “There’s just a real lack of awareness about what these abortion restrictions are, so we need to educate constituents and our elected officials,” Johnson says.

For Waters, the more progressive culture of her Missouri liberal arts college feels worlds away from the conservative southern Illinois town she grew up in, where mentioning abortion rights would “automatically make you a Satanist.” Coming to college and finding a new environment to educate herself, and later educate and agitate others, has been transformative. “You know, it’s taken a while for me to get there,” Waters says. “It takes a lot of education that many people just don’t usually have.”


Marginalized Economists: Revisiting Robert Heilbroner

Originally published on the US Intellectual History blog on May 25th, 2014.

While historians have begun to take interest in the history of economic thought, the tendency to research the most influential figures, the “historical winners”, has persisted as the predominant scholarly trend. But there are merits to studying the dissenters, too. Following not only how the economics profession took the turn it did but also looking at those who tried to advocate for an alternative vision, can help to clarify the seeming intellectual hegemony of our economic times.

Robert Heilbroner, arguably the most prominent dissenting American economist of the late twentieth century, followed his changing discipline with despair. So great was his anxiety over the powerful trends capturing the minds of his colleagues, championed by individuals like Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman and Gregory Mankiw, that he dedicated himself to addressing what he felt were economics’ existential threats. Yet despite his efforts, with over twenty books to his name, Robert Heilbroner never gained recognition and mainstream respect. Even in 2014, there remains little work written about him. [1]

Born into an affluent German-Jewish family in 1919, Robert Heilbroner was no stranger to privilege. Yet when his father died when he was just five years old, and his family’s chauffeur then became his surrogate father, Heilbroner developed a nascent sense of class-consciousness. Heilbroner “sensed the indignity of [his driver’s] position as a family intimate yet a subordinate.”[2] Later in life Heilbroner would say that he felt the experience “explains something about my…personality and hence about my work. I’ve found myself pulled between conservative standards on the one hand, and a strong feeling for the underdog on the other.”[3]

Heilbroner went on to Harvard in 1936, and became interested in economic thought after readingThe Theory of the Leisure Class during his sophomore year. He called the experience “an awakening” and went on to graduate with majors in history, government and economics. [4] (Fortuitously: read Andy Peal’s recent post on Veblen’s “iconoclasm”.) Throughout his life one could spot the Veblenian influence in Heilbroner’s work; it was his central conviction that the “search for the order and meaning of social history lies at the heart of economics.”[5]

Heilbroner worked during an era of great political and cultural upheaval. In the late 1940s and 50s, while other European countries were suffering from the harsh ramifications of the war, American economics grew rapidly. Not only was America’s economy growing strong, but employment opportunities for economists were also expanding ever since the passage of the New Deal. Moreover, when many war veterans went off to college on the GI Bill of 1944, many of them chose to study the social sciences, creating a new demand for economics professors. Thus, economics departments grew to a size that American universities had never before seen.

Additionally, partly due to the influence of wartime planning, statistical study and empirical work became increasingly interwoven. After 1945, economics grounded itself more firmly within the confines of quantitative methods, including algebraic procedures, theoretical models, and economic statistics. When Paul Samuelson published Foundations of Economic Analysis in 1947, he constructed a persuasive framework that would guide the economic discipline towards a field defined much more through the development of testable propositions. The influence of John Maynard Keynes also helped to establish mechanisms that could be analyzed formally, setting the stage for the transition to math. [6] Economists like Milton Friedman also followed up on all this in the early 1950s, pushing for a “positivist” economic movement that would be “in principle independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgments.”[7]

As economics drifted in a more mathematical direction, the former stronghold of the institutionalist camp began to falter. Universities espousing the new mathematical approach like MIT, the University of Chicago and Berkeley rose to prominence, while former bastions of institutionalism, like Columbia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, declined dramatically in relevance and influence. [8]

Robert Heilbroner’s most famous book, The Worldly Philosophers, provides insight into what he thought about these new professional trends. Published in 1953, the book which traces the lives of economists like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and others, became one of the most widely-read texts ever written on the history of economic thought. Although Heilbroner self-described politically as a democratic socialist, he reserved immense admiration for economists like Smith and Schumpeter. In fact, realistically, he hoped to see a return to economic conversations rooted in the spirit of thinkers like Smith. That would demand, for example, that to really theorize on markets and businesses, as Smith does in The Wealth of Nations, one must also delve into topics like justice, virtue and conscience, as Smith does in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. [9] In a 1999 New York Times interview, just six years before his death, Heilbroner said, ”The worldly philosophers thought their task was to model all the complexities of an economic system—the political, the sociological, the psychological, the moral, the historical… modern economists, au contraire, do not want so complex a vision. They favor two-dimensional models that in trying to be scientific leave out too much.” [10]

To be sure, Robert Heilbroner did not oppose the entry of mathematics into economics. He felt a quantitative approach could augment the thick, social and philosophical analysis already (or at least formerly) employed. And he recognized that math is simply the only tool economists have available to answer certain questions. Heilbroner differed from his colleagues not over whether math was useful, but over what math was capable of explaining. Where colleagues like Friedman pushed a positivist agenda to avoid “normative” answers to some of society’s toughest questions, Heilbroner tried to show that all decisions carry inherently normative judgments. And when individuals like Greg Mankiw asserted that economists were capable of tackling economics with the same objectivity as that of a natural scientist, Heilbroner pushed back.

“What does it mean to be “objective” about such things as inherited wealth or immissterating poverty? Does it mean that those arrangements reflect some properties of society that must be accepted, just as the scientist accepts the arrangements studied through a telescope or under a microscope? Or does it mean that if we were scrupulously aware of our own private endorsements or rejections of society’s arrangements we could, by applying an appropriate discount, arrive at a truly neutral view? In that case, could one use the word “scientific” to describe our findings, even though the object of study was not a product of nature but of society? The answer is that we cannot.”

Heilbroner also strove for economic conversations that ended the “precipitous decrease” in the presence of the word capitalism. Without referring to the economic system by name, Heilbroner argued, we encourage individuals to forget what the system is for and in whose interests it is working. He looked to Joseph Stiglitz, who penned a 997-paged economic textbook, and found in it a grand total of zero references to the word “capitalism.” These types of absences reinforced Heilbroner’s angst that society was losing sight of a fundamental descriptor necessary to conceptualize modern economics. [11]

If these were Heilbroner’s only academic critiques, perhaps he would not have been so marginalized. But Heilbroner went further in his attempts to push social analysis into economics, suggesting that, “indeed the challenge may in fact require that economics come to recognize itself as a discipline that follows in the wake of sociology and politics rather than proudly leading the way for them.” This suggestion of inverting the disciplinary hierarchies highlighted an epistemological modesty not shared by many other economists in the field. [12]

While Robert Heilbroner never lived to see economics revert to a broader, more social analytical framework, his work nevertheless may have had some tangential influence over areas outside of economics. Cornell sociologist Richard Swedberg observed that “one of the most important developments” for the social sciences in the past few decades “has been the race to fill the void created by mainstream economics’ failure to do research on economic institutions.” For example, a new academic field began to take form in the 1980s—that of economic sociology. In 1985, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published an article entitled, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness”, laying an intellectual base for the new field. Granovetter’s goal, echoing Heilbroner’s rhetoric, was to push economics from its knee-jerk emphasis on rationality towards a greater focus on the ways in which social structure and social relations factor into economic systems and power hierarchies. As Granovetter said, “there is something very basically wrong with microeconomics, and that the new economic sociology should make this argument loud and clear especially in the absolutely core economic areas of market structure, production, pricing, distribution and consumption.” [13]

New programs within graduate history departments have also emerged, designed to focus more specifically on the relationship between historical events and economics. Duke University’s Center for the History of Political Economy was founded in 2008 and Harvard University’s Joint Center for History and Economics was founded in 2007.  And, just this past springthe New School launched a new center, the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies, which seeks to blend “the history of capitalism, economic sociology, international political economy, heterodox economics, critical theory, economic anthropology, and science and technology studies.”[14]

There is some evidence that suggests that even the economics profession might be changing. When Thomas Piketty published Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in the spirit of the worldly philosophers, he advanced an argument for a global wealth tax not only based on his analysis of quantitative data, but also from his engagement with philosophy, history, and even 19th century literature. And the Institute for New Economic Thinking, founded in 2009, is meant to support economic projects and research that challenge the traditional paradigms of rational models and markets.

More aspects of Robert Heilbroner’s work deserve revisiting. His attentiveness to history and his fundamental humility led to some very fascinating writings about the future, technology, business civilization and the capitalist order. His rich 40-year career leaves us much more in which to sift and question.


[1] The best, albeit limited, secondary sources I could find included Loren J. Okroi’s Galbraith, Harrington, Heilbroner: Economics and Dissent In an Age of Optimism (Princeton: Princeton University Press1988), Mathew Forstater’s “”In Memoriam: Robert L. Heilbroner The Continuing Relevance of The Worldly Philosophy” in Economic Issues 10.1 (March 2005) and Robert Pollin’s “Robert Heilbroner: Worldly Philosopher” in Challenge (May/June 1999).

[2] Pollin, “Heilbroner”, 34.
[3] Okroi, Heilbroner, 183.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers. (N.p.: F. Watts, 1966.) 16.
[6] Backhouse, Roger and Philippe Fontaine. History of the Social Sciences Since 1945. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 39, 40, 46, 52.
[7] Friedman, Milton. Essays in Positive Economics.(Chicago: UChicago Press, 1953) 4
[8] Backhouse, History of the Social Sciences, 42.
[9] Dieterle, David Anthony, Economic Thinkers: A Biographical Encyclopedia. (Greenwood, 2013) 131.
[10] Backhouse, Roger; Bateman, Bradley. “Worldly Philosophers Wanted.” New York Times.November 5, 2011.
[11] Heilbroner. The Worldly Philosophers. 314, 318, 315, 318.
[12] Heilbroner, Robert L., and William S. Milberg. The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought. (New York: Cambridge UP, 1995) 126.
[13] Swedberg, Richard. “A New Economic Sociology: What Has Been Accomplished, What is Ahead?” Acta Sociologica.(1997), 161, 163, 164.
[14] Ott, Julia, and William Milberg. “Capitalism Studies: A Manifesto.” Public Seminar RSS. Graduate Programs at NSSR, 17 Apr. 2014.