Daughters of Commons

Wisconsin women and Institutionalism

Authored by: Marianne Johnson

The Routledge Handbook of the History of Women’s Economic Thought

Print publication date:  September  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138852341
eBook ISBN: 9781315723570
Adobe ISBN:


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One of the top four programs in the United States throughout the first third of the 20th century (Froman 1942), Wisconsin was known for an Institutional approach that was “empirical, focused on institutions, and social control” (Rutherford 2006, 168). What distinguished Wisconsin Institutionalism was a commitment to Progressive reform, an emphasis on field research, historical case studies, and a focus on the larger cultural and legal environment. While having many contributors, the defining individual of Wisconsin Institutionalism was John R. Commons. Commons arrived at Wisconsin in 1904 and quickly became the epicenter of the department, overseeing an expansive research agenda and orchestrating nation-wide political advocacy for labor reforms including unemployment insurance, social security, and the minimum wage (Kato 2009; Kaufman 1993; Rutherford 2011; Tilman 2008). Commons “contributed in one way or another to practically every piece of social and labor legislation that has been enacted in the twentieth century” (Barbash 1993, 69). He was “the intellectual origin of the New Deal, of labor legislation, of social security, of the whole movement in the country toward a welfare state” (Boulding 1957, 7). His policy work was underpinned by a complicated and unwieldy theoretical structure, which he laid out in the Legal Foundations of Capitalism (1924) and Institutional Economics (1934).

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