Women Thinkers of the World Economy

by Professor Patricia Owens

In International Political Economy: An Intellectual History, Benjamin J. Cohen (2008) argued that a ‘magnificent seven’ individuals shaped the modern discipline of ‘IPE’ when, in reaction to the turmoil of the Oil Crisis of 1973, it was founded as a separate academic subfield of IR within Political Science. On this account, IPE was a necessary and belated unification of political-economic thought after the historical separation between the academic disciplines of Political Science and Economics.

Susan Strange

But as with the omissions and erasures that characterise IR’s more general disciplinary history, discussed in earlier blogs and WHIT research, so with IPE. In dating IPE’s beginning to the 1970s, numerous women international economic thinkers are easily erased from the wider history of thought on the world economy. International economy is a field so fundamental to understanding international relations that it ought to be thought ludicrous that the earliest women thinker to be reckoned with is Susan Strange, one of the ‘magnificent seven’, who founded both IPE in Britain and co-founded the British International Studies Association.

Thus far, most, but not all, of the works we have recovered and analyzed in this domain can be understood as examples of ‘white women’s’ international economic thought (Owens, 2018), drawn largely from thinkers with advanced academic training, most often at the London School of Economics. Most were middle or upper class and were activist intellectuals or academics; some primarily working inside academe, others beginning their career inside the academy and re-joining after diplomatic or other public service; one began her career as a journalist and, another, the first woman to be hired to an IR department, left academe to follow her husband and never returned.

Unsurprisingly, women international thinkers encompassed the ideological range, from Marxist analyses of imperialism and liberal and ‘realist’ readings of the relation between states and markets, from development economics to one of the earliest formulations for a ‘developing economy’ of what is now referred to as ‘neoliberalism’.

Here, in this short blog post, we just briefly consider two examples of women’s international economic thought, Sudha Shenoy (1943-2008) and Edith Penrose (1914-1996).

Sudha Shenoy

One of major strands of Economic thinking that dominated early- to mid-twentieth century LSE is associated with the so-called ‘Austrian School’, promulgated by, among others, Friedrich von Hayek, who taught at LSE from 1931 to 1950. Opposing any form of planned economy as an unjustified and dangerous infringement on the spontaneous economic order generated by individual economic action and innovation, the Austrian School is one of the intellectual progenitors of what is now commonly referred to as neoliberalism.

Despite the scale of interest in this ‘ism’, including work on the global intellectual history of neoliberalism, this work has all but ignored Sudha Shenoy (Slobodian, 2018; Harvey, 2005). Yet, she claimed ‘the longest connection to the Austrian movement of anybody ever’ (Shenoy, 2003); attended the 1974 conference in South Royalton, Vermont, where the contemporary historical resurgence of the Austrian School is said to have begun; and her intellectual work prefigured the contemporary neoliberal transformation of India. Born in India, Shenoy received her PhD at LSE where her father, B. R. Shenoy (1905-1978), member of the Mont Pelerin Society, also studied with Hayek.

F.A. Hayek

Though her research focussed primarily on India, Shenoy contributed to the history of economic thought, compiling and introducing a selection of Hayek’s writings, A Tiger by the Tail: The Keynesian Legacy of Inflation, a work described as ‘as much Shenoy’s book as it is Hayek’s’ (Salerno, 2009: xiii; also see Shenoy [1972] 2009 and Becchio, 2018). She worked at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, was a Research Assistant at Oxford’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and in the early 1970s became a Lecturer in Economics, at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia.

The title of Shenoy’s 1966 essay, ‘The Coming Serfdom in India’, was an obvious play on Hayek’s 1944 The Road Serfdom. It was published in The Freeman, a libertarian magazine of the Foundation for Economic Education published between 1950 and 2016.The essay draws a distinction between two types of liberals, ‘advocates of liberty’ and ‘statists’. The former are the ‘true’ liberals because they understand that freedom is indivisible. It is not enough to have free elections if the conditions of economic freedom are strangled by the political intervention of the state. The concentration of economic power in the hands of state administrators, she argued, was a form of political exploitation, ‘the politically strong ex­ploiting the politically weak’. In India, state-led economic planning, particularly preferential treatment for the industrial sector, consolidated the oligarchic power of ruling-party officials, civil servants, and favoured businessmen. Government-sanctioned industrial production enriched those able to reap the rewards of private monopolies or protected internal markets at the expense of ‘the starving, ill-clothed, and unsheltered Indian masses’. Foreign aid from the industrialized West only made things worse. ‘Given in order to “feed starving orphans in Orissa” …or to “keep India from going com­munist”…, it is in fact one major cause why orphans in Orissa are starving and why India is now so firmly set down the road to serf­dom’. International economic development, emerging out of colonial economic administration, was included among the fields encompassed within the British International Studies Association established in 1975. Shenoy had no links to BISA. But Edith Penrose was instrumental in the establishing development studies at LSE and SOAS and was one of the six speakers at the 1975 inaugural BISA Conference held at Oxford. Yet she appears in no disciplinary history of IR.

Edith Penrose

Penrose was born in Los Angeles, studying at UC-Berkeley, then Johns Hopkins, where she received her PhD and later taught and researched (Penrose, 2018). She crossed academe and policy worlds with ease, from assisting Eleanor Roosevelt at the UN Human Rights Commission to advising international tribunals on the oil industry. Appalled by the McCarthyite treatment of her colleague and friend Owen Lattimore – accused of spying for the Soviets and complicity in the so-called ‘loss of China’ – Penrose and her husband quit the United States. They pursued academic careers first in Australia, then Iraq, but were expelled  after the 1958 Iraqi Revolution, eventually settling in Britain. Her most influential work was The Theory of the Growth of the Firm, considered one of the most influential works of economics in the second half of the twentieth century. She co-edited New Orientations: Essays in International Relations (1970) and co-wrote Iraq: International Relations and National Development (1978).

Yet it is Penrose’s, The Large International Firm in Developing Countries: The International Petroleum Industry (1968), a synthesis of economics, politics, and history, that is probably her most important contribution to the history of IPE. At the end of World War II, the world’s crude-oil reserves were under the control of seven international corporations colluding to ensure high prices. However, by the 1950s, there was a new story to tell of major structural transformation in the global economy: the increasing power of the crude oil producing countries themselves. In telling the story international petroleum industry in historical and comparative detail, Penrose offered what one reviewer described as ‘the raw material and direction for a new theoretical approach to international economic relations… Few books in the currently arid field of international economics can claim as much’ (Murray, 1969: 517). Penrose showed the confluence of international political and economic forces shaping oil prices and the prospects for international regulation of the industry. ‘The deeper root of the problem’, she argued, ‘is simply that international firms, including the oil Companies, have not yet found a way of operating in the modern world which would make them generally acceptable as truly international institutions’ (1968: 263).

Neither Shenoy nor Penrose explicitly focussed on the gendered nature of the global economy. But, of course, the recovery and retrieval of these earlier women writers, whether explicitly feminist or not, is a feminist project and part of the gendered intellectual history of international political economy as a field. It constitutes a significant part of what Elias and Roberts in their excellent Handbook on the International Political Economy of Gender conceive of as the ‘multiple and diverse roots and influences’ on feminist IPE (2018: 1). Yet the absence of earlier women thinkers in the Handbook reflects a more general tendency to assume that, barring the exceptional figures of Rosa Luxemburg (Hutchings, forthcoming) and Susan Strange, there were no important historical  women thinkers on the world economy before the emergence of feminist IPE or they are not precursors to contemporary approaches to the IPE of gender.

Rosa Luxemburg

But enquiring into the conditions and reception of historical women’s work – who is recognized when and by whom, who is not recognized by whom and how – might reveal something quite important about the conditions of this subfield’s intellectual reproduction. After all, that only Susan Strange, as an exceptional founding figure, is the only thinker in histories of international thought to receive the recognition they deserve, was itself gendered, and is surely part of the context for the later production and reception of feminist IPE.

As Joanna Russ has argued, ‘If you are women and wish to become pre-eminent in a field, it’s a good idea to (a) invent it and (b) locate it in an area either so badly paid or of such low status that men don’t want it’ (1983: 101). As economic history enjoys a ‘global’ turn, both feminist IPE and women’s and gender history are thriving, and IR is renewing itself, in part, through investigating its intellectual and disciplinary history, now is a good time for these fields to start speaking with and learning from one another. 


Becchio, Giandomenica (2018) ‘Austrian School Women Economists’ in Kirsten Madden and Robert W. Dimond (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of the History of Women’s Economic Thought (London: Routledge), pp.309-324

Cohen, Benjamin J. (2008) International Political Economy: An Intellectual History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)

Elias, Juanita and Adrienne Roberts (2018) ‘Introduction: Situating Gender Scholarship in IPE’ in Elias and Roberts (eds.) Handbook on the International Political Economy of Gender (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar)

Harvey, David (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Hutchings, Kimberley (2020 forthcoming) ‘Revolutionary Thinking: Luxemburg’s Socialist International Theory’ in Patricia Owens and Katharina Rietzler (eds.) Women’s International Thought: A New History (Cambridge University Press)

Murray, Robin (1969) ‘Review of The Large International Firm in Developing Countries: The International Petroleum Industry. by Edith T. Penrose’, International Affairs,Vol.45, no.3

Owens, Patricia (2018) ‘Women and the History of International Thought’ International Studies Quarterly, Vol.62, no3, pp.467-481

Penrose, Angela (2018) No Ordinary Woman: The Life of Edith Penrose (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Penrose, Edith (1968) The Large International Firm in Developing Countries: The International Petroleum Industry (London, Allen & Unwin)

Penrose, Edith and Ernest Penrose (1978) Iraq: International Relations and National Development (London: E. Benn Publishers)

Penrose, Edith, Ernest Penroseand Peter Lyon (ed.) (1970) New Orientations: Essays in International Relations (London: Cass)

Russ, Joanna (1983) How to Suppress Women’s Writing (London: Women’s Press)

Salerno, Joseph T. (2009 [1972]) ‘Introduction to the Third Edition’, A Tiger by the Tail: A 40-Years’ Running Commentary on Keynesianism by Hayek (third edition) (London: The Institute of Economic Affairs)

Shenoy, Sudha (2003) ‘The Global Perspective: An Interview with Sudha Shenoy’, Austrian Economics Newsletter, Vol.23, no.4

Shenoy, Sudha (2009 [1972]) ‘The Debate, 1931-1971’ in A Tiger by the Tail: A 40-Years’ Running Commentary on Keynesianism by Hayek (third edition) (London: The Institute of Economic Affairs), pp.1-14

Slobodian, Quinn (2018) Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

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