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Women Of Liberty: Jane Marcet

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Jane Marcet is remembered most often for her scientific work in chemistry. Born in London in 1769, she was well-educated, and shared a passion for learning with her father. When she married Alexander Marcet, a physician, she would proof-read his work and eventually decided to publish her own thoughts.

In a series of pamphlets entitled, “Conversations,” Marcet wrote on chemistry, botany, religion, and economics. She was a member of the London Political Economy Club, founded by James Mill.

In the early 19th century there were no academic societies or professional associations for economists. The Political Economy Club was a way to establish a scientific community, test ideas, and provide peer review for their work.

In her “Conversations,” Marcet often utilized a dialogue between two students (Caroline and Emilie) and their teacher, “Mrs. B.” In these writings, Marcet

…popularised the arguments of political economists like Adam Smith, Malthus, and above all David Ricardo, in her Conversations on Political Economy (1816). This was well received and widely read, although some later economists such as Alfred Marshall were dismissive, to the detriment of its later reputation, and Joseph Schumpeter derided it as “economics for schoolgirls”. The purpose, however, was an important one that went beyond the lucrative supply of a niche market. Mrs B’s flippant pupil, Caroline, says that she would have thought a woman could be excused ignorance of that topic. Mrs B replies tartly, “When you plead in favour of ignorance, there is a strong presumption that you are in the wrong.”

Her economic thoughts promoted free market economics, often written in a way that those without a strong economic background could understand. In a tale written in 1893, Marcet wrote about globalization and division of labor in a Christmas story:

So you see, my friends,’ continued the landlord, ‘foreign trade has two advantages; for it not only procures things better and cheaper, but things which our climate renders it impossible for us to produce at home; such as wine, sugar, tobacco, plums, currants, rice, spices, cotton, silks, and other things without number.’

‘Oh, then,’ cried the good woman, ‘I could not even treat my children with a plum pudding at Christmas without foreign trade; for there’s no making it without plums and spices.’

Heavy-handed, yes, but appropriate for the time period and audience.

Marcet died in 1858, and is remembered for being able to explain complex issues and topics to a large audience in an understandable manner. She championed the education of girls and women in a time when young ladies were often trained only for social graces.

 

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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