The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elizabeth Bailey, pathbreaker for women in economics, dies at 83

She was the first woman to receive a PhD in economics from Princeton and helped deregulate airlines as the first woman on the Civil Aeronautics Board

Pioneering economist Elizabeth E. Bailey died Aug. 19 at age 83. (The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania)

Elizabeth E. Bailey once reported for a meeting at Bell Laboratories, where she was chief of economic research in the 1970s, when a male executive directed her to take notes in the back of the room. He had assumed she was a stenographer.

As a member of corporate boards, she was often the only woman at the table. And in academia, where she spent nearly three decades of her career, she lamented what for many years was the scarcity of female professors in economics departments.

Dr. Bailey, 83, who died Aug. 19 at her home in Reston, Va., was widely credited with opening opportunities for women in her field.

In 1972, she became the first woman to receive a PhD in economics from Princeton University. Five years later, President Jimmy Carter appointed her the first female member of the Civil Aeronautics Board, where she helped provide the intellectual framework for the deregulation of the airline industry. (To Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who inquired at her confirmation hearing about her “steel,” she declared herself “tougher than I look.”)

Later, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Dr. Bailey became the first woman to serve as dean of a Top 10 graduate business school.

“She certainly showed how women can succeed in economics and set an example for other women to follow,” Betsey Stevenson, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, said in an interview.

But if “firsts” such as hers were considered notable, Dr. Bailey insisted, it was “society’s fluke,” and no reflection on the abilities of the women who achieved them. A degree of equality would be attained, she seemed to say, when a woman in roles like hers was no longer remarkable.

Dr. Bailey served as dean of Carnegie Mellon’s graduate school of industrial administration from 1983 to 1990. She later joined the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was chair of the department of business and public policy before her retirement in 2010.

She specialized in subjects including regulation and deregulation — fields, Stevenson noted, that even today tend to attract fewer women than other areas of economic study — and was perhaps best known for her work on the Civil Aeronautics Board. Carter named her to one of two Republican slots in 1977, and President Ronald Reagan named her vice-chair in 1981.

Dr. Bailey was a forceful supporter of deregulation and set out, as she put it, to “free the airline industry from the tentacles of restrictive government.”

“I think we should rely more on market forces to determine the price and variety of air services,” Dr. Bailey told the New York Times upon her appointment to the panel. “What is so exciting about joining the board at this time is that I can point out what regulatory reform is all about — getting the regulatory agency out of making every little decision about how much a ticket costs, and leaving some things to the market.”

“There are a lot of people who have never had enough money to go to Europe,” she added. “The idea of offering lower fares and special services is really appealing. I only wish I’d been at the board [sooner].”

She and board colleagues including Chairman Alfred E. Kahn, whom Dr. Bailey had known from her tenure at Bell Labs, helped implement the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which essentially delivered a free market for the airline industry by eliminating government control of fares, routes and the establishment of new airlines.

Dr. Bailey “was the most ardent deregulator on the board,” Kahn told the Times in 1984.

As dean at Carnegie Mellon, Dr. Bailey emphasized the importance of information technology in business, requiring students to use PCs and encouraging sometimes-reluctant professors to adopt an internal computer network to improve communication. The school also established a $15 million international management institute and a center for entrepreneurship under her leadership.

Dr. Bailey joined the Wharton School in 1991. A fellow professor in the business economics and public policy department, Olivia S. Mitchell, recalled her as “a stellar economist, a committed policy analyst, and a wonderful colleague,” who as chair “worked hard to hire and promote young talent — both men and women.”

“Among women,” Dr. Bailey told the Christian Science Monitor, “there’s too much of a tendency to hope that they get noticed. Women need to learn to take their careers in their own hands. True merit doesn’t always shine out — it has to be brought to the boss’s attention.”

Elizabeth Ellery Raymond, one of five daughters, was born in New York City on Nov. 26, 1938. Her father was a professor of medieval history, and her mother had been a professor as well.

Dr. Bailey received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Radcliffe College in 1960, then joined Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J. She first worked as a computer programmer and technical aide, later telling a Princeton publication that “you were teased into knowing that there was some really interesting work right around the corner that you could do, if only you weren’t a woman.”

While working at Bell Laboratories, Dr. Bailey received a master’s degree in mathematics at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., in 1966, followed by her PhD from Princeton.

After earning her doctorate, Dr. Bailey advanced at Bell Laboratories to become head of the economics research group. The department was known for its work on monopolies and deregulation, both issues of urgent importance for Bell Systems as the telecommunications entity faced its ultimate breakup in the early 1980s.

“It was not easy for the Bell Labs management,” Dr. Bailey once told an interviewer of the American Economic Association of the early years in her career, “to accept the prospect of a female computer programming employee publicly theorizing about regulated firms like AT&T engaging in inefficient economic behavior due to regulatory distorted incentives.”

In addition to pursuing her education and career, Dr. Bailey acted as an advocate for her elder son, James Lawrence Bailey, who had learning disabilities. Working with other parents and educators, she helped start a school in New Jersey that catered to children with his challenges.

Dr. Bailey’s marriage to James Bailey ended in divorce. Their son James died in 2018. Survivors include another son, William Ellery Bailey of Marin, Calif.; four sisters; and two grandchildren.

Dr. Bailey’s granddaughter, Caroline Bailey, confirmed her death and said the cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Bailey received honors including the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award, which is given annually by the American Economic Association to a person “who has furthered the status of women in the economics profession.” She was a past chair of the National Bureau of Economic Research and was a 1997 inductee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

She served on the boards of companies including TIAA-CREF, the CSX Corp., Honeywell and Kraft.

In a field sometimes derided as the “dismal science,” Dr. Bailey brought an infectious enthusiasm for economics and the ability of economists to shape society.

“I know lots of people who went to work for the government and found they were bored. I never had that experience,” she told Forbes in 1983, reflecting on her time on the Civil Aeronautics Board. “In fact, I never had as much fun professionally as I did in deregulating the airlines. Every time I step onto a [discount] flight I get to reap some of the benefits of my work in Washington.”

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