Vera Shlakman, Economics Scholar Who Joined CSSW after Red Scare, Dies at 108

July 18, 2018 @ 3:46 pm

The Columbia School of Social Work mourns the loss of Dr. Vera Shlakman, a distinguished professor emerita who passed away in November at the age of 108. A celebrated economist who overcame political persecution to return to teaching, she will be remembered for her integrity and bravery as much as for her groundbreaking scholarship.

Born in Montreal, Dr. Shlakman was the daughter of devoted leftists. She earned her doctorate in economics from Columbia, where she wrote her dissertation on female factory workers in the 1800s. She would expand her analysis in her influential book Economic History of a Factory Town (1935), which provided a touchstone in the study of workplace conditions, family life, and relations between capital and labor through a study of Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Dr. Shlakman’s star continued to rise when she was hired as an instructor at Queens College. But in 1952, she became an early target of Joseph McCarthy and Pat McCarran’s Red Scare. When questioned before the U.S. Senate about her affiliation with the Communist Party, Dr. Shlakman invoked the First and Fifth amendments and refused to confirm she had ever been a member. The Board of Higher Education deemed her a “Fifth Amendment Communist” and fired her, along with more than a dozen other teachers at New York City’s public colleges. Thirty years later, in 1982, Dr. Shlakman and nine other teachers received an apology and restitution for their ordeal. In the immediate years after she was fired, however, she was radioactive in academic circles, and supported herself as a secretary and a bookkeeper.

In 1966, Dr. Shlakman was hired by the Columbia School of Social Work, and she served on the faculty until her retirement in 1978. At Columbia, she was able to return to the work that meant so much to her. Her students remember her rigorous pedagogy, her singular brilliance, and her deep understanding of the social impact of economics. Dr. Shlakman’s enduring connection to the School of Social Work led her to establish a scholarship, and to leave a bequest to the School in her will. She will be remembered by those who knew her at Columbia as a trailblazing scholar, an indomitable spirit, and a profile in courage.

Photo credit: Child laborer (1911) photo by Lewis Hine, in Chicopee, Massachusetts, shows the real-life setting for Shlakman’s book; NARA photo available from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).