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H.E.R.O. Profile--Jessica Blanche Peixotto

H.E.R.O. Profile--Jessica Blanche Peixotto

Author : Caroline Kreutzen

Early Life

Peixotto was born in 1864 in New York City to parents Raphael Peixotto and Myrtilla Jessica Davis Peixotto. The Peixottos were a Portuguese-Jewish family who fled for the New World during the Spanish Inquisition--setting deep roots in the United States. Raphael Peixotto worked in trade and eventually got hired by Levi Strauss which was based in San Francisco. Jessica, her mother, and her four siblings followed their father to the west coast in 1870. 


Peixotto graduated from high school in 1880 but was prevented from enrolling in higher education by her father who didn’t believe in college for women. During the next eleven years, she continued learning at home with tutors before finally convincing her father to let her enroll at the University of California Berkeley in 1891. She studied political economics there for the next nine years, and in 1900 became the second woman at Berkeley to be awarded a Ph.D. Her thesis The French Revolution and Modern French Socialism was based on research she conducted while living at the Sorbonne (University of Paris) from 1896-7. 


A few years after her graduation, in 1904, Peixotto was hired to teach Contemporary Socialism at Berkeley. She considered sociology to be too metaphorical and quickly transitioned into the economics department. There she shrugged the label of both sociologist and economist creating the discipline of social economics “the study of poverty and labor and social reform programs” (Edleson 7). This new discipline incorporated the moral elements of political economy and sociology into the field of economics. In 1917 she extended the discipline by creating the first training program for social workers in California which was housed in the Berkeley economics department. The program eventually became the school of social welfare at Berkeley. In 1918 she became the first woman to have the title of full professor at Berkeley and remained there teaching classes such as Control of Poverty, The Child and the State, The Household as an Economic Agent, and Crime as a Social Problem until 1935. 

Peixotto used her position at Berkeley to advocate for women in higher education and academia. Throughout her career, she directly advocated for herself pointing out instances in which male faculty had been promoted above her and asking for titles she wanted. As an extension of this mission, she helped establish the Women’s Faculty Club at Berkeley and the Heller Committee on Social Economic Research in 1923. The latter supported research in the mostly female field of social economic research. 


In addition to teaching Peixotto published economics research. Two of her most notable papers were Getting and Spending at the Professional Standard of Living: A Study of the Costs of Living on Academic Life (1927) and Cost of Living Studies, II: How Workers Spend a Living Wage (1929). Though they were focused on different populations both papers were based on survey research she conducted on family incomes and costs. She thoroughly broke down the expenditures of the average professional and working family and used the data to estimate living wages. In this Peixotto was ahead of her time as today establishing living wages is an integral part of economics research that informs social policy. 

Philanthropic Work

Peixotto used her economics expertise to chair several philanthropic boards including the California State Board of Charities and Corrections committees on children and research (1912-24), the Council of National Defense child welfare program (WWI), Consumers' Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration (1933), and as Vice President of the American Economics Association (1928).  She believed data on the economics of the home and family could create better social policy and practices specifically around poverty and child welfare. 


Peixotto’s accomplishments in economics and academia made space for other women to follow in her footsteps and beyond them. More importantly, she viewed economics as a field that could alleviate social issues such as poverty using research to back up policy. Her work analyzes poverty as a structural problem rather than an individual one, which was revolutionary at a time when social welfare policies had yet to be established in the United States. This new perspective was vital to the movement toward practical economics. 


Kyrk, Hazel. Journal of Political Economy, vol. 44, no. 5, 1936, pp. 709–10. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1824146. Accessed 17 Feb. 2023.

Carr-Saunders, A. M. The Economic Journal, vol. 46, no. 182, 1936, pp. 328–328. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2225246. Accessed 17 Feb. 2023.

Edleson, Jeffrey. “Our Founding Mother: Jessica Blanche Peixotto.” Our Founding Mother: Jessica Blanche Peixotto | Berkeley Social Welfare, Berkeley Social Welfare , 8 Mar. 2019, https://socialwelfare.berkeley.edu/news/our-founding-mother-jessica-blanche-peixotto

Baskin, Judith Reesa. "Jessica Blanche Peixotto." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 16, 2023) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/peixotto-jessica-blanche

Edleson, Jeffrey. “Jessica Blanche Peixotto and the Founding of Berkeley Social Welfare.” Berkeley Social Welfare , 29 May. 2020, https://150w.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/jessica_blanche_peixotto_by_edleson.pdf

Hartley, Caitlin. “Jessica Blanche Peixotto.” Berkeley Economics, April. 2021, https://www.econ.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/Peixotto.pdf

See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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