Heidi Hartmann’s Pioneering Feminist Work Will Forever Pay Women Dividends

It was the sendoff of the season in Washington, D.C.—leaders in the progressive community gathered for an evening of food, wine and toasts to a national institution.

The occasion? The retirement of Dr. Heidi Hartmann, founder and President of the Institute for Policy Research, which has been the leading think tank on issues of importance to women since 1987.

By far the most influential of several U.S. think tanks specializing in issues of importance to women, IWPR grew from a small three-person shop to a powerhouse in the policy community under Hartmann’s steady hand. Since its inception, the Institute’s research and policy papers have influenced every administration, regardless of party, and have been consistently used by activist groups to inform their members and underpin demands for action with solid data.

Hartmann’s expertise was honed at Yale, where she earned her doctorate in Economics in 1974, followed by research appointments at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). She decided to jump the academic ship in 1987 when she co-founded IWPR with anthropologist Terry Odendahl. “I saw at NAS how research could be used to impact the policy process, and we needed that for women,” Hartmann remembers. “Male economists had been challenging the discipline from new points of view, and I thought women should do the same. There had been a surge of activism in the sixties from the new left, but it didn’t leave a lot of lasting institutions. I wanted to build a lasting institution.”

Finding the money was an issue. Hartmann and Odendahl used traditional techniques—going to individual women of wealth, proposals to foundations—as well as some non-traditional ones. “We sent to our Christmas card lists asking people for donations,” she remembers. “We put together about $150 thousand in the first eighteen months. Fifty of that was a grant from the Ford Foundation for a study called ‘Unnecessary Losses’ about the cost to women of not having family and medical leave.” 

Needless to say, the work was solid, and it built from there—attracting grants from sustaining individuals as well as the MacArthur Foundation and Annie Casey Foundation, among a host of others. Hartmann became Institute President when Odendahl returned to other work after the startup years, and in 1994 received a personal MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as the “Genius Grant,” for the body of work she amassed in such areas as pay equity, Social Security, welfare and family leave.

Thirty-three years later, Hartmann left the Institute with an annual budget of $4.4 million. As both founder and President, she is also particularly proud of the Institute’s work on the Status of Women in the States. 

Over an eight year period, 50 state reports were produced by IWPR chronicling women’s progress in employment and earnings, business ownership, political office holding and reproductive rights—both successes and shortcomings. The reports have been very useful for local organizations in talking to the media and raising the profile of issues important to women and what needs to be done. It’s enormously helpful to have information specific to each state.

Though the gala sendoff, complete with laudatory tributes from Washington’s leading policy groups as well as members of Congress, was billed as a retirement party, Hartmann isn’t leaving the playing field entirely. Coming full-circle from that first important grant from Ford, she’s completing a fully-funded study on benefits of paid family leave for IWPR, and has accepted an appointment as a fellow at the Urban Institute to pursue new research opportunities.

Whatever Heidi Hartmann decides to do next, there is no doubt that her vision in founding IWPR will continue to pay dividends for women far into the future.

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Martha Burk is Money editor at Ms.