Nov. 26, 1938 — Aug. 19, 2022
Economist Elizabeth (Betsy) Bailey *72 rose from being an unlikely numbers cruncher at Bell Labs to vice chairman of the old Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), where she helped put an end to the government’s telling airlines where they could fly and what fares they could charge. “I never had as much fun professionally as I did in deregulating the airlines,” she later told Forbes. “Every time I step onto a [low-cost] flight I get to reap some of the benefits of my work in Washington.”
The daughter of two history professors, Bailey broke glass ceilings as the first woman awarded a Ph.D. from Princeton’s Department of Economics in 1972, and at storied Bell Laboratories, which hired the Radcliffe College economics major in 1960 as a programmer and technical aide who calculated trajectories of debris from anti-missile strikes. Given an opportunity one summer to research distortions caused by economic regulations, she made a favorable impression on Ma Bell advisers, including William Baumol, the Princeton economics chair who would become her mentor.
Princeton had admitted its first full-time female graduate students in the humanities in the early 1960s. Bailey, who’d married at 19, earned the doctorate while raising two sons, including one with special needs, on her own. Doctoral degree in hand, she returned to Bell Labs as a supervisor and then head of its economics research department. Once, she recalled, at a crowded meeting for managers, “a male executive director approached me to say I should be sitting in the back [not the front] … as he assumed my role was as a note taker.”
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the CAB, where she and fellow economist Alfred Kahn orchestrated the superannuated agency’s demise. Once an Eastern Airlines flight attendant refused to seat the commissioner in the nonsmoking section, which was full, in disregard of a new CAB rule that passengers were entitled to a nonsmoking seat. The attendant called her “a witch” and relegated Bailey to a row with smokers (who agreed not to light up), The New York Times reported. Frank Borman, the chairman of Eastern and a former astronaut, showed up at Bailey’s office to apologize. Bailey became the first female dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA) and spent almost two decades as a professor of business and public policy at Penn’s Wharton School before retiring in 2010. She served on numerous corporate boards — where again she found herself one of the few women in the room — chaired the National Bureau for Economic Research, and always insisted that people call her Betsy, not Dr. or Professor Bailey. Dissatisfied with other options for her late son Jimmy, she helped establish the Harbor School for special needs children in Eatontown, New Jersey. She was saluted by the Stevens Institute of Technology, where she earned a master’s degree, as “the embodiment of trailblazing,” honored by the American Economic Research Association, and awarded an honorary Penn degree in 2016.
“She did a lot in her life and was very successful [while] also managing Jimmy, who could be quite challenging,” says Marion Bestani, one of her four sisters. A woodworker and opera lover, Bailey was also a regular Broadway show attendee and explorer of new restaurants. “That was one of her great joys. We’d drive an hour to try a new place and each year try to check off Northern Virginia Magazine’s 50 best restaurants list,” says Bestani.
Once, during tense negotiations over an aviation treaty with Japan, she broke the ice by dancing the hula with members of the Japanese delegation, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported. Although slowed by Parkinson’s disease, she never missed granddaughter Caroline Bailey ’20’s performances with diSiac Dance Company, the University’s contemporary and hip-hop troupe. Bailey made a final trip back to campus with son William in May for the Class of 2020’s belated Commencement exercise at Princeton Stadium, three months before her death at age 83.
Christopher Connell ’71 is a freelance writer who lives in Alexandria, Virginia.