From the Archives: Just One of the Girls
In the March 1998 issue, Worth proved it was ahead of its time with an in-depth feature on Deirdre McCloskey, a well-known professor of economics at the University of Iowa, who underwent gender reassignment surgery from male to female in 1995. Writer Eric Morgenthaler said at the time that McCloskey was “seeking a place among the women of academia—now that she is one” and proceeded to trace the life and career of the distinguished professor and economist.
It is noontime at Panchero’s—“home of the 2-lb. burrito”—across the street from the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, and a small group of academics are gathered for their weekly lunch. As a couple of men finish their meals, economist Deirdre McCloskey, a tall blond in a red blouse and a flowered scarf, sips a Diet Coke. She eats nothing, having returned her food and canceled her order as a protest, of sorts, over the dullness of the fast-food restaurant’s plastic knives. McCloskey politely informed the cashier she wouldn’t eat there again unless Panchero’s got better knives.
The conversation at the table flows easily, for these are old friends who have been meeting for years, and McCloskey’s little stand—over a problem the others have chosen to ignore—seems to surprise no one. McCloskey, 55 years old, is known as a person who acts on her convictions. If she has a point to make, she will make it. This was true long before Deirdre was the woman she is today. It was true when she was still an overweight, bearded professor named Donald.
It was at a similar lunch about two years ago that Donald McCloskey sat down and told his colleagues he had decided to become a woman.
“Well, I guess ‘stunned’ is a plausible start,” says Bob Boynton, a professor of political science and lunch-group member, recalling his reaction that day. “But it isn’t complete enough. Also ‘uninformed.’ Uninformed about what was involved, what it meant.”
What it meant, in part, was that Donald McCloskey, one of the better-known academic economists in the U.S., had decided that he was really a she. Donald McCloskey, whose life read like an old-boy manual—son of a Harvard professor, Harvard Ph.D., 12 years on the University of Chicago faculty, an endowed professorship at Iowa’s College of Business, internationally honored for his writings, married for 30 years and the father of two—was in fact a transsexual. His marriage was ending, and he soon would begin living as a woman.
To put it mildly, this wasn’t the Donald McCloskey people thought they knew. “I hope you understand that nobody had an inkling,” explains Joel Mokyr, a professor at Northwestern University and a longtime friend of McCloskey’s.
“I knew Deirdre when she was Don. If I say there was absolutely nothing even hinting about some kind of feminine side to her, this would be the absolute truth.”
Donald McCloskey, an expert on the economy of Victorian England, was widely recognized for his writings on the “rhetoric” of economics: He challenged the widely accepted idea that the language of economic science was a realm apart from ordinary speech. Donald was also a strong voice in the emerging field of feminist economics. And now he was becoming a woman.
At the coming-out lunch with his peers, McCloskey was heartened when one of the female members told him, “There is only one thing I have to say to you, and that is ‘Welcome.’”
McCloskey followed up with letters and emails to other colleagues—a seven-page letter for everyone, with an additional two-page missive for the women—and a letter to the Ocean Waves Square Dancing Club, to which Donald and his wife belonged. McCloskey also announced the decision in the Eastern Economic Journal, writing in his regular column that changing gender “costs about as much as a Mercedes, and at that price I’m buying.”
The article was entitled “Some News That at Least Will Not Bore You.” The byline, for the first time, was Deirdre N. McCloskey. The “N” is for Nansen, which was also Donald’s middle name. Deirdre was a name he had come across in a name-your-baby book. He had liked the sound of it. It meant “wanderer” in Old Irish. It seemed to fit.
McCloskey left Iowa shortly thereafter, easing the personal transition by spending the next year in the Netherlands, where she holds a distinguished professorship at Erasmus University of Rotterdam. Now she is back in this leafy town of 60,000, in the heart of farm country. She talks freely, and often wittily, about herself—her operations, her academic life, her colleagues and the reactions and controversy around her.
“The basic moral of the story is gender is a lot more complicated than we thought.”
What emerges is a woman who is both anxious and pleased with the way she looks, thinks and acts, someone who demands acceptance on her own terms but who also wants the blessings of the conventional world she inhabits and studies. In the realm of dilemmas, it’s about as modern as it gets.
Says Julie Nelson, associate professor of economics at Brandeis University and a leading feminist economist: “The basic moral of the story is gender is a lot more complicated than we thought.”
“Here is something I didn’t understand before, and I understand now: the great importance of the female-supported infrastructure of an economy,” McCloskey [says, as she] kicks off her shoes—toenails painted bright red—and curls up on the Victorian-style couch in her living room. “I have a friend, a historian, whose Ph.D. dissertation was on coal-mining towns of Britain in the 19th century. She points out that you couldn’t run those towns without the wives. You had to have some provision for these guys to be fed, to have a house to come home to. Her point is that [the care of the miners] is part of the cost of producing the coal. If you are going to have a coherent explanation of the economy, you can’t leave the social arrangements out.”
McCloskey fingers her long strand of pearls. On her left hand is an ornate ring her graduate students gave her before she left for Holland. “It is social arrangements,” she continues, “that made teaching the only respectable occupation for the educated but nonscientific woman in this country until the liberating 1960s. And that, of course, meant we had fantastic schoolteachers at a very low price. Whereas in Germany, it was a male occupation, at least in high schools, until after World War II. That made for a smaller supply, so teaching was much higher paid and had a higher status, because men did it and men had other occupations.”
McCloskey has long had a great reputation as a teacher, particularly among graduate students. “She is a fabulously inspirational speaker and exudes excitement about our field,” says grad student Santhi Hejeebu. “She asks openly very difficult questions about economic methodology, and our field is known for lacking any self-reflection about our method. She stands out in our entire discipline because of that.”
McCloskey was included in one well-known book, Great Economists Since Keynes, but she isn’t a superstar, partly because her specialties are somewhat arcane. There are about 150,000 economists in the U.S.; only a fraction of those are economic historians. The Economic History Association has about 1,000 members, mostly academics; this makes her discipline “a tiny specialty of both economics and history,” McCloskey says.
The field of feminist economics is smaller still. As a relatively new area, it is still establishing its credentials. It seeks to bring more of a woman’s perspective to traditional economics, which feminist economists generally say has deep-seated masculine biases that need to be aired and corrected—such as the treatment of home economics as a separate area of study. A feminist economist might look at the role of altruism or love in economic decisions, rather than assuming, as neoclassical economists usually do, that individuals consistently act according to self-interest.
McCloskey was an early member of the International Association for Feminist Economics, founded in 1992, and sits on the board of its professional journal, Feminist Economics, which was started in 1995. But Donald McCloskey was a mixed blessing for the feminists. A lot of women found his manner abrasive, though his professional stature—and his gender—lent weight and credibility to the emerging field.
“I think in some ways Donald was more useful being a well-known male voice saying a lot of the same things,” says Julie Nelson. Nelson, among others, wonders whether Deirdre’s views will be treated as seriously as Donald’s—or whether the controversy surrounding her gender change will cause McCloskey to be taken less seriously.
Deirdre says Donald was involved in feminist economics out of “noblesse oblige,” whereas her involvement now is “out of loyalty.”
“I think it is important for economics that there be more women in the field,” she says. “I think that is one route toward improving the character of the field. And I think now, being one of the few senior women economists—there are not very many of us, of my stature and age—it’s very important not to become a Margaret Thatcher,” who “didn’t encourage women in the Conservative Party. I think that is a terrible thing to do. I certainly don’t want to join the gender and then betray it.”
“I certainly don’t want to join the gender and then betray it.”
She says becoming a woman has given her a new perspective on feminist issues. “Being one makes a big difference,” she says. She adds that it has given her firsthand insights into such things as “the power of hormones—they are overwhelmingly powerful.”
She says she is also changing in both style and substance. “In style, it is a softening. I am still an arguer, but not as harsh as I was. In the substance of economics, it is an increasing appreciation that, after all, economics is part of society—which most Chicago-school economists like me are unwilling to admit. They think of the market and economics as wholly autonomous, as having nothing to do with people’s values or morals—and I think they do.”
Women in economics generally have welcomed her at the personal level. “The reaction has been wonderful—that’s the only way to describe it,” McCloskey says.
However, some feminist theorists refuse to treat transsexuals as women; McCloskey was annoyed by a notice about a women’s festival that specifically excluded transsexuals. “I just had a quarrel with someone in Wisconsin, who was offended I was coming across as a woman in economics when she had been one all her career,” she says. “That is not a common reaction. I had been afraid of it. I don’t want to be rejected by these people, and on the whole I haven’t been.”
However, some feminists still have trouble seeing her, in a professional sense, as one of their own. “McCloskey has attained a degree of privilege in the economics profession that very few women have attained, if any,” says Diana Strassmann, editor of Feminist Economics and senior research fellow at Rice University’s Center for the Study of Cultures.
McCloskey seems hypersensitive about being accepted as one of the girls. In June, she presented a paper—“Economic Rhetoric From a Novice Woman’s Perspective”—at a feminist economics conference in Mexico. She startled participants in one panel discussion by lashing out furiously at Brandeis’s Julie Nelson, who she thought had called her Donald/Deirdre; Nelson, others say, was innocently using the term while referring to McCloskey’s gender change.
“I told Deirdre that I thought she had misinterpreted the comment, and that offended her, too,” says Strassmann, who sat next to McCloskey on the panel. Strassmann adds, “It was the kind of public display that stemmed from the fact she is feeling very vulnerable and can’t necessarily give other people the benefit of the doubt.”
It is late afternoon, and Deirdre is at the computer screen in her home office, scrolling through her email. On the wall is a photo of a fencing team at Harvard. McCloskey is one of the young men in the back row. Down a hallway, a wall of family pictures includes a framed photo of Donald dressed for cricket—which, McCloskey says, “is about the only sport that still interests me, after the change. I used to follow baseball, football—I was a Bears fan. But I find all that kind of pointless and macho now.” She adds: “You are looking at the captain of her high-school football team. I was a guard.”
McCloskey grew up as a guy’s sort of guy, a competitor in academics—McCloskey’s father was a noted Harvard political scientist—and athletics. Donald received a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard and in 1968 joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, teaching economic history.
“I was a Chicago-school economist back when it was not fashionable,” says McCloskey. “I spoiled a lot of dinner parties arguing for school vouchers and legalization of pot”—positions she still holds.
After being passed over for a full professorship, McCloskey moved in 1980 to the University of Iowa, where his reputation as an iconoclast continued to grow. “McCloskey has never had a dearth of courage,” says graduate student Hejeebu. “Here is a revolutionary from within the party—somebody who was not at the margins, who is a neoclassical economist but talking in a very sophisticated way about the way we argue. The big magnet for Iowa is that McCloskey is here.”
McCloskey has long had a great reputation as a teacher. Says one graduate student: “The big magnet for Iowa is that McCloskey is here.” Photo by Larry Fink
Donald’s intellectual accomplishments were accompanied by a strong personal style. Despite a lifelong stutter, he could be a witheringly aggressive debater and critic. “Donald was a force to contend with,” says Claudia Goldin, a good friend and former student of McCloskey’s who is now a Harvard economist. “And Donald was a great teacher. Donald taught by correcting you, sometimes most severely. There are many people for whom Donald was something to fear.”
Yet behind the intellectual bravado, Donald was concealing a secret. He had been dressing up in women’s clothes since age 11. McCloskey says Donald was not a homosexual male—and never had a homosexual experience—but increasingly he began to think he was, deep down, a woman.
In the 1983-84 academic year, he went to Princeton University as a fellow at its Institute for Advanced Study. His family stayed home for half the year. “I was alone,” McCloskey says, “and I cross-dressed—and got into makeup and everything.” She adds, a bit wickedly, “Now, when I put on my eyeliner, I think of the Institute for Advanced Study.”
In early 1995, McCloskey began frequenting transgender discussion groups on the Internet. “They were lifesaving,” she says. They “gave me hope and companionship. I spent hours and hours talking to transgendered people. I met all the people important in my transition through the Internet.” Soon McCloskey was attending cross-dressing conventions. At one in suburban Cincinnati, McCloskey sat by someone who, it turned out, had been in the same graduating class at Harvard.
Deirdre gets up to fetch a thick album of pictures. She sets it down and begins leafing through, showing snapshots she took of friends at these conventions. “I call them ‘she’ out of courtesy,” she says of the people in the photos, all dressed as women. “Almost every one is a he.” She pauses. “But this one isn’t a he—he is a woman.”
She continues. “This person is a professor of history. This one is an administrator for the state of Illinois. This one was an industrial chemist; she now does information supply services to transsexuals. And this is a TV producer.”
Less than a year after she discovered the internet groups, McCloskey realized she wanted to be a woman—“on Sunday, August 20, 1995, at about 12 noon on the highway close to De Kalb, Illinois, driving back from Aurora, Illinois, to Iowa City,” she says. “It was an insight, an ‘Aha!’ effect.”
McCloskey’s wife and two adult children were devastated. The marriage broke up, and Donald legally changed his name. The court date for the name-change hearing, November 13, came a few days before the divorce hearing; McCloskey’s wife was outraged that she had to divorce someone with a woman’s name, Deirdre says.
In November, a few women colleagues threw a little party for Deirdre during a Social Science History Association meeting in Chicago. They decorated the door with balloons that read: it’s a girl.
A couple of months later, Deirdre attended an American Economic Association convention. “The face seemed quite familiar,” says Edward Leamer, professor of economics and management at the University of California at Los Angeles, who was there. “But at those kinds of settings, lots of people come up to you with a face you kind of remember. Then I realized it was him, or her, and I was kind of speechless.”
On the physical level alone, McCloskey’s change has so far involved eight surgeries with general anesthesia—in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Rotterdam and Sydney, Australia. Some have been cosmetic—having her scalp moved forward, her jaw reduced, the bones under her eyebrows (“very characteristic of men”) ground down, her Adam’s apple shaved. There were cheek and breast implants, a nose job, a tummy tuck, a face-lift and two voice operations. There was what she calls The Operation and “a subsequent operation for female trouble that came as a result of that.”
The physical side of things has been far easier for McCloskey than the emotional. “I wanted the physical changes,” she explains. “I didn’t want to lose any of my family or friends. The emotional losses were devastating.”
McCloskey says that relations with her son and daughter, as well as with her former wife, are frozen over. “I’ve tried every way I can think of to make loving contact,” she says.
McCloskey’s sister got court orders on two occasions—in Iowa City and Chicago—for McCloskey to be brought in by the police and held overnight in a psychiatric ward pending a sanity hearing; in each case, McCloskey passed the hearing and was released—“because I am not crazy. I am transsexual.”
“I am not crazy. I am transsexual.”
By contrast, McCloskey says her mother and brother have been supportive. Her mother gave “her new daughter,” as Deirdre puts it, a nice purse for her first Christmas. “You can’t predict how people will react to anything you do,” McCloskey says. “I thought my son would be very supportive and my brother would have trouble with it. It was the opposite.”
Liberal Iowa City, where the anti-discrimination ordinance includes transsexuals, and the university, with 27,500 students, seem to have taken McCloskey’s metamorphosis in stride. Early on, the student newspaper proclaimed in one headline: McCloskey—An Ideal Candidate for Womanhood. The business school responded, as well. Its student association came out with a T-shirt that listed, in Letterman fashion, the “Top 10 Reasons to Be a Business Major.” Number two was “Diversity…We’ve Got Professor McCloskey.” “The students were afraid I’d be offended,” McCloskey says of the T-shirt. “On the contrary. When they presented it to me, I gave them each a kiss.”
Nonetheless, the university—and McCloskey—are proceeding with care. Since returning from the Netherlands, she has taught only graduate and advanced undergraduate courses, rather than jump immediately into large undergrad classes, where the students might be less serious. McCloskey says she suggested that approach, as she had been worried about letters from parents. “The university has not made any remarks of a worrying sort. It has been astonishingly sensible, even loving,” she says, adding, “I expect to take my turn again in the big introductory courses in a couple of years.”
McCloskey stops to browse at Prairie Lights Books in downtown Iowa City. At a long table stacked with hardbacks, she spots her latest, The Vices of Economists/The Virtues of the Bourgeoisie. The slim volume is the first book she has published as Deirdre. “I’m very concerned about the points I am trying to get across,” she says, unobtrusively moving her book to display it more prominently, as authors are wont to do.
She has developed a strong female voice; in this book she is “Aunt Deirdre,” a somewhat scolding persona who laments the mess economists—“mainly men”—have made of the profession since World War II. She writes that their “methods are wrong, and produce wrong results”—in part because they confuse statistics and blackboard proofs with science, then use them to fashion ill-conceived economic policy “in a sort of social engineering.” She argues for a return to the “bourgeois virtues,” which she defines as “the wisdoms of the marketplace”—as opposed to “the aristocratic virtues of the ivory tower or the peasant virtues of the street, which together, I feel, have left economics in its sad state.”
She stresses that her concern stems from the best of intentions. “I sincerely do not want to infuriate my colleagues in economics, mainly because I want them to listen, really listen, for their own good, to what Aunt Deirdre is saying.” She adds, “If I thought that economics was a silly subject, or that markets and capitalism were evil, or that economists were stupid, even as an aunt I might not bother.”
McCloskey knows the Aunt Deirdre voice “annoys the hell” out of many of her male peers—“It is part of the reason I do it.”
But at times she seems taken aback by the consequences. She was offended, for instance, by the reaction of Douglass C. North—an economic historian from Washington University in Saint Louis, a corecipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize for economics, and a longtime friend—when her publisher asked him to write a blurb for her book’s cover in advance of publication. “He wrote back this silly little letter, saying he objected to all the Aunt Deirdre stuff, and in the course of it he called me he/she,” she says. “The problem is, it is very frightening to a publisher to have a major person say this is all nonsense. This was a year after I went full time [as a woman] and five months after The Operation.”
North confirms that he considers the Aunt Deirdre stuff “absolute unmitigated nonsense,” especially the suggestion that the profession’s failings stem from its being dominated by men. He calls it the “sort of cutesy stuff that didn’t belong in what was really a good scholarly analysis on the failures of economics.” He says the book’s “substantive” chapters—which analyze those failings without the gender spin—were “very good” and says he wrote the publisher that he agreed with them.
North declined to write a blurb, he explains, because he considered the Aunt Deirdre material, which is confined largely to the book’s introductory and final chapters, “damaging to the reputation of someone I think is a first-rate economist, and I don’t want to be a part of this.”
But he didn’t realize McCloskey would be offended by his use of he/she in his letter. “I said ‘he/she’ because as Donald she had been a very good friend of mine for 40 years. In referring to he/she, I was saying that this is the same person,” he says. “It is a delicate point that Deirdre feels very strongly about, and I think I understand that I shouldn’t have done that.”
North concedes that he was “not sensitive enough to the issues” but adds that he wrote a letter of apology, which Deirdre rejected as insufficient. Since then, he says, both he and his wife have tried unsuccessfully to heal the breach. He says his wife wrote McCloskey “a very placating letter,” saying the couple wished to “bury the hatchet and be friends.” He adds: “Her reply, to put it mildly, was ‘No, I will not forget.’”
North says he and Donald McCloskey “used to have all kinds of disagreements, because we know each other so well. After a while, we’d both calm down and settle it. That’s what’s bothering me now. She’s not going to let me forget it at all.”
Harvard’s Claudia Goldin says many of McCloskey’s longtime male colleagues are finding the adjustment trying. “Very, very few men I know—very few—can call Deirdre ‘she.’ This was their friend; this was a guy.”
McCloskey says she hasn’t had second thoughts, however, and for now, she seems to be relishing her new life as a woman. She has recently completed the manuscript for a book about her experience—she calls it Crossing: Man to Woman—and is looking for a publisher. [Editor’s note: The book was published as Crossing: A Memoir (University of Chicago Press, 1999).]
In September 1996, McCloskey was installed as president of the Economic History Association, a post for which she had been chosen prior to changing gender. A year later she spoke to the association and was greeted with a standing ovation, to which she responded with a curtsy. Many of her colleagues say she is easier to get along with than before and interrupts less often on panels. McCloskey attributes her softened behavior to being more at peace with herself—and to hormones. “I could stop taking female hormones and start taking testosterone, and in four months I’d be acting like a jerk,” she says.
She lives in the former family home, a rambling two-story brick house with high ceilings, Victorian furniture and the original chandeliers. The Italianate–style house was built in 1884, and a framed certificate in the front hall says it is on the National Register of Historic Places. A program reminder from the League of Women Voters of Johnson County is stuck to the refrigerator door, and a yellow notepad is printed with the words first god created man—then he had a better idea.
McCloskey has learned needlepoint and plans to take up knitting and sewing. She is learning how to cook. For pleasure, she reads only women authors, from Margaret Atwood to Virginia Woolf. Her favorite shop in town is a Hallmark store, where she loves browsing among the greeting cards—it’s something women do, she says. She wears heels most of the time, despite the hilly campus and her six-foot height, and loves pearls and jewelry. In her office at the university she keeps a big pink hand mirror atop a thick black notebook. She says early on she had visions of being driven out of town and out of economics, and she is relieved by the support and kindness she receives.
Last spring, she had her first appointment with a gynecologist and was comforted by the doctor’s friendly manner. “Her attitude was, Well, you are a post-menopausal woman,” she says happily.
Julie Nelson of Brandeis considers McCloskey’s change in the context of feminist economics. “Within feminism there is this whole ‘difference’ debate over to what extent one emphasizes similarities between men and women and to what extent one emphasizes differences,” she says. “I think for the most part, feminist economists have tended to be more on the similarities side. They tend to focus on things like labor-market discrimination, where they would say women are a lot like men. They have the same intellectual skills. They can do the same things—why is the pay different?”
She continues: “After we’ve been saying that gender is not very important, to have someone like Deirdre come along and be willing to go through all this personal pain and social turmoil to become a woman, socially and in body, sheds a different light on things.”
One sunny afternoon, McCloskey is walking home from campus, a large woman with gingery blond hair and dangling gold earrings. People pass her without a second glance. She notices and is pleased.
“What I do constantly,” McCloskey says, “is check to see if people have read me”—that is, figured out that she is transsexual. “It’s simply a constant confirmation, a constant checking to see if it has worked.”
Reprinted from the March 1998 issue of Worth