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©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

"Leading Economist Stuns Field By Deciding To Become a Woman"

by Robin Wilson
The Chronicle of Higher Education
16 February 1996

Some scholars say Deirdre McCloskey's announcement could prompt the discipline to reconsider assumptions about gender; others worry that feminist economists are losing one of their most respected male allies.

Just a few days after Donald N. McCloskey began the process of becoming a woman, female academics welcomed the the prominent economist as one of heir own.

At a meeting of the Social Science History Association last November, a small group of women threw a dinner party for Professor McCloskey, with toasts to his decision to change his gender and pink balloons that proclaimed, "It's a girl!"

That week, Donald McCloskey legally changed his name to Deirdre. Since then, he has had facial surgery and undergone a procedure to alter his voice. Next would come a sex-change operation, but Professor McCloskey is unsure whether he will take that step. He now prefers to be known as a she, and is taking female hormones and wearing dresses and skirts instead of suits and a tie.

Support from Iowa

In the staid world of economics, the transformation of one of its well-known members has stunned the profession. At a meeting of the American Economics Association last month, Deirdre McCloskey caused a stir when she appeared on several panels wearing a red dress and a blonde wig. Still, she says, the response she has received from a profession not known for its unconventionality has been overwhelmingly positive.

"I expected to lose my job," says Ms. McCloskey, who has been a professor of economics and history at the University of Iowa since 1980. "I was prepared to move to Spokane and become a secretary in a grain elevator, but I didn't have to."

Professor McCloskey was divorced in November from Joanne McCloskey, a professor of nursing at Iowa and his wife of 30 years.

The professor's decision didn't ruffle many feathers at Iowa. Ann M. Rhodes, a spokeswoman for the university, calls her a "superb faculty member" and says "I don't see any reason to believe that will change."

Not everyone has been so supportive. Some people are deeply distressed by what Donald McCloskey has done.

'I am not crazy'

Laura A. McCloskey, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, is the professor's sister. She and David W. Galenson, a former colleague of Donald McCloskey at the University of Chicago, have twice persuaded judges to commit Deirdre McCloskey to mental hospitals against her will, according to Deirdre McCloskey.

The second instance occurred in November. Professor McCloskey was at a Social Science History Association meeting when two police officers interrupted a session that was being held to honour his work. The police took him to a hospital, from which he was released the next day.

In a letter to colleagues in economics, Mr. Galenson wrote that psychiatrists had found Professor McCloskey "manic," although not a danger to himself or others. But Professor McCloskey and several academics who came to the hospital to get him out say the psychiatrists had found nothing wrong with him.

The Social Science History Association passed a resolution condemning the actions against Professor McCloskey.

Laura A. McCloskey and Mr. Galenson refused to comment.

Deirdre McCloskey says she is eager to address "the issue of my alleged madness," as she puts it. "The fact is that I am not crazy, I am transsexual."

Challenging assumptions

Over 25 years, Donald McCloskey built a reputation as the conscience of his field, challenging the basic assumptions that economists made and pushing them to consider new ways of looking at economic problems. He received his bachelor's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University and spent 12 years teaching at the University of Chicago. He wrote close to 200 articles and 20 books, and his theories about the role that persuasion plays in human decisions about overreliance by economists on mathematical formulas have been widely taught.

His colleagues are used to reading his sharply-worded missives in economic journals. It was in the most recent issue of the Eastern Economic Journal that he revealed his decision to become a woman. In the article, "Some News That at Least Will Not Bore You," he wrote: "Not to startle you, but I am becoming a woman economist."

Treatment of women

More than most of his writing, Professor McCloskey's announcement prompted colleagues to ask some sensitive questions: Will the professor's high-profile transformation lead economists to look more closely at issues of gender? Will Deirdre be taken as seriously by the field as Donald was? And will feminist economists, whom Mr. McCloskey had supported, be harmed by the decision of one of their most prominent male allies?

Maybe it is because Donald McCloskey was known for turning the spotlight on how economists operate that even his personal actions are now prompting the field to examine itself. "Economics is a pretty sexist profession, and women have more problems being taken seriously," says Martha L. Olney, a visiting associate professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, who has become close friends with Ms. McCloskey. "This whole thing could mean the profession may really look at its assumptions about gender."

Ms. McCloskey says her decision will cause a lot of changes in her own outlook some scholarly and some personal. She spoke at length in a telephone interview from the Netherlands, where she is on leave from Iowa this semester as a visiting professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

The conversation touched on a wide variety of subjects, including female friendships and makeup. Ms. McCloskey also talked about teaching styles and economic theories.

She said she felt more comfortable as a woman than she ever felt as a man. "I've wanted to do this since I was small," she added. It took her so long to make the change, she said, because "I was an obedient kid. They said play football, and I became captain of the team."

A change in personality

Some of the economists's friends say Donald McCloskey spent years trying to please his father, Robert McCloskey, a distinguished political scientist at Harvard, who died of a heart attack at 53. Donald McCloskey himself was 53 when he announced his decision to become a transsexual.

Ms. McCloskey now says she covered up the conflict she felt about her gender by becoming "a very hard and macho person". Some of that will change now, she suspects. As a woman, she says, she will be more considerate of others, more caring, and "not quite as scolding" when it comes to assessing her colleagues.

The change will be shocking to many who are used to the old McCloskey. He was known for being a bit rude. During a debate about women and capitalism two years ago on FEMECON, an Internet discussion group about feminist economics, he was criticised by a female colleague who thought he was being uncivil and attacking women with dismissive comments.

Some people say they have already recognised a change in the professor. Jenifer Gamber, managing editor of the Eastern Economic Journal, received a personal note from Deirdre McCloskey recently. "When he was Donald," she says, "I never got handwritten notes."

Perpetuating stereotypes?

Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University, organized the all-female dinner party for Ms. McCloskey. She, too, has noticed, a change. "The softness, the humanity, the empathy, the being more open to others' ideas: these are all qualities that one would not have applied to Donald McCloskey," says Ms. Goldin, who has known the professor for 25 years.

Still, some female economists are uncomfortable with Ms. McCloskey's interpretation of what it means to be a woman. They question whether women are less combative or more caring than men.

"Alarm bells go off in my mind when people say that becoming a woman is what it takes to make these changes," says Diana L. Strassman, editor of the journal Feminist Economics and a senior research fellow at Rice University's Center for Cultural Studies.

Ms. McCloskey acknowledges that she is probably falling back on stereotypes. "There are things that I think and do that are kind of crude approximations of true womanhood," she says.

Many will be watching to see if Deirdre has the same influence on the field as Donald.

Harold M. Hochman, editor of the Eastern Economic Journal, worries about that. Those who disagreed with Donald McCloskey's criticisms of the field may now discount what Deirdre has to say, he believes. "I don't see any reason why Deirdre can't say things which are as profound. But I don't think they'll be taken as seriously," says Mr. Hochman, who is a professor of political economy of Lafayette College. "You have somebody who has been a curmudgeon, and now people will say 'Well, McCloskey has been a flake all along.'"

New economic issues

Economists who followed Donald McCloskey's writings may see new issues being exploited by Deirdre.

Donald McCloskey chided economists for concentrating on mathematical formulas to explain people's behaviour, while ignoring subtler factors that may account for why people make the choices they do. He wrote that economists overlooked the power of persuasion, for example, in determining which arguments about economic theory come out on top. His well-known book on the topic, The Rhetoric of Economics, was published in 1985 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Ms. McCloskey now says economists have been ignoring something else, too. She says that by explaining all human behaviour in pursuit of self-interest, they are overlooking the fact that sometimes people act out of love.

Such issues have always attracted feminist economists, who say they are pleased to have a well-known member of the field join in the debate. But at the same time, some of them worry about the loss of Donald McCloskey as an ally. He was a founding member of the International Association for Feminist Economics and served on the editorial board of its journal.

"If you asked a feminist economist to name a male economist who was most involved in the field, they would have named Don McCloskey," says Ms. Olney of Berkeley. "Some people's reaction is that this is a real shame, because we are going to lose a strong male voice standing up for female economists."