It helps to be a don if you're going to be a Deirdre

August 23, 1996

Deirdre McCloskey, formerly Donald, advises that if you are tempted to change your gender, secure a post in academia first. If you are going to change your gender, it would be a smart move to get into academic life first. This is especially so, I think, in Britain, whose record on protection of transsexuals is the worst in the non-Islamic world (and Turkey is better).

I know quite a few people in academic life who have "transitioned," as the jargon has it, without much trouble. An academic librarian in Australia; a geophysicist in Canada; a historian in Washington state; an administrator at Oxford. Of course I have been looking for them for my reassurance. But their stories need not have been so good. I know a maths professor in a small college in Arkansas who has been mercilessly persecuted by her administration. What does seem to be true is that the more sophisticated the place the smoother the road. Hardly surprising.

My experience has been excellent, at the University of Iowa and as visiting professor at Erasmus University of Rotterdam. At Iowa back when I was very uncertain that things would work out so well I came out to the dean of my business school. He is, like me, a conservative economist. We have known each other a long time. His response, after sitting for a moment in slack-jawed amazement, was a stand-up comic routine: "Oh, thank God! I though you were going to confess to converting to socialism. (Laughter.) This is great for our affirmative action program: one fewer man, one more woman. (Laughter.) And wait a minute! I can cut your salary now to two-thirds of the male level!" (Not so funny.) And then seriously: "That's a strange thing to do. How can I help?" And he did. The administration at Iowa, right up to the governor of the state, took the view that it was a private decision with no relevance to my employment - except I might want to get involved in women's studies, as in fact I do.

At Erasmus the reaction was even more relaxed. Arjo Klamer, the professor at Erasmus who was arranging for my visit there, reckoned in November that he had better tell the administration the "Donald" they were hiring was in fact "Deirdre". He went to the rector and said: "Remember that Donald McCloskey coming in January for the Tinbergen chair? Well, it will be Deirdre, not Donald."

Rector: "Fine. I understand. Why are you telling me this?" Klamer, thinking the rector could not possibly have understood; perhaps he did not know that "Deirdre" is a woman's name: "I mean that 'he' is coming as 'she'. She is changing her gender. " Rector: "Yes, I understand. To repeat: Why are you telling me this?" I could have arrived in Rotterdam as a horse, and the only question would have been does the horse have the same curriculum vitae? Can the horse lecture? All right. Why are you telling me this?

Nothing is perfect (though the Dutch reaction approaches it pretty closely). My male colleagues are made, I think, a trifle uneasy. After all, it is their tribe I am deserting. I am still waiting for some of my British ex-pals to say hello now that I am here across the Channel. I have been surprised by who has taken me up and who has dropped me, the surprises of any big change in life. The women have been welcoming, especially after I took the step of having the operation. After that they knew for sure there was no male leer behind the scenes.

I hear of doubts. (The messengers are all men, by the way: it puts them one up to be in the know.) I am told that some radical feminists say I cannot be a real woman. As a conservative feminist I cannot understand this. Either essentialism is true, and we are ruined; or it is not, in which case a womanly life is socially constructable. I cannot be a 100 per cent woman, ever. Even setting chromosomes aside, I cannot have had a woman's life history. I lived 53 years as a male. But we conservative feminists point out that society does not run on 100 per cent. I can live the rest of my life as a 90 per cent woman, which puts me within the range of genetic women anyway in superficials like height and hair length.

I hear of snickers from some of my male colleagues, especially in economics. How sad for them. Poor boys. But I see no sign, this early, of professional costs. Eventually I will pay the cost of being a woman in economics, or else of not being a woman: the effects presumably are somewhat the same. But even this profession, not the most socially progressive, seems to take the change with aplomb. (Historians have even less trouble, an argument for a historical education.) I was terrified last January as I went into the executive committee of the American Economics Association. But I needn't have worried. They even were careful to call me "Deirdre" and "she". In an hour or so the other women and I were exchanging significant glances about the misbehaviour of the men.

I cannot know from my own experience what the long run will bring. It helps to be mobile, of course, as it helps to be old and tenured and published and so forth. I do not think my path would have been so nice if I were a beginning assistant professor. Many transsexuals come to their realisation late, as I did. Biologically such delay is a poor idea, giving one decades of testosterone poisoning to offset. But in emotional and financial ways it proves to be an advantage.

So take my advice. If you are one of the one in 2,000 men, and still rarer women, who wishes to change your gender, get out of the Navy, resign from the local council planning agency, give up your nice position on the assembly line in Coventry and get a professorship at the local university. Or move to Holland.

Deirdre McCloskey is professor of economics at the University of Iowa.

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