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Today's Woman

Crossing: A Memoir • By Deirdre McCloskey
University of Chicago Press • 266 pp • $25.00 • November 1999

In October 1995, Gary Fethke, the dean of the College of Business at the University of Iowa, ran into a colleague, Donald McCloskey, in the hallway of the business school. McCloskey, Fethke noticed, was wearing gold ear studs--small, but on both ears. "What's this, Don?" Fethke asked jovially. "The earrings! Have you turned gay?"

"You want to know, Gary?" McCloskey asked. When Fethke nodded yes, McCloskey, a renowned free-market economist and married father of two, motioned him into his office and shut the door. He then unburdened himself of a startling secret: At age fifty-two, after years of closeted cross-dressing, he had come to the conclusion that he needed to become a woman. And so, the economics professor explained to his astounded dean, he had embarked on a course of hormone therapy, designed to swell his breasts and alter his voice. Over the course of the next year, he intended to become a physical woman: full beard electrolysis, eyebrow bones ground down, gender reassignment surgery. At that very moment, McCloskey confessed, underneath his sensible brown oxfords and argyle socks, his toenails gleamed candy-apple red.

Dean Fethke sat stunned for a moment, then rushed to put McCloskey at ease. "Thank God," he exclaimed. "I thought for a moment you were going to confess to converting to socialism."

Donald--now known as Deirdre--McCloskey recounts this story in Crossing, a tautly crafted memoir of her transition from Don McCloskey, conservative Chicago school economist, to Deirdre McCloskey, power shopper, domestic superachiever, and campy doyenne of difference feminism.

As a quantifying economist, Donald McCloskey couldn't help viewing a possible sex-change operation as a matter of utilitarian calculus. And so he gamely drew up a balance sheet, which he labeled "The Costs and Benefits of Womanhood." The costs, Donald recognized, were substantial: loss of his career, loss of his wife and daughter, loss of his birth family. "My mother in particular would be unable to handle it," Donald wrote at the time. "My son, I think, would continue to love me.... My sister would be fine."

As Deirdre ruefully notes midway through her memoir, almost every single one of these calculations proved mistaken--"the opposite of what happened." Conservative economists acted like tolerant sophisticates, while radical feminists reacted with scorn, accusing the bejeweled Deirdre of promoting a stereotyped view of womanhood. Donald's family, meanwhile, fractured and fell apart. His wife left him; both his son and his daughter cut him off completely. His sister, a liberal professor of psychology at Harvard, contrived to have him committed for insanity. His seventy-four-year-old mother, on the other hand, proved a pillar of support and good cheer. Upon seeing her son in full feminine regalia--denim skirt, white formal blouse, heels--Mrs. McCloskey didn't bat an eye. "Goodness!" she said. "But you shouldn't wear rings on every finger." Donald agreed and took some off, though he "loved rings." Later, she gave him one of her handbags.

In his most celebrated book, The Rhetoric of Economics, Donald McCloskey showed how the language of market exchange could be used expansively, as a metaphor for understanding civilizations and social conflict and all the organizing structures of human life. A main theme of Deirdre McCloskey's book, however, is the inadequacy of economic rhetoric to capture the often complex and obscure motives of real people in the real world. As the book unfolds, the botched balance sheet becomes a kind of synecdoche for Deirdre's disenchantment with classical economics, her conviction that the messy contingencies of existence cannot be summed up in the pinched, prudential calculus of cost and benefit. "Economists, whether conservative or radical, think the answer to a 'why' question is always 'some material advantage,'" she writes. "Economists don't seem too smart about identity."

Of course, McCloskey needn't have changed genders to arrive at this important insight. In the last decade, as McCloskey surely knows, theorists such as Gary Becker and Amartya Sen have done pioneering work in the non-pecuniary aspects of economics, showing how nonmonetary incentives--status, identity, altruism--can be used as variables in calculating the utility function.

But if gender crossers are indeed utility maximizers, if there is no contradiction between the identity-seeking and the utility-seeking function, Deirdre hardly feels herself the rational consumer as she languishes in a hospital bed in Melbourne. "My life is so complicated. I am so alone: My son and probably my daughter have abandoned me; my wife, who could have been a true friend, and my sister, who could at least have been a sister, have turned against me. I feel so alone. I cried and cried." The decision to undergo gender-reassignment surgery--a physically grueling experience, which McCloskey describes with clinical frankness--is indeed inexplicable in terms of cost and benefit. "The 'decision' was not utilitarian," Deirdre writes. "My gender crossing was motivated by identity, not by a balance sheet of utility." He--she--simply was.


Learn more about McCloskey's "Baedecker of 1990s womanhood," Deborah Tannen, from this interview and an essay by Tannen on how her work explains Oprah's success.

McCloskey is credited with having brought rhetoric into economics: check this guide to classical rhetoric if you want to brush up on your Aristotle before reading her work.

Armed with a new larynx and wardrobe, Deirdre McCloskey sets out to acquire "a woman's academic style," one that is self-deprecating, egalitarian, based on principles of "reciprocal self-disclosure." Noticing that "men are always seizing the conversational initiative, establishing hierarchies," she tells herself she must learn to " the speaker, maintain eye contact." She is happiest, she says, when she is among her girlfriends, trading emotional confessions and personal tales. "It was an advantage Deirdre had in making women friends, since she had bizarre things to tell (and no compunction about telling them) and plenty of crises to be helped through," McCloskey writes. On a trip through Chicago, she calls on a favored former student but finds that she has little in common with him, preferring instead to cozy up on the couch with his wife, Patty: "Patty's husband was astonished, amused, tolerant, a little disturbed: here was his tough-guy professor, crying with Patty about little miseries and joys. Big ones, too."

One night, as her newfound woman friends gather around her supper table, baring their souls over broccoli with Brie and tagliatelle, Deirdre has an epiphany. "That's how to find a woman's academic style," she muses. "Among women." Deirdre puts this insight into practice several weeks later, when she is inaugurated as the president of the Economic History Association. Instead of mingling with the male professors in the main hall, where the air is thick with "exchanges of salient fact and lofty opinion and What I Just Accomplished," she spends her time lunching with other women, out on the pool veranda, "trading minor confidences" and "laughing at herself." At the conference, McCloskey pridefully notes, Deirdre "commented on papers or presented her own papers in a professional girl economist style.... She had started to forget what it was like to be a man."

What can Professor McCloskey mean by a "professional girl economist style?" The poolside chatelaine clearly has in mind no conventional feminization-of-power anthem, but something a touch more frilly. For McCloskey, as it turns out, is not just a girl economist but a girlie-girl economist, partial to square dances and pajama parties and other displays of crinoline frivolity. "Perfume...she always wears it," Deirdre writes, referring to herself, as she often does, in the third person. "She gets as much pleasure from loving as from being loved, delighting in caring for her new Yorkshire terrier named Janie." She revels in her nurturant relationship with the universe, claiming a special capacity to help ordinary folk with their problems: "She loves, just loves, the little favors of womankind, getting a card for someone, making meat loaf for Charles up the street, helping someone through a day of his life." With motherly concern, she proffers makeup tips, wrings her hands over bad-hair days and dispenses housekeeping advice: A single woman, she says, should "keep her apartment clean, and will engage in little ceremonies, such as bringing out the best china."

All this Scotchgard perfectionism can get a little trying, coming from someone who, as recently as a few years ago, had to be reminded not to leave his wet socks on the floor. Indeed, if Donald was a blustery tough guy, known for his boorish machismo, Deirdre can be a bit of a prig. When she goes to the coffeepot at the office one morning and finds it empty, she waxes righteous about the unmanageability of men. "Some man has poured out the last cup at 9:30 a.m. and walked away," she huffs. "The truth about men: they believe in the coffee-making fairy. Brewed coffee, like ironed shirts or birthday parties for the kids, is a natural phenomenon."

If Deirdre McCloskey tends to romanticize the goodness of women--to exaggerate their strength, their bravery, their vitality, and their connectedness--it's not hard to understand why. Donald McCloskey, by her account, was not just a standard-issue straight male but a particularly thrusting and macho specimen, a strapping six-footer with a taste for touch football and beer. In stripping away the accretion of maleness--in performing womanhood, as she calls it--Deirdre faced a particularly cruel challenge. Though eager to pass as female, she is constantly smoked out by cruel shop clerks tipped off by her big hands, her suspiciously husky voice, and the thick wrinkles around her mouth.

Given this punishing social context, it's no wonder McCloskey turns to Deborah Tannen, whose 1993 ode to the relational woman, You Just Don't Understand, is treated here as an unimpeachable touchstone, a Baedeker of 1990s womanhood. Recalling an awkward faculty dinner, McCloskey writes that he "applied Tannen...Without changing his tone, he adopted women's rules for conversation." If, in deploying stereotypically feminine gestures and turns of phrase, McCloskey is perpetuating offensive clichÈs, so be it, she writes. Better tired stereotypes than detection as an ex-man, and scorn.

McCloskey is less sympathetic when she uses her own remarkable story as the basis for sweeping generalizations about how men and women "are." Having experienced the social construction of gender first hand, she feels free to promote an extremely narrow and constricted view of what it means to be a woman, or a man.

"[Men] don't get it, this matter of life and friendship," she blithely announces. Whereas "the thoughts of most men about their relationships are first drafts, not considered and revised, women think all day about their relationships." She knows this, she says, because, as Deirdre, she "cares about relationships and devotes sustained thought to them in a way that Donald could not." To anxious friends of Donald's who want to believe that Deirdre is "just the same person," McCloskey has a ready response. "I'm not Good Old Don," she writes. "I am, so to speak, Don's smarter sister."

But women are not always smarter, humbler, more collaborative, or less interested in their careers than men. And not all human conflicts are necessarily reducible to a battle of the sexes. In the book's saddest moment, Donald informs his wife of his plans to become a woman, and she weeps and rages. Now, with the benefit of womanly hindsight, Deirdre believes she understands why. Donald's wife was upset because "women tell a story of connection, and my wife's was a connection to Donald, not Deirdre." A more likely explanation might be that the revelation was shocking, hurtful; a stunning coda to thirty years of contented partnership. As Tannen would put it, Deirdre just doesn't understand.

Ruth Shalit, an account planner at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, writes an advertising column for Salon.

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