Iowa professor changes sex

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOR 25 years, Donald McCloskey enjoyed a reputation for arcane and learned controversy among economic historians. Before he became co- editor of the leading textbook of British economic history, he brought forceful new ideas to the study of medieval agriculture.

In his 1985 book, The Rhetoric of Economics, he chastised fellow economists for submerging human behaviour in mathematical formulas. And Mr McCloskey, 53, went out of his way to foster the emerging field of feminist economics, which holds that existing theory is too much based on the male competitive urge.

Nothing, however, quite prepared US colleagues for his appearance at the annual convention of the American Economic Association last month - in a red dress and a wig.

Ms Deirdre McCloskey, as she now wishes to be called, insisted that she was dressed very conservatively, in the circumstances. But she admitted to planting a kiss on the cheek of an unsuspecting male friend in the convention hall bar.

Professor of economics and history at the University of Iowa since 1980, currently a visiting professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Deirdre/Donald McCloskey has authored and edited 200 articles and 20 books. Last November, he/she divorced his wife of 30 years, underwent cosmetic surgery, and changed name to Deirdre, which is Irish and means "wanderer". "This isn't Mardi Gras, this isn't a costume thing," she says. "This is just me being a woman."

In an article in the Eastern Economic Journal, titled "Some News That At Least Will Not Bore You," Professor McCloskey told colleagues: "Not to startle you, but I am becoming a woman economist." Gender changes are hardly a new phenomenon, but the switch sent ripples of shock through a male-dominated profession. "There isn't a single, outed prominent homosexual in economics and that is quite striking, it's quite odd."

Iowa is known as the home turf of the religious right, but the university has not blinked, simply describing Ms McCloskey as "a superb faculty member". Prominent female economists have moved rapidly to embrace her. One group threw a coming out party last year with pink "It's a Girl" balloons. Some are hoping it will encourage the profession to look again at what they call "implicit gender assumptions" of economic models.

Her family has been less supportive. Last November the professor was detained by police at a session of the Social Science History Association, at the urging of her sister, a psychologist who has twice tried to have her committed to a mental hospital. The association immediately passed a resolution condemning the action.