Between her impressive and passionate intellectual work and her unique personal history, Deirdre McCloskey (b. 1942) makes an impression on everyone. After earning a master’s degree in economics from Harvard, she went on to teach at the University of Chicago, where many students remember her as the best profesor they ever had—though they remember her as “Donald McCloskey,” her legal name until 1996 when she had a sex-change operation. McCloskey also began her academic career as a Marxist, but over time abandoned that view and is today a classical liberal.
Her oeuvre, composed of hundreds of published works, includes books that cover some of the most difficult subjects in Neoclassical economics, such as: the use of statistics, price theory, the use of mathematics in economics, and the history of econometrics. But it would be incorrect to label McCloskey as an economist and nothing more—as Friedrich Hayek said, “nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist.” Her interests are multidisciplinary, which is why she works at the University of Illinois in Chicago not just as a professor of economics, but as a professor of history, english, and communication as well.
Her contributions to these fields, so often left untouched by professional economists, have been quite noteworthy, such as her works on the economic history of England, and her most recent books, Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity, and Bourgeois Equality, which provide an in-depth analysis of the origins of the modern world. Therein, she makes the case that all prior explanations given by economists for the unprecedented increase in wealth at the time of the Industrial Revolution (which she dubs, “the Great Enrichment”) have been inadequate.
McCloskey rules out the typical explanations provided by liberal and socialist economists: institutions, capital accumulation, commerce, and/or exploitation. Instead, her thesis is that there was a marked ideological and communicative shift that transformed the way the word was seen, and transformed how society saw entrepreneurs, merchants, and businessmen as well. It was the new dignity that society gave to these groups, derived from the liberal moral philosophy of Adam Smith, that launched the moral and economic revolution that brought democracy, legal equality, and increased incomes (by a factor of thirty) to historically poor nations.
More personally, her moving book, Crossing, which was a New York Times’ book of the year, tells the story of her sex change—at the age of 53—which came after nearly three decades of marriage and after raising two children. Said transition has given her a unique ability to compare and contrast life as a male and life as a female. Friendly, knowledgeable, thick-skinned, and always open to new ideas, in this interview with Átomo, McCloskey, a noted exponent of liberal feminism, discusses that very view, the idea of gender, #MeToo, and the status of women throughout history.
Chile’s feminist movement has largely been dominated by those who are critical of capitalism, and associate it with patriarchy and oppression. This perspective is present in a number of other countries, and has become a standard view in mainstream feminism. Can you talk about how the role of women in society has evolved under capitalism, and how this relates to typical feminist talking points?
Look, historically, since women had no economic independence, they were transferred from their father’s domain to that of their husband’s. That was how agrarian societies worked for thousands and thousands of years. When there is industrialization and trade, women have the opportunity to earn their own money. In England, during the Industrial Revolution, there were women who lived in cotton mills. These women, of course, were not totally liberated, but they earned their own money, and as such went into marriages with work experience—which changed the dynamics of their relationships. During World War Two, both in England and in the United States, women had to make the supplies that the men at war needed. This provided work experience, not just going from one home to another. So it’s crazy to suggest that the market is bad for women, or that it upholds the patriarchy. Patriarchy is more the basis of agricultural societies than hunter-gatherer ones, where there is greater equality. It is agricultural societies, built by larger groups, with hundreds of people forming tribes, that are really the oppressors. When that era begins to fade away because of the Industrial Revolution, the biggest beneficiaries are women. In the old days, in agricultural societies, men found it embarrassing to have a wife that worked, as it suggested that they were unable to provide for their families on their own. So it is simply absurd to say that the market is the enemy of women.
Why are there so many feminists who believe this idea that capitalism is oppressive and discriminatory?
Because they’re going about things backwards: first they’re Marxists and then they become feminists, or sometimes they become both at the same time, and they try and harmonize the two views. They think feminism a good thing—which I also think—and they think socialism is a good thing, so they try and merge the two. You might be able to claim that some aspects of socialism have been, in the short term—not in the long term—beneficial for women. For example, Mao partially liberated women from their traditional roles in Chinese society. I don’t want to ignore the contributions some socialist regimes have made towards women’s liberation, but I also don’t want to ignore the contributions the free market has made. Consider that one advantage women have when they enter the workforce is that, since they are cheaper, they are competitive and can push men out of jobs that have traditionally been only theirs. Though all of this is often criticized, it works to the advantage of women. Once again, what the free market has achieved by making society wealthier is that there are more job opportunities for women and minorities. Eventually their incomes rise as well and their children become even better off than they are.
Do you believe in the gender wage gap?
It is a lot smaller than people say. Claudia Goldin at Harvard has studied the matter and the conclusion was that the gap is a lot smaller than what people say. Having children makes an impact, but the difference is shrinking and so is occupational segregation because manual labor is disappearing, and that’s thanks to free market societies.
You have said that feminism is a positive thing, but how do you define it? There are plenty of different versions.
I am a first-wave feminist. I believe in equality of opportunity for men and women, nothing more. It takes the classical liberal concepts of equality under the law and economic opportunity for everyone and applies it to feminism. In the same vein, I do not think the government should intervene in the matter, and as such I don’t believe in government imposed quotas. If a private company wants to have them, that’s their business.
There are people who say that without quotas, institutional prejudice will keep women from improving their socioeconomic status.
There are better ways of doing that. Companies should make it easier for employees to be moms, not by state dictat, but through voluntarily decided upon policies, and they should provide good mentors for women, etc. One of the disadvantages of quotas is that, if you’re a woman and you’re promoted, there will always be the suspicion that it wasn’t because of your qualifications but just because you fill the quota. Plus, quotas cause nationalistic backlashes from those who claim that minorities are privileged groups, and that’s terrible because, for example, in the United States there is still racial discrimination against African-Americans.
Do you think the different preferences that men and women have, on average, effect their professional development, and that this might have a biological origin?
Absolutely, there’s no doubt about that. That is to say, I don’t think there’s anything that makes women inherently less capable airplane pilots than men. Maybe they have different way of doing things, but that might make them more capable in a given situation. But men and women do not have the same priorities, and to a certain extent that’s because of societal constructs. I lived in the Netherlands for years and there it’s normal for women to stop working and take care of their kids, which is considered embarrassing in the United States and England. This isn’t something that’s forced upon them by men, or by anybody else, that’s just the way it is, and women like it. But there is not doubt that women are more willing than men to make sacrifices in order to have a family, period. I was a man when we had kids and I think that men and women, especially women, want to have children in their 20s and 30s, and biologically that makes perfect sense. If it were any other way, the species would go extinct. As such, there is a biological urgency in play. Another point that’s uncontroversial is that pregnancy floods women with female hormones that make them fall in love with their baby. I have a friend who got pregnant for the fourth time when she was fairly old, and she was worried she wouldn’t love him, but as soon as that system kicked in, click! She was head-over-heels in love with him. And you can tell that it’s a profound and very real love, so much so that parents sometimes get jealous because the baby becomes the center of attention. This can be understood from an evolutionary perspective, and it is not exclusive to the human race. What’s certain is that all of this makes you less focused on your professional career.
Biology is also the reason why some professions are more dominated by men, and others are more dominated by women. In the world of academics, for example, chemistry is very male, while history is not, and that’s because historians can investigate subjects that are of interest to them as women, such as, for example, what role women played in the American Revolution.
So we can rule out the claim that gender is just a social construct?
That’s right. I am a living experiment when it comes to this subject and I can tell you that the most important thing—and this should be the feminist argument—is that everybody has the other gender within them. Carl Jung talked about this when he discussed “animus” and “anima”, the masculine and feminine subconscious. For a human being to be whole, you have to have at least some of the other. Even women need, for example, something of the physical courage that’s typical of men, and as a man you need to be able to express feminine love in order to develop your full potential as a man.
Does the hate or hostility towards men that you see coming from so many feminists worry you?
This has been one type of feminism since its beginnings, and it’s not engaging or useful. There’s even a group that’s hostile towards transwomen. I think they should relax a little, because it’s ridiculous. It’s like the absurd claim that gay marriage is a threat to heterosexual marriage. It’s dumb. But there’s also something hateful about it. In my experience, after my transition, most women have been very kindly towards, and concerned for, me —especially once they’ve read my book Crossing.
What do you think about the debate over trans women in sports?
I agree with the critics about that. It strikes me as obviously unfair that a trans woman who has developed big manly muscles and a bigger stature, etc. competes as a woman. There was an American tennis player who ranked 250th in men’s and then switched genders and in so doing managed to rank 50th in women’s. What an obvious cretin. I don’t care if they start doing genetic tests, and I think athletic groups can establish reasonable rules about this without state intervention.
What do you think of #MeToo in this context?
I’m a supporter. My mom was an actress and one time she went to a casting call and they told her she had talent, but then asked how she liked to spend her evenings. I hope that #MeToo helps a lot of men become real men: gentlemen who are respectful of women. Of course I’m worried about the accusations that are overblown, and we should always presume innocence. But in general I expect that this will help keep men in positions of power, like in their jobs, from acting like Humphrey Bogart, chasing women left and right. In any case, I don’t want this to become another matter for state intervention with legal prosecutions, I just want it all published. It’s worth adding that the actresses that played Harvey Weinstein’s game to advance their careers had a choice, and they made the wrong one, but that doesn’t justify what he did, and that’s a social norm I want to break.
What responsibilities do women have when it comes to all this?
Women also have a responsibility to be ladies… a lady does not play adolescent games like saying “no” when she really wants to say “yes”. It’s about being an adult and an adult says “no” when they really mean “no” and they say “yes” when they mean “yes”. A lady knows exactly what she wants and she makes that clear, she doesn’t play petty and confusing games. That kind of maturity is what is generally needed in order to have a society of responsible people who are capable of being truly free. In a certain sense I’m invoking a fairly antiquated vision, along the lines of eighteenth-century republicanism, which posited the need for virtuous citizens, a view similar to Adam Smith’s.
Lastly, do you think women are capable of abusing men in any way?
Absolutely. A vengeful and hateful woman can do tremendous emotional harm to her spouse. And we have to acknowledge that women are much more likely to use emotional violence against men. That’s the typical situation: she finds herself in a marriage she hates and attacks the man emotionally, who, unable to match her in that regard, ends up hitting her. That’s the typical scenario for mutual abuse.