Feminists Are Yelling for Yellen

Now that President Obama has made it very clear that current Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will not be reappointed in 2014, the question on every economy wonk’s mind is, Who will replace him?

The front-runners are Janet Yellen, current vice-chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, and former Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers. (Some suggest Obama might surprise everyone and choose Timothy Giethner, but that seems unlikely.) If Yellen was selected, she would be the first woman to lead the Federal Reserve–and because of that, instead of the usual discussion of qualifications and policy, the debate over Obama’s decision has turned to gender.

It all began in May when the president of the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas, Richard Fisher, suggested that Obama would be “driven by gender” if he chose Yellen as the chairman. Nancy Pelosi blasted the idea that Yellen would be picked just for her gender, saying

It would be great to have a woman, the first woman chairman of the Fed, no question about it. She’s extremely talented. It’s not just that she’s a woman.

Several other high-ranking Democrats, both male and female, such as Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have come out with their support for Yellen. At around the same time, Ezra Klein reported hearing from economic insiders that Yellen would not be a good fit because she is too “soft-spoken” and doesn’t have the necessary “toughness”–claims that Klein considers sexist because Bernanke is not exactly the most aggressive man in Washington.

It all culminated on Tuesday when Bloomberg writer Albert Hunt said

No one doubts Yellen’s credentials as an economist, but questions have been raised, mainly by those in the Summers camp, about whether she has the gravitas to manage a financial crisis.

Hunt’s claims are clearly based in sexism. Yellen’s past experience has shown that she is more than capable of handling a crisis. Throughout the recession, she was either the vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve or the CEO of San Francisco’s Federal Reserve Bank. According to the Wall Street Journal, she is the member of the Federal Reserve with the most accurate economic predictions. Yellen also was one of the first people at the Federal Reserve to worry about the impact that the housing market might have on the overall economy, further proving that she has the ability to handle running the Reserve.

Even Matthew Yglesias, who has said that people were paying too much attention to the gender issues surrounding Yellen, saw Hunt’s comments as a pure attack on her gender. He said,

This is also a great example of why lining up woman validators to vouch for Summers’ feminist bona fides won’t really answer the charge that sexism is driving the pro-Summers sentiment … It’s about the fact that there’s never been a woman leader of a major central bank. … If a woman can’t acquire the necessary “gravitas” to do the job by having Yellen’s career, then what exactly could she do?

Yglesias puts it perfectly. The majority of the attacks against Larry Summers have been based on his economic and political policies, such as the fact that in the 1990s he supported financial deregulation, the same deregulation that helped cause the current economic crisis, and his close relationship with Wall Street. Given the discussion of the sexism surrounding criticism of Yellen, it is strange and more than a little ironi, that there has been so little discussion about how Larry Summers himself has said sexist things in the past. Most famously, in 2005 he claimed that biology explains why women tend not be as successful in certain fields, such as math and science, saying,

It does appear that on many, many different human attributes … height … overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability, there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means–which can be debated–there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of a male and a female population.

Summers has also implied that women aren’t promoted as often as men because they do not make their careers their first priority. Women who have worked with Summers have said that he

… would literally shout down women who offered a contrasting viewpoint. This was expressed as apparently a particular problem when it came to the viewpoints of women.

The fact that in 2013 people are still claiming that a woman is unqualified to be a leader because she is a woman is despicable and outdated. Janet Yellen is well qualified to be the next chair of the Federal Reserve.

Picture of Janet Yellen from Flickr user International Monetary Fund under license from Creative Commons 2.0