She has been called “a small lady with a large I.Q.” She has been mocked for wearing the same outfit to both her official White House nomination and her confirmation hearing. (“At least we know her mind won’t be preoccupied with haute couture,” a Washington gossip columnist wrote.) And when President Barack Obama once referred to Janet L. Yellen as “Mr. Yellen,” she didn’t bother correcting him.
Ms. Yellen, the first woman to serve as the head of the Federal Reserve Board, didn’t ask to become a feminist icon, and she almost never talks about gender in the abstract or her historic role as the agency’s chairman (she bristles at being called “chairwoman”). And yet, during a tenure characterized by a plummeting unemployment rate and consistently low inflation, Ms. Yellen became a pop culture phenomenon.
Last month, President Trump nominated Jerome H. Powell to replace her. The move broke with a long-held tradition of new presidents (even those of opposing parties) extending the terms of the Federal Reserve chairman they have inherited. Ms. Yellen said she would step down from the Fed’s board, a position that doesn’t expire until 2024, when her four-year term as chairman ends in February. Her impending departure has reminded women of how much it meant to them, to see one of their own making decisions that have reverberated throughout the global economy.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, she is scheduled to preside over the Federal Reserve’s last meeting of the year — and her last major decision as the Fed’s leader. The central bank is expected to raise its benchmark interest rate in acknowledgment of the steady decline of the unemployment rate and the general strengthening of the economy.
Despite his unorthodox decision to replace her, even Mr. Trump has agreed that Ms. Yellen has performed well in the job. In the Rose Garden announcing Mr. Powell’s nomination, the president called Ms. Yellen an “absolutely spectacular person” and said she had “done a terrific job.”
So, why, many women wondered, replace her with a man?
“Janet should’ve been renominated, as every past Fed chair has been renominated for nearly the last 40 years,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said in an interview. “But it’s not the first time and certainly not the last a highly qualified woman is passed over for a job she clearly deserves.”
It’s a funny thing Americans have about powerful women. Voters haven’t always responded to women who ask for the big jobs (see: Hillary Clinton), but when they see a woman simply doing the job — and a good one, at that — they seem happy to give her rock star status.
It’s true of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice who has become known to many young women simply as “the Notorious RBG.” And it was true of Mrs. Clinton when she was secretary of state, traveling the world and negotiating with world leaders in a scrunchie and glasses while basking in 70 percent approval ratings. (When Mrs. Clinton was asked about her in-the-toilet favorability numbers during the 2016 presidential campaign, she said, “Once I’m doing the job, we’ll be back to people viewing me as the person doing the job instead of the person seeking the job.”)
To protest Ms. Yellen’s departure, liberal activists have worn “Yellen wigs” in support of the economist’s signature floppy white bob (as well as her affinity for keeping interest rates low). Supporters describe her in terms more suited to Taylor Swift than a 71-year-old academic shaping monetary policy.
“I’m the biggest Janet fangirl,” said Julia Coronado, founder of the economic research firm MacroPolicy Perspectives.
Emily Eisner, a doctoral student a the University of California, Berkeley, and editor of the school’s Women in Economics at Berkeley blog, echoed the sentiment, saying, “I don’t want to use the word idol, but symbolically, she has meant a lot to me.”
Kaivan Shroff, a former campaign aide to Mrs. Clinton, wrote on Twitter, “Janet Yellen is such a BOSS.”
Mr. Powell, the incoming chairman, studied closely under Ms. Yellen and is largely expected to continue the economic path she has laid. “They appointed the apprentice instead of the master,” Heidi Hartmann, the president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said.
The change, Ms. Hartmann added, speaks to the broader problem of a lack of women represented in finance and economic policymaking. “I think men have a fair amount of loyalty to other men, and the other people Trump consulted would’ve been more open to a man,” she said.
The White House shunned any accusations of sexism playing into the decision. “The mere suggestion is an affront to Chair Yellen,” the press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Described as even-keeled and soft-spoken, but fierce (“People underestimate her at her at their peril,” Ms. Warren said), Ms. Yellen has never inserted herself into the gender wars but by virtue of that “large I.Q.,” she has inadvertently found herself in the cross hairs.
The Brooklyn-born Ms. Yellen was the only woman among those earning a Ph.D. in economics at Yale in 1971. For years, she was known in academic circles as “the trailing spouse,” overshadowed by her husband, George Akerlof, a Nobel-prize winning economist. The couple has a son, Robert Akerlof, who is also a highly regarded economist.
This trailing spouse, however, went on to be a top economic adviser to President Bill Clinton, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and a member of the central bank’s board of governors. Then, in 2013, 100 years after the Federal Reserve was founded, she made history as its first woman chair.
But history making is often a messy matter. And even with her low profile, Ms. Yellen managed to kick up a central-banking storm.
Mr. Obama’s initial choice to steer the nation’s shaky economy through the recession had been the economist Lawrence H. Summers, who had served as an adviser. But many Democrats in the Senate, including Ms. Warren, protested the move. They argued that Ms. Yellen, who had worked closely with the outgoing chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, was the obvious choice.
Then there was the issue of Mr. Summers, who during his time as president of Harvard had caused controversy and a suitable backlash when he argued that inherent differences between the sexes were a possible reason for the lack of female science professors.
Theories abound that Ms. Yellen has been accepted — and even beloved — in a high-powered role because she has not made being a woman a central theme of her career. In contrast to Mrs. Clinton who made gender a significant part of her 2016 candidacy, Ms. Yellen has inserted the issue more subtly.
“You try to make the economy better and reflect priorities of the nation, and there isn’t a woman’s budget,” said Alice M. Rivlin, who served as director of the Office of Management and Budget and as vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve Board during the Clinton administration. “I felt the same way about the Federal Reserve.”
In May, Ms. Yellen delivered a speech at Brown University on the impact of women in the labor force, one of only a handful of times she has directly addressed gender issues.
Women in the workplace have been “hampered by barriers to equal opportunity and workplace rules and norms that fail to support a reasonable work-life balance,” Ms. Yellen said, adding that “if these obstacles persist, we will squander the potential of many of our citizens and incur a substantial loss to the productive capacity of our economy.”
Considering her tenure at the Federal Reserve, economists said that having a woman in that role had brought about a more representative approach to monetary policy, even if Ms. Yellen did not emphasize an agenda intended to advance the interests of women. Several academic studies, for example, show that women economists are more likely to address inequality than their male counterparts.
“The economic profession as a whole has a terrible white male problem,” Ms. Coronado, said. “Are you even going to ask the right questions if you have a lot of privileged people setting the agenda?”