The ultimate gender experiment

By on February 26, 2004

A male speaking in a baritone voice, standing over 6 feet tall, with wide shoulders, prominent facial hair and a large nose. He is ingesting mild doses of estrogen and herbal supplements while squeezing all 230 pounds of himself into a dress and heels everyday for six weeks. In the process, he is fooling an entire community into believing that he is actually a she.

This is Mike Reynolds’ idea of the ultimate gender experiment.

Reynolds, an adjunct professor of communications at Quinnipiac University, used his years of theatrical experience to find the truth behind gender and the reason behind women constantly claiming, “You’ll never understand me!”

“As Lisa Webber life was an emotional roller-coaster ride,” Reynolds said. But that barely begins to describe the quest for understanding that he chronicles in his book “The New Girl.”

“The idea came out of the work I did profiling transgender people and that women are the only minority where it is still fashionable to ridicule yet we do not see them as a minority,” Reynolds said.

During the six-week experiment, Mike Reynolds was no more. He legally changed his name and gender and told his neighbors that Mike was on vacation and that his cousin, Lisa, was staying at his house looking for work as a newcomer to the New Haven area.

Months of work went into creating Lisa. With training from a female impersonator, a new wardrobe, estrogen doses, herbal supplements, laser hair removal and a little make-up, Reynolds became a convincing woman in a size 16 dress.

“…The question began arising… Why does a woman put herself through this EVERYDAY? It took me three hours from waking up to getting out the door, three times what it normally takes,” Reynolds writes in “The New Girl” as he describes the first days of his adventure.

Webber, convincingly dressed as a woman, took a dive right into the social scene.

As Lisa, Reynolds joined a local church whose members immediately embraced her into their community. With a resume stating Reynolds’ credentials Webber started looking for work, though unsuccessfully.

Lisa got a few job interviews and wrote, “I’ve been to many job interviews, but none where the interviewers were so polite.”

On weekends, to get the full woman experience, Lisa even attended a few singles dances.

“My goal in this project was to gain a deeper understanding of this apparently obvious, yet deeply contentious question: what is the reality of life as a female, and why is it the way it is,” Reynolds said. “This question was about to drive me toward a conclusion and compassion that I never could have anticipated.”

“I felt like it opened my mind with a crowbar,” Reynolds said about the experiment, “My understanding of the actual gender as social currency has become much more ironic. The assumption of the amount of power one can have I now understand as necessary social fiction.”

Most importantly, Reynolds finally had a deeper understanding of gender roles.

“A learned behavior that divides us in terms of our value to each other and this difference of value is unnecessary as well as being very unfair to men and women,” Reynolds said.

As Webber, Reynolds made many close friends

“I feel I’ve grown closer to the people who’ve accepted me as Lisa Webber than I have to few people before in my life,” he said.

The transition back to manhood was relatively easy for Reynolds, who noticed that, “men no longer saw me as a target.”

Though Reynolds still has a few of Lisa’s things, the majority of them went to charity. The most shocking side effect of the experiment is that from now on, because of new laws after the Sept. 11 attacks, Reynolds’ license still says female.

Reynolds has since returned to his work as a professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University. He enjoys telling his students the tales of his weeks in a woman’s shoes and most students find it interesting.

Student Kaitlin Westbrook can picture Reynolds as a woman and describes his personality as, “Very eccentric.”

At the time his family did not understand his motives. Reynolds is used to mixed responses and describes the reaction to the book as polarized.

“People either think that it is groundbreaking or it is considered dangerous,” he said. “It’s usually because of a hidden anger or insecurity or a desire for the truth”

The book came out in May and sales have been doing well. He is currently beginning research on a more traditional project: a full history of Nazi television.

Reynolds said that after the experiment he has personally changed.

“Emotionally I am able to more easily empathize with what is driving the behavior and emotions of the women in my life,” he said.

The book is available through the Quinnipiac University bookstore or through


About Amy Codagnone