Futurist, pharma tycoon, satellite entrepreneur, philosopher. Martine Rothblatt, the highest-paid female executive in America, was born male. But that is far from the thing that defines her. Just ask her wife. Then ask the robot version of her wife.
Only about 5 percent of the companies in the Fortune 500 are run by women; double the sample size, and the proportion is the same. Compensation levels for female CEOs appear to lag as well, though it’s hard to tell because there are so few of them.
On a recent list of America’s 200 highest-paid CEOs, only 11 were women, and their median pay was $1.6 million less than their male peers. Certain of these women are already household names: Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, No. 34 on the list, who earned $25 million last year, and Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman, No. 95, who earned $18 million.
But the highest-paid female CEO in America is not nearly as well known. She is Martine Rothblatt, the 59-year-old founder of United Therapeutics—a publicly traded, Silver Spring, Maryland–based pharmaceutical company—who made a previous fortune as a founder of Sirius radio, a field she entered as an attorney specializing in the law of space. But what’s really extraordinary about Rothblatt’s ascent is not that she has leaned in, or out, or had any particular thoughts about having it all. What sets Rothblatt apart from the other women on the list is that she—who earned $38 million last year—was born male.
“It’s like winning the lottery,” Rothblatt said happily, about seeing her name atop the list, during one of the meetings I had with her this summer. But Rothblatt could not be less interested in establishing herself as a role model for women. “I can’t claim that what I have achieved is equivalent to what a woman has achieved. For the first half of my life, I was male,” she said.
In person, Martine is magnificent, like a tall lanky teenage boy with breasts. She wears no makeup or jewelry, and she inhabits her muted clothing—cargo pants, a T-shirt, a floppy button-down thrown on top—in the youthful, offhand way of the tech elite. Martine is transgender, a power trans, which makes her an even rarer species in the corporate jungle than a female CEO. And she seems genuinely to revel in her self-built in-betweenness. Just after her sex-reassignment surgery in 1994, her appearance was more feminine than it is today—old photos show her wearing lipstick, her long, curly hair loose about her shoulders. But in the years since she has developed her own unisexual style. She is a person for whom gender matters enough to have undergone radical surgery, but not enough to care whether she’s called he or she by people, like her 83-year-old mother, who occasionally lose track of which pronoun to use.
What she prefers to be called is “Martine.” To her four young grandchildren she is “Grand Martine.” Bina Aspen, the woman who married Martine 33 years ago, when Martine was a man, and remains her devoted wife, calls herself not straight or gay but “Martine-sexual”—as in the only person she wants to have sex with is Martine. Together Martine and Bina have four children, and they refer to Martine as “Martine” in conversations with strangers. At home, they call her “Dad.”
In 1995, just after her transition, Martine published The Apartheid of Sex, a slim manifesto that insisted on an overhaul of “dimorphic” (her word) gender categories. “There are five billion people in the world and five billion unique sexual identities,” she wrote. “Genitals are as irrelevant to one’s role in society as skin tone. Hence, the legal division of people into males and females is as wrong as the legal division of people into black and white races.” Instead, she suggested, people might better express their gender and sexual identities on a spectrum, perhaps in terms of color: Green might be “an equally aggressive/nurturing person who does not try to appear sexy” (lime green someone a little less aggressive), and purple someone gentle, nourishing, and erotic in equal measure.
Martine prefers not to limit herself to available words: She’s suggested using “Pn.,” for “person,” in place of “Mr.” and “Ms.,” and “spice” to mean husband or wife. But “trans” is a prefix she likes a lot, for it contains her self-image as an explorer who crosses barriers into strange new lands. (When she feels a connection to a new acquaintance, she says that she “transcends.”) And these days Martine sees herself less as transgender and more as what is known as transhumanist, a particular kind of futurist who believes that technology can liberate humans from the limits of their biology—including infertility, disease, and decay, but also, incredibly, death. Now, in her spare time, when she’s not running a $5 billion company, or flying her new helicopter up and down the East Coast, or attending to her large family and three dogs, she’s tinkering with ways that technology might push back that ultimate limit. She believes in a foreseeable future in which the beloved dead will live again as digital beings, reanimated by sophisticated artificial-intelligence programs that will be as cheap and accessible to every person as iTunes. “I know this sounds messianic or even childlike,” she wrote to me in one of many emails over the summer. “But I believe it is simply practical and technologically inevitable.”
During our first conversation, in the beige United Therapuetics outpost in Burlington, Vermont, Martine made a distinction between boundaries and borders. Borders, denials, limits—these are Martine’s siren calls, pulling her toward and beyond them even as she, a pharma executive responsible to shareholders and a board, must survive every day within regulations and laws. She was sprawled across from me on a sectional couch, her hair in a ponytail and her long legs before her. “At times I sort of feel like Queen Elizabeth,” she said. “You know, she lives in a world of limitations, having the appearance of great authority and being able to transcend any limitations. But in reality she is in a little cage.”
Martin Rothblatt was raised by observant Jewish parents in a working-class suburb of San Diego; his father was a dentist. His mother, Rosa Lee, says she always believed her first child was destined for greatness. Days after Martin’s birth, “I was walking back and forth in the living room and I was holding him like a football. And I remember saying, ‘Menashe, honey’—that’s his Hebrew name—‘I don’t know what it is, but there’s something special about you. You will make a difference in this world.’ And she is.”
The Rothblatts were the only Jewish family in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood, and Martin grew up obsessed with difference, seeking out families unlike his own. Rosa Lee remembers her child as a fanatical reader, the kind of kid who would spend an entire family vacation with his nose inSiddhartha, and Martine herself sent me a list of the books that as an adolescent had been influential: Exodus, by Leon Uris; anything by Isaac Asimov; and especially Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. But Martin was an unmotivated student and dropped out of UCLA after freshman year, because he wanted to see the world; he had read that the Seychelles were like a paradise, and with a few hundred dollars in his pocket he made his way there.
The Seychelles disappointed. Cockroaches covered the floor of his hut at night, and when he turned on the light, moths or locusts would swarm in through the open windows. But a friend of a friend was working at an Air Force base tracking satellites for NASA, and one day Martin was invited to visit. Outside, there was a “big, giant, satellite dish.” Inside, “it was like we stepped into the future,” Martine told me. “Everything was crisp and clean,” she said, like a vision out of science fiction made real. “It seemed to me the satellite engineer was making the whole world come together. Like that was the center of the world.” Martin hightailed it back to California to re-enroll at UCLA and transform himself into an expert in the law of space.
Martin first met Bina at a networking event in Hollywood in 1979. “There was a DJ, and the music started, and there was a disco ball and a dance floor,” Martine remembers. “I saw Bina sitting over there, and I just felt an enormous attraction to her and just walked over and asked her to dance. And she agreed to dance. We danced, we sat down, talked, and we’ve been together ever since.” They were from different worlds: Martin was a white Jewish man on his way to getting a J.D.-M.B.A.; Bina, who is African-American, grew up in Compton and was working as a real-estate agent. But they had much in common—starting with the fact that they were both single parents. Martin had met a woman in Kenya on his way home from the Seychelles; the relationship had not worked out, but had produced a son, Eli, who was 3. Bina’s daughter, Sunee, was about the same age.