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Tuesday June 27th 2017

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Pioneering Biologist to Speak at UWF

By Christopher Scott Satterwhite

This month marks the 15th year the University of West Florida holds its annual Women’s Studies Conference, and the guest speaker is like none before.

Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, a feminist biologist and one of the world’s premier scholars in gender studies, will speak at UWF. Her talk, “Acquiring Gender: From Baby in the Yellow Hat to Gender Identity and Expression,” will be the keynote address for the popular academic conference.

Dr. Fausto-Sterling is an “eminent developmental geneticist whose work has been influential in shaping our understanding of sex, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity,” according to Dr. Kathy Romack of the UWF Women’s Studies Program and the Department of English.

Following last year’s visit by activist Angela Davis, Romack wanted to “build solidarity and communication” between different communities on campus and within the local area. “We chose Fausto-Sterling to present the Keynote Address this year because of her exceptional scientific pedigree.”

Romack noted Fausto-Sterling’s work in dismantling conventional gender stereotypes makes her a perfect fit for the conference.

While Fausto-Sterling’s work covers a wide range within the sciences, a great deal of her work is dedicated to the study of how gender is determined by culture as well as biology. Essentially, Fausto-Sterling’s work examines what role our environment plays in human gender determination and biology.

Fausto-Sterling explains how our surroundings affect the human body: “We experience this all the time in our lives,” she said.

“For example,” she continued, “when we have a bad day at work, it gives us indigestion.”

“All of our daily experiences exist in a biological experience. So if our bodies are always in an active balance in the world they exist, there’s no reason to suggest that our bodies will experience the world differently,” said Fausto-Sterling.

The implications of her work are huge, especially at a time in history when numerous states are openly discussing laws forcing transgender people to carry birth certificates with them before entering a public restroom.

In an article published on her website, Fausto-Sterling wrote that “the two-sex system embedded in our society is not adequate to encompass the full spectrum of human sexuality.”  Boundaries between feminine and masculine are difficult to define, she explained.

“Some find the [social] changes under way deeply disturbing. Others find them liberating. While the legal system may have an interest in maintaining only two sexes, our collective biologies do not,” she said.

Among her many goals, Fausto-Sterling hopes her work helps teach future educators about the fluidity of gender and the damage caused by bias and stereotypes.

“I think my work has its strongest impact in education,” said Fausto-Sterling in a telephone interview from her home in Rhode Island.

“I’d like to see educators continue efforts to provide equal access, particularly in the sciences,” she said. “In the classroom, where there are often biases against women and girls, I’d like to see my work continue into the efforts as to how we educate children.”

“I’d like to see equal treatment in the work force generally,” she said.

Earning her PhD from Brown University in Developmental Genetics in 1970, Fausto-Sterling began her academic career at the prestigious school. Despite rising awareness of feminist issues across colleges nationwide, she personally faced gender discrimination in the workplace through lost opportunities and—to use a modern term—micro-aggressions.

Her experiences, along with those of her female colleagues, led her to bring feminism and women’s studies into the sciences.

“A group of us taught at Brown in the first women’s studies course,” she said. “We did it as extra work on our own time. We had no administrative support, but we did have lots of student interest. We thought it would hurt our prospects for getting tenure,” she said.

“Colleges thought it was a passing fad; that [Women’s Studies] lacked scholarly substance.”

Fausto-Sterling and her colleagues “plotted,” a word she freely used, to prove her detractors wrong and make academia a better place for women throughout the disciplines.

Today, colleagues laud Fausto-Sterling’s accomplishments in a field she helped pioneer. As a grad student in the late 1960s, however, she recalled shocking her male counterparts by seemingly-trivial rebellions such as wearing pants instead of dress and heels, and refusing to serve tea at an official function.

Some of her determination may hold roots in her own personal upbringing. While remarking, somewhat jokingly, that her mother “made” her go into the sciences, she said that she grew up in a family which encouraged her academic pursuits.

“I’ve always been interested in [biology],” she said. “I grew up in it, and it was part of my upbringing.”

Fausto-Sterling’s upbringing brought her from undergraduate studies in zoology to becoming one of the leading scientists in the interdisciplinary field of Women’s Studies—a field many academics see as under attack in our current political climate.

Though she admits that “there was a lot of resistance” to Women’s Studies in the early 1970s, she now sees the field as vibrant and secure, while dismissing concerns over the future of Women’s Studies.

“I think [Women’s Studies] is pretty well established, and there’s an infrastructure that’ll keep itself going,” said Fausto-Sterling. “What gives me hope is to see new academics come along, to see them do good work, and move beyond the previous generation,” said Fausto-Sterling.

“I see a whole generation of younger scholars—one or two generations back from me—that are doing really good work. That gives me a lot a hope.”

The author of several academic books and articles, Fausto-Sterling is also a regular contributor to the Boston Review and writes about scientific issues ranging from brain scans to her own personal stories of confronting sexism during her four decades in academia.

“I am thrilled to have such a prestigious biologist come to visit UWF to talk gender,” said Romack. Besides directing Women’s Studies at UWF, Romack is the daughter of an entomologist.

“My father helped me pick a really nifty gift for Dr. Fausto-Sterling,” added Romack. Though Romack refused to say what the gift was, she does see Fausto-Sterling’s presence at UWF as a gift to the community.

“I hope that women will be inspired by the example set by Dr. Fausto-Sterling,” said Romack.

UWF’s 15th Annual Women’s Studies Conference with Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling
SPONSORED BY: UWF Gender and Women’s Studies Program, Red Ribbon Charitable Foundation, John C. Pace Symposium Series, UWF Office of Equity, Diversity and International Affairs, UWF College of Art, Social Science, and Humanities, Department of English and many more.
WHEN: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday, March 21; Fausto-Sterling will be speaking at 6 p.m.
WHERE: UWF Conference Center, 11000 University Pkwy.
COST: Free (Registration is required due to the limited seating)
DETAILS: uwfwomenstudiesconference.wordpress.com