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Conference Brings Together Feminists and an Astronaut

By C. S. Satterwhite

After orbiting the planet several times, logging over 1200 hours of space flight, U.S. Navy Captain Wendy Lawrence returned safely to Earth knowing full well several of her colleagues did not. Taking to space shortly after the 2003 explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia, Lawrence joined the next ship traveling into space and made history.

Captain Lawrence “is the first female graduate of the Naval Academy to fly into space and was on the first space shuttle crew mission following the Columbia disaster,” said Sydney Stone, president of the University of West Florida Women Studies Collective.  “And she competes in triathlons,” Stone added.

This Women’s History Month, the Women’s Studies Collective is hosting Captain Lawrence as the keynote speaker for its 16th Annual Women’s Studies Conference to be held on the campus of UWF.

“We are deeply honored to be able to host such an incredible role model this year,” Stone said.

The Women’s Studies Conference is an annual tradition at UWF going back to 2001. Brainchild of several UWF faculty and students, the academic conference features the works of students covering a number of subjects related to Women’s Studies. This year’s program lists topics ranging from misogyny in fandom spaces to effective bystander intervention practices to prostitution in ancient Rome, with many more subjects in the daylong program.

While the conference is for UWF students, the public is welcome to attend presentations and invited to hear the keynote speaker, Captain Lawrence.

“Captain Lawrence is a dynamite individual,” said Stone. “She graduated from the Naval Academy and M.I.T. with degrees in engineering. If that isn’t impressive enough in its own right, she went on to become a highly decorated naval helicopter pilot and an astronaut with four space missions under her belt,” said Stone.

“I am very excited to have the opportunity to meet this incredible woman.”

Women’s Studies Conference annually brings together local students and faculty in a collegial environment. Past keynote speakers included activist Angela Davis and geneticist Ann Fausto-Sterling. Though the well-known speakers bring public attention to the conference, the focus of the day is on students and the field of Women’s Studies.

“For me, Women’s Studies has always provided a foundation through which I can understand and address inequality,” said Stephanie La Gasse, a graduate student at UWF.

La Gasse volunteered her time to help with the conference and said, “the Women’s Studies Conference in the past have given me the opportunity not only to share and discuss my own perspective but also to learn about others’ perspectives and research.”

“Students will undoubtedly continue to benefit from these experiences,” said La Gasse.

As universities nationwide have seen their Women Studies programs cut, UWF is no exception. Nonetheless, through the dedicated efforts of several professors and students, the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program continues to demonstrate its relevance to the university and the community.

With this program, students draw constant benefits from their professors’ tireless efforts. One such UWF student is Terry Griner.

“The presentations I have heard from past conferences have not only expanded my own knowledge but also challenged me to become part of campus and community organizations,” said Griner.

Supporting organizations for this year’s conference include the League of Women Voters, Institute for Women in Politics of Northwest Florida, STRIVE, and Stronger Together, to name a few.

“I am glad that the Women’s Studies Conference continues to be a part of UWF’s attempts to enhance students’ personal and professional development beyond the classroom,” said Griner.

As for the university itself, those active in the UWF Women’s Studies Collective see the annual conference as a way to build stronger connections between UWF and the broader community.

“I definitely think the Women’s Studies Conference builds visibility for UWF,” said Stone. “Previous years’ keynote speakers, [such as] Angela Davis and Anne Fausto-Sterling, brought audience members from as far as South Florida and Chicago to the community and heightened UWF’s visibility as an institution that hosts world-renowned figures.”

Stone predicts “this year will be no exception.”

With the selection of a naval aviator and astronaut as keynote speaker, in a city known as the cradle of naval aviation, Stone’s efforts will likely bear fruit. Captain Lawrence’s experiences in naval aviation and outer space, as well as her longtime support for women in the STEM fields, promises to bring a diverse audience to the conference.

Despite long hours and bureaucratic frustrations, Stone views her leadership role in the conference as nothing short of a duty.

“I wanted to be involved with the Women’s Studies Conference because I am passionate about women’s issues and wanted to contribute to this exciting event’s tradition at UWF,” said Stone.

As many in the mainstream media begin to call 2017 the next “Year of the Woman,” conference organizers feel the post-election energy of women around the nation as helping demonstrate the importance of their work in Women’s Studies.

“This conference comes at a perfect time as a place where topics central to the current political landscape are brought to the fore,” said Stone, who believes the election helped bring about a new discussion around women’s issues.

“The general public has been mobilized on a national level to critical consciousness and encouraged to be more engaged in feminist politics than I have ever seen,” said Stone.

This year’s conference reflects this consciousness, as have previous conferences has for years.

With dozens upon dozens of presentations taking place throughout the day, followed by UWF’s second female president, Dr. Martha Saunders, introducing the first female Naval Academy graduate to fly into space, Stone has reason to be proud of the conference and her organizational role.

While Stone expresses concern over what she sees as “the widespread academic and institutional devaluing of Women’s Studies programs,” she continues working on the last minute details of the conference in the hope that others see the value of Women’s Studies to UWF.

Where she finds hope is in her colleagues, her professors and the role models the Women’s Studies Conference has brought to UWF.  Stone also finds hope in what she expressed as the importance of feminism, on campus and throughout the community.

By definition, feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights under the basic premise of equality among the sexes. As the several student presentations promise to demonstrate, and Captain Lawrence’s example will surely show, the struggle for equality is a long road, but not without victories.

To this, Stone underlines the importance of the Women’s Studies Conference, as well as Women’s Studies as a whole.

“Feminism will always be relevant.”

WHAT: UWF’s 16th Annual Women’s Studies Conference with Keynote Speaker Captain Wendy Lawrence
WHEN: 8 a.m. Friday, March 24
WHERE: UWF Conference Center, 11000 University Pkwy.
COST: Free, but registration is required due to the limited seating