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Women Who Paved the Way: Gender Scientist Anne Fausto-Sterling

Women Who Paved the Way: Gender Scientist Anne Fausto-Sterling

Today's queer woman to know in honor of Women's History Month is a scientist, academic, and writer who argued early on that gender exists on a continuum. 

March is Women's History Month, and with Donald Trump and his administration in power, there's never been a better time to honor all women. Throughout the month The Advocate will feature queer pioneers whose strength, resilience, and ingenuity paved the way for others. Today's woman to know is Anne Fausto-Sterling.

Who she is: Nancy Duke Lewis Professor Emerita of Biology and Gender Studies in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University

What she's accomplished: Anne Fausto-Sterling ended her career in academia when she retired from Brown University in 2014 following a remarkable career. A Brown faculty member for more than 40 years, Fausto-Sterling has countered the "nature versus nurture" debate over gender differences with her belief that both nature and nurture are responsible. She argues that masculinity and femininity are not dichotomous but part of a continuum. "Sex and gender are best conceptualized as points in a multidimensional space," she wrote in one of her scholarly papers. She also contends that social and environmental factors can influence biological characteristics, and that everyone can learn much from the experiences of intersex people.

In her books Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men, Sexing the Body: Gender Politicsand theConstruction of Sexuality, and Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World, Fausto-Sterling explores the complexity of gender in a manner accessible to both academics and general readers. She emphasizes that gender and sexual orientation should never be cause for discrimination, and that science cannot be separated from politics. "I am deeply committed to the ideas of the modern movements of gay and women's liberation, which argue that the way we traditionally conceptualize gender and sexual identity narrows life's possibilities while perpetuating gender inequality," she has said. "In order to shift the politics of the body, one must change the politics of science itself."

In her decades in academia, Fausto-Sterling has experienced gender discrimination and fought against it. A male colleague once asserted there were no female scientists before her generation, and her research proved him wrong. University administrators once told her that a bequest to Brown to endow a chair designated for a female professor amounted to discrimination against men; years later, she became the holder of that chair. When she was one of five women professors granted tenure at Brown in 1976, the number of tenured women on the faculty doubled.

As distinguished as she is in her own field, Fausto-Sterling has a wife who is equally distinguished in hers. She is married to playwright Paula Vogel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive, in addition to many other honors. They met when Vogel was on the Brown faculty, and they were married in Massachusetts in 2004.

Choice quote: "Largely due to the force of the Civil Rights Act, feminism, and viewers like us, when it comes to equal representation of women the United States leads the pack, in pretty much all sectors, including academia. But of course, leading the pack still doesn't mean we have crossed the finish line of equality." -- Fausto-Sterling in a Boston Review article, "My Life Confronting Sexism in Academia"

For more information about Fausto-Sterling, visit her website.

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