Currently Crushing On: Anne Fausto-Sterling

“Scientists who do deny their politics—who claim to be objective and unemotional about gender while living in a world where even boats and automobiles are identified by sex—are fooling both themselves and the public at large.” – Anne Fausto-Sterling (Myths of Gender)

Since the times of Merit-Ptah and Agamede in ancient Egypt and Greece, women have been vital practitioners of science and medicine. Yet, there still exists a variety of gender disparities in the representation of women in the sciences today. The predominantly European cisgender white male branch of scientific “rationalism” has held as the dominant paradigm for the last four centuries (think Copernicus, Newton, Brahe or Einstein). As a result, scientists who do not fit this bill in terms of sex and gender, such as women and transgender folk, face sexism and transphobia, oftentimes manifested through employment discrimination. Often the arguments against women in science, the workplace, and academia are pseudo-biological claims that women are less qualified, which is in part provides the rationale for the failure of institutions to meet the needs of working mothers.

It is easy to forget that scientists are real people, each with their own sets of values, experiences and perceptions that they bring to their research. We have been taught to blindly trust science to provide us with objective truths of the world we live in, without questioning the societal norms and cultural beliefs under which the science is conducted. In general within the sciences, one is either actively involved in its conduction or passively receptive of its findings.

So, what happens when a feminist lens is brought to the study of science? How can a biologist navigate a historically sexist space as a woman, feminist and social activist?

This is the story of Anne Fausto-Sterling.

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Anne Fausto-Sterling received her B.A. in zoology from University of Wisconsin and her Ph.D. in developmental genetics at Brown University. Even though she has recently stepped down as Chair of the Faculty Committee of the Science and Technology Studies Department at Brown, she has left a lasting legacy as a Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Biology and Gender Studies for her distinguished work in both teaching and research.

These feats were no effortless endeavor. Women in academia have to do a little more than just “Lean In” – yes, we are talking to you, Sheryl Sandberg – to get the same recognition as their male colleagues. Out of all women in academia in the U.S., only 44% have received tenure, roughly 32% will never receive tenure and almost 24% are currently in pursuit. Now hold these statistics next to those of male academics. 66% of men in academia have received tenure. These numbers are not ideal. But, at least, the 12% gap appears hopeful, especially so in comparison to 30 or 40 years ago when Anne entered into a lifelong career in academia.


To reach the highest echelons of the Academy, being male is certainly in one’s favor of success. In a recent blog post for the Boston Review, Professor Fausto-Sterling chronicles her struggles as a woman, and feminist, at Brown University. In it, she recounts vignettes of the obstacles she faced along her path from graduate student to Ph.D. scholar and beyond, particularly in a time when institutional sexism and discrimination were rampant. Here, she recalls an incident from 1972:

“Avuncular senior historian invites me to lunch in an evident effort to encourage me. His opening gambit: there were no women scientists before your generation because of all those barriers. But now the roadblocks have been removed, there will be many of you (and only yourselves to blame if you fail). He meant well, and he was an historian, but could that really be true?”

A controversial figure in science, Fausto-Sterling has continually critiqued the lacking role of the feminist perspective in science as well as questioning the sex/gender binary. She notes how the experimental process, from the ideation of a hypothesis to the application of conclusions, was historically and is for the most part embedded within a perspective that is decidedly male.

“Daily, my life weaves in and out of a web of conflict over the politics of sexuality and the making and using of knowledge about the biology of human behavior.”

(Sexing the Body, page 5)

But Fausto-Sterling has not only been invested in feminist critiques of science; much of her work explores the material dimensions of biological sex in tandem with gender. In 1993, Fausto-Sterling made a half-serious, half-tongue-in-cheek proposition to the scientific community: What if, instead of two-sexes, we were to classify sex in five categories to include intersex individuals? Depending on who you ask, about 1 in every 1,500 births produce intersex individuals, who are people who do not biologically conform to just male or female.

To the anticipated critics of The Five Sexes, Fausto-Sterling wrote:

If the state and the legal system have an interest in maintaining a two-party sexual system, they are in defiance of nature. For biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male; and depending on how one calls the shots, one can argue that along that spectrum lie at least five sexes– and perhaps even more.

Of course, as she foresaw, critics retorted that following a five-sex model was not natural because clearly there are only two “natural” sexes. She later recognized that her idea of five sexes, moreover, reduced gender to physical genitalia, thus ignoring how people express and perceive genders identities and roles.

Her emphasis on defining sex illuminates scientific efforts to reinforce a “sex-gender binary.” This comes at the expense of people who do not easily fit into either of the boxes of “male” and “female,” such as intersex, transgender and genderqueer individuals. This mindset is exclusionary and limiting for people who are, in some respect, gender non-conforming. Fausto-Sterling has renounced this fictional proposal of the five sexes particularly because her terminology was not sensitive to the lived experiences and realities of intersex people. Using the outdated and now offensive pejorative of “hermaphrodite,” she has abandoned such a register in order to be more attuned to the needs of those people who are most impacted by her research in their own everyday lives.

In alignment with feminist critique, Fausto-Sterling lends a critical-eye to the rhetoric and language used within science. She believes that the current gender dichotomy doesn’t do any favors to the feminist cause, primarily due to the notion of absolute, immutable “sexual difference” that was prominent in many second-wave feminist discourse after psychoanalytic thinkers Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. Therefore, she encourages thinking of other conceptions of gender that exist outside of our Western dualistic paradigms which only limit our understanding of the incredible complexities of sex and gender for each and every individual.

The reality is, some people contain elements of both sexes, while others identify with or express only some elements of one gender or the other. Foundational scientific rationalism thrives on dualities that over-simplify the variation of lived realities in order to make distinct categorical classifications. Fausto-Sterling brings home the point that these dichotomies are no longer productive.

We have the honor of interviewing Fausto-Sterling for a bluestockings Exclusive, coming to you in our fall issue!

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