An Interview with Anne Fausto-Sterling

This interview was originally published in Issue 3 of Bluestockings Magazine.

On July 27, 2013, Bluestockings editor Chanelle Adams sat down with Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling to learn more about her personal views on feminism, gender, and science, building on a previous profile of the academic.

Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling received her B.A. in zoology from the University of Wisconsin and her Ph.D. in developmental genetics at Brown University. Fausto-Sterling has taught at Brown for over forty years. A controversial figure throughout her career, she has continually critiqued the lack of a feminist perspective in mainstream scientific research and discussions. She is widely cited in feminist and scientific texts for her work deconstructing the sex/gender binary and her rethinking of the nature-nurture divide.

Professor Fausto-Sterling’s current research applies dynamic systems theory to the study of human development, most recently examining sex differences in bone development and gender behavioral differences in early childhood. By challenging the artificially constructed divide between nature-nurture in both the academic and public discourses, Professor Fausto-Sterling also aims to use scientific research to re-frame social policy. Although she recently stepped down as Chair of the Science and Technology Studies Department at Brown, Fausto-Sterling remains active in the University community as the Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Biology and Gender Studies in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry.

* * *

Chanelle Adams: When did you first call yourself a feminist?

AFS: The late 1960s during the second-wave feminist movement. Before that, the term didn’t exist. I was a political activist, and it was natural as that form of activism became available that I became part of it.

CA: Other than a feminist, how else do you identify?

AFS: I’m way too old for identity politics now. I think that those identity questions are for 20 and 30-year-olds, not a 70-year-old. I am who I am in the world.

CA: Why is it that more scientists aren’t involved in activism and investigating how their science affects communities and culture?

AFS: I think one of the reasons is what I call the “ideology of science” which is the idea that scientists are supposed to be neutral and objective. Somehow having a viewpoint of the world interferes with that objectivity. One of the reasons why people become scientists is because they like that life in the mind, abstracted from the world. So people who want to be more isolated from the world gravitate towards science. And then, to have people pull on you and say that, “Science is related to the world, and why don’t you say anything about it” is hard for them.

CA: This is why there is a huge gap between scientists and the outside world of culture and activism. How can that gap be bridged?

AFS: There are a couple of ways. If you think differently about how science works and how you teach about science at the primary, secondary, and university levels, you might start to recruit people who are more balanced into the sciences. One thing to think about is who becomes a scientist and what looks attractive to them about science. If you begin to change the worldview of what it takes to become a scientist or what good science is, you might start attracting different kinds of people to it.

Along with that is the whole idea of getting diversity into science, and by diversity I mean more people of color, more women, more people from the working class to make it more representative of our population. By doing that you will start to bring in people who are more connected to the rest of the world. Diversity in science is an important piece of it, but it is not the whole piece.

There is a huge need to continue to train people to think critically about science, even if they are not themselves doing science. Those people need to have good relationships with scientists, which is to say that they really need to understand the science as well as be able to stand back and look at its interconnectivity to the world. So that for the scientists who say, “It takes every ounce of my effort to think about doing the science well, I can’t also be a science writer and communicator,” there is a community of scholars and professionals who can do that piece of it by working as translators.

CA: You recently published a blog post for the Boston Review, writing about the gender discrimination you faced in academia. Towards the end of the piece you mention that the work of feminists in academia is not yet done in terms of issues such as childcare and tenure. What do you see as some of the obstacles that my generation will have to tackle? Can you identify more work that needs to be done?

AFS: That’s a tough one. I’m not sort of in the head of your generation enough to know what the world looks like from your point of view.

I do think there is still residual discrimination of the overt kind. But much more of the subtle kind that people don’t even know is going on. You know, there’s a study that gets done every 10 years (there was one recently done at Yale) where they submitted a research assistant job application to a test panel and it was the same grant, but in one case they used a woman’s name, and in the other case they used a man’s name. Both men and women gnarted the application higher when it had a man’s name attached to it. There is still a sort of default point of view that men are better at things, especially in the science arena. And women have that subconscious view too. I do think there is still a whole question about affirmative action, a need for it and a need to address the subtle types of discrimination.

That gets into young women’s own self-confidence, to the extent that guys are still raised to believe in themselves in comparison to young women, who take longer to have confidence in their abilities. There are still a lot of individual, structural, and pedagogical things going on.

You still don’t encounter enough different kinds of female role models in the sciences. There are certainly more female teachers in the sciences than there used to be. But those women are still facing problems, especially if they want to have kids.

I always get back to the whole thing about how the structures of universities don’t support families. Young families have a difficult time.

CA: In my experience in the classroom, it is often that students who I perceive to be white men are the ones who speak the most, dominating conversations in the classroom.

AFS: Yes, and as a teacher, I can say that and it’s not necessarily because they have anything more to contribute. There is a lot of pedagogical things that faculty could do to lessen that—by really distributing the questions and the turns in terms of talking.

CA: Especially in science classrooms, right?

AFS: Science pedagogy is a whole other thing.The hierarchical, top-down approach to most science classrooms is really a big problem and really discourages many different kinds of voices from being heard and from developing. The big lecture classroom, the high-pressure exams, the lack of learning through experience in the classroom, the authoritarian way the science classroom is run—these are all just huge negatives. This type of classroom keeps science structured the way it currently is.

CA: Would you argue, just as a thought experiment, that gender distinction should be completely eradicated in scientific research?

AFS: This is the dilemma. We are, at least partially, a dimorphic species. Adult men and women have different physiologies. So the question is to figure out what the distributions of norms is, as opposed to the old way.

Historically, in the bad old days before feminism, you had a single norm and that norm was 170lbs in males and 5’8”, and that norm had a certain hematocrit [the percent volume of red blood cells]. All my life people kept saying I was anemic and I’m not. My body just has a different norm. We need to have multiple norms for people of different sizes.

Now, whether gender is the best divider? For some things height and weight might be a bet- ter way to make categories. But the whole reason why we categorize is in order to understand whether someone is in medical trouble or not. It’s not like we can just get rid of all categories. It’s just not always clear that gender is the best category to use. Sometimes gender can be a good category. And obviously it’s a good category for things having to do with reproductive health, because the most dimorphic part is the reproductive system.

In the early days of AIDS, and understanding it, there was this idea that women didn’t have it at the same rate as men did. It was because all of the symptoms that were being looked for were symptoms that male bodies had. AIDS presented rather differently in women. It was only after feminist activists began to say, “Look, there is a pattern of AIDS with women and it looks different and doctors are missing it because they are not understanding that there is more than one pattern.”

So, you can’t take gender out of it, you need to understand where there is difference, and where it is salient and then also where it isn’t salient. You can’t say there is one norm and everybody should be looked at the same. On the other hand, you can’t say that men and women are two different species with no overlap. It’s tricky; it’s not clean.

CA: A lot of people have trouble understanding the differences between gender and sex, gender non-conforming identities, intersex, and transgender identities. Why is it that people are looking for biological explanations when a lot of these concepts are very social and cultural as well?

AFS: People think of science as more absolute than it is. They figure they can get a simple, clear answer from science. A lot of people like clarity and simplicity. I think to the extent that we are generally more inclusive of gender variability, that trans* inclusivity will come along with the rest.

CA: Is there anything you would like to say to the young feminist community, advice, cautions, etc.?

AFS: I’m a lot older than a lot of you and so the world that I inhabited and inhabit now looks very different from your world. The first thing you need to do is take a good look at where you are now and what the ongoing needs are for you and for feminism more broadly. Don’t just make it about upper middle class white women. A lot of you are very globally and internationally minded, which is a good thing. I urge people to think politically, to think beyond their own individual circumstances of people who are different from you and have very different life experiences. The feminist issues of my day were very much about class, race and sexuality with the goal to be a more inclusive movement. You all start out in a better place with that regard and you need to keep that in mind. Only you can assess what happens next for your generation.

CA: We still try to do a lot of unpacking of race, class and gender at Bluestockings.

AFS: That always has to be part of the process. It shouldn’t paralyze you. But you should always be thinking about it.

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Interview with Anne Fausto-Sterling conducted by Chanelle Adams

* second-wave feminist movement: feminist activism in the 1960s-80s; primarily concerned with achieving equality in the workplace, protecting reproductive choice, and passing the Equal Rights Amendment; this movement was fraught with complications and controversy, particularly because of its exclusion and mar- ginalization of women who did not identify as white, cisgender, straight, and upper or middle-class

* identity politics: political movements and discourses centered around the concerns of social groups constructed mainly on basis of gender, race, ethnicity, sex- ual orientation, and other categories of identity

* trans*: an umbrella term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth; the asterisk indicates the possibility for individuals to identify with terms like genderqueer, non-binary, agender, bigender, etc. which exceed the prescriptive constraints of transsexual or transgender

Image found on GoogleImages, Illustrated by Yael Bar

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