Promoting research using a feminist lens to approach biology, University of Wisconsin will be home to the nation’s first post-doctorate program in feminist biology this fall after a donation.
Approaching science with a feminist viewpoint is important because there are certain assumptions about men, women, objectivity and knowledge that influence how science is often done, associate professor at the Center of Women’s Health and Women’s Health Research, Judith Houck, said. Looking at science through a feminist lens allows old questions to be observed in new ways, she said.
Feminist biology attempts to pinpoint and adjust gender bias in biology.
UW was granted the opportunity by Gertraude Wittig, a German Ph.D. biologist in the 1950s, Janet Hyde, professor of psychology and director of the Campus Center for Research on Gender and Women, said. Wittig suffered through bias and sexism that many women faced during that time frame, she said.
After working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for several years, Wittig researched universities nationwide with strong gender and women’s studies programs to find one she believed had a strong emphasis on the intersection of gender and science, Hyde said.
“She concluded that ours was the best one to give the money to partly because we have a long history of representing biological research in our program, which is unusual for women’s studies programs,” Hyde said.
Hyde said they hope to make advances in approaches to science that detect gender bias in traditional biology and also pioneer new approaches to biological research that counteract those biases.
Houck said the department has a strong history of feminist analysis of science and biology and health. The post-doc is important for the department to continue its strong, innovative legacy, she said.
“For the larger university, what this does is sends a message to the academic community that UW-Madison cares about feminist science, they’re willing to promote feminist science and we want to be known as a university that supports and nurtures feminist science,” Houck said.
Caroline VanSickle, a Ph.D. student studying biological anthropology at the University of Michigan, will be the first post-doctoral fellow in the program, according to a statement from UW. When she begins the two-year fellowship in September, she will study the pelvic shape of female human ancestors to gain insight on childbirth anatomy over the course of human evolution, the statement said.
Fellows working in the program will be responsible for two parts, Hyde said.
The first is conducting biological research incorporating a feminist point of view, Hyde said, and the other is instructing a course for gender and women’s studies each semester. She said they have not had a faculty member be able to teach this course because of budget cuts over the past several years.
“What we need to do is produce more feminist biologists,” Hyde said. “We’re hoping to encourage that now and to make it a much larger and vibrant field.”