Knowing Bodies: Science and the Sex/Gender Distinction

Each year, IRW's distinguished lecture series presents a variety of talks showcasing interdisciplinary work on women, gender and sexuality by a variety of eminent speakers. The lecture series revolves around an annual theme that is also shared by our interdisciplinary seminar and undergraduate learning community. In 2020-2021 our annual theme is "Knowing Bodies: Science and the Sex/Gender Distinction."

Thursday, September 17, 2020
Reproductive Justice in a Global Pandemic
Kimberly Mutcherson, Rutgers Law School

Dean Kimberly MutchersonThe race, class, and gender based health disparities that have been an unsurprising, but deeply disturbing, aspect of the present COVID-19 pandemic have had significant reproductive justice impacts. From the exploitation of low-wage workers, inadequate childcare, insufficient access to healthcare, and attempts to curtail access to abortion, the ability for women, especially Black women, to make decisions about having or not having children and to raise their children in safe environments is particularly fraught in our present moment. Couple the pandemic with the racial reckoning taking place in the U.S., and it is possible to imagine that this is a moment full of opportunities to grapple with and find real solutions for the reproductive injustices that are deeply entrenched in our history and present.

Thursday, November 5, 2020
Science Fiction, Trans Literature, and Community Building
Catherine Fitzpatrick, Rutgers University-Newark

Catherine FitzpatrickThis talk centers on my experiences as editor of an independent trans press, and in particular my work putting together the ground-breaking, Stonewall-award-winning anthology Meanwhile Elsewhere: Science Fiction & Fantasy from Transgender Writers. Approaching this text, not as an agglomeration of pieces by individual writers, but as a community production, I will discuss both how the anthology came into being as a result of community organizing, and how it in turn contributes to imagining and creating future trans communities. This talk will involve both serious literary analysis and salacious gossip, and may contain some poetry.

Thursday, December 3, 2020
Speciation/Extinction: Sexing and Gendering 21st Century Biosocialities
Juno Salazar Parreñas, Cornell University

Juno ParrenasAnxieties about the generation of new species (speciation) and the annihilation of other species (extinction) infuse the zeitgeist of the 21st century. For instance, coronavirus species evolve into new kinds of deadly agents, while lives already vulnerable to mass death becoming increasingly more endangered and exploited. This talk addresses how ideas of sex and gender are vital for understanding the emergence of new viral, agricultural, and conservationist life forms and frailties. Against past articulations of biology and society, such as sociobiology, this talk argues for a feminist vision of biosociality. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021
"Who Stands Under the Umbrella? The Politics of Naming and Categorizing Intersex"
Elizabeth Reis, Macaulay Honors College, City University of New York

Elizabeth ReisIn July 2020, the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago took an extraordinary step in the history of intersex management: It decided to stop performing intersex surgeries, which it admitted were done merely to make genitals appear more typically male or female. Responding to pressure by determined activists and transgender allies, as well as some of its own staff, Lurie publicly apologized for the physical and psychological harm caused to intersex patients over the years. The victory was not complete, however, as Lurie chose to consider one particular condition (congenital adrenal hyperplasia or CAH) separately, noting that many CAH patients “do not consider themselves under the intersex umbrella,” a worrisome exclusion that I will examine in this paper. CAH has long been considered the most common cause of atypical genitals in children with typically female XX chromosomes. I will explain the stakes of considering CAH a separate condition, and voice my concern as a historian of intersex and professor of medical ethics. Their contention is not merely semantic or taxonomic. Classification decisions affect the actions of physicians and policymakers and produce important repercussions for affected patients

Thursday, March 25, 2021
Floral Dreams: Sex (Un)told and (Re)told
Banu Subramaniam University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Banu Subramaniam How did plant sexuality come to so hauntingly resemble human sexual formations? Tracing extant language of "sex" and sexuality in plant reproductive biology, I examine the histories of science to explore how plant reproductive biology emerged historically from formations of colonial racial and sexual politics, and how evolutionary biology was premised on the imaginations of race(d) heterosexual romance. Drawing on key examples, the presentation aims to (un)read plant sexuality, sexual anatomy and bodies to imagine new possibilities of plant sex, and sexualities, and their relationalities. If plant sexuality was modeled on human sexual formations, might a re-imagination of plant sexuality open up new vistas for the human?

Thursday, April 29, 2021
“I Thought You Were Somebody Else”: Centering Black Women and Femmes in Racial Justice
Salamishah Tillet, Rutgers University-Newark

Salamishah TilletIn Richard Wright’s posthumously published short story, “Man of All Work,” he attempted to address the criticism of his troubling representations of African American women, particularly black domestic workers in Native Son, head-on. The story, which appeared in a larger collection entitled “Eight Men,” and was originally written as a radio play, is set in the 1950s and is about an African-American man named Carl Owens, who is unable to find a job, and ends up pretending to be his wife Lucy and successfully securing employment in a white household. While the story depicted the various ways that racism disproportionately impacted African-Americans at the time, through its ambiguous ending, it also risked erasing the specific sexual violence to which Carl’s wife, Lucy, was actually privy. Taking Wright’s story as its starting point, this talk will examine the challenges of subsuming “gender” in service of racial allegory, and the ongoing violence and erasure that Black women and Femmes continue to face, in social justice movements, as a result of the continued association of Blackness with masculinity today.


All events at 4.30 p.m. Free and open to the public. Online for 2020-2021.


 Download the 2020-2021 IRW Distinguished Lecture Series Poster