Meet Caroline VanSickle: Feminist Biologist

2014-06-05 15.15.34Last year, the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison extended an unusual job offer to scientist Caroline VanSickle: to join the country’s—and likely the world’s—first-ever endowed fellowship for feminist biology.

If you’ve never heard of feminist science or feminist biology, you’re not alone. While the field of feminist science is far from new—scholarly papers dating as far back as 1974 echo its principles—few beyond the scientific community have heard of it.

“You can think of feminist biology as having two components,” Janet Hyde, UW-Madison’s Director of the Center for Research on Gender and Women, told The Cut when news of the university’s program was first announced. “First, it identifies gender bias in traditional biology and alerting students and scientists to possible gender bias… Another part is constructing new theories and new research that does away with these biases and leads to a more balanced biology that takes women into account.”

“We have a tendency to think, ‘Oh, there’s no sexism in science. Science is completely objective and you can’t possibly be doing science with unconscious bias or anything like that.’ And that’s really completely false,” VanSickle told the Ms. Blog. “Scientists are human and so they’re subject to those kinds of things, just as much in science as they are in any other area of work.”

VanSickle is a biological anthropologist with a specialty in paleoanthropology, researching the evolution of sex differences in human ancestors, or hominins, as seen in the fossil record. Now just over halfway into the two-year fellowship, she says she loves the opportunity to explore oft-forgotten scientific fields.

“The question that I’m asking really is, what were women doing in the past?” she asks. “How can we go about learning that even though sometimes it’s tricky to do?”

One thing that complicates her research is the fact that female fossils are often both fragmented and scarce. For her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Michigan, VanSickle examined Neanderthal fossils, the most complete of which tend to be male; no one really knows why that is.

“So when we look at Neanderthal skeletons and ask questions…we’re asking these questions only about males. We’re really only asking, How are males walking? How are males throwing spears? What were males eating?” she says. “Because the female record is so much more fragmentary, we’re not asking any questions about them.”

VanSickle found feminist science almost by accident. A Kansas native with a buoyant laugh, she says she never learned about evolution in her high school biology class. When she arrived at Kansas State University as an undergrad, she “didn’t even know anthropology was a thing.”

“I came to college having no idea about ancient human ancestors or anything,” she recalls. “But my friend took an anthropology class and said it was interesting. So I took an anthropology class. And I was hooked… Those kinds of things just fascinated me, in terms of knowing how we got to be the humans we are today.”

Around the same time, VanSickle started taking women’s studies classes and becoming more immersed in feminism. But it would be years before VanSickle thought to combine her two passions, to graft a feminist narrative onto her work with fossils. Still, throughout her grad school experience, she designed research that examined ancient women’s lives, studying topics like the evolution of childbirth through changes in hominin female pelvis bones.

“Most of the studies that get published, they just gloss over the fact that most of the evidence they’re using are male skeletons,” she says. “The actual female skeletons, that are so fragmentary, are rarely published on. So even in studies where people are looking at questions that are very female-specific, like birth, you often dig into the literature on what fossils they’re actually looking at [and] find that they are looking at male fossils.” VanSickle’s tone hardens in disbelief, “To answer questions about birth. Not always, but it happens.”

VanSickle didn’t call herself a feminist biologist at first—she didn’t know the term existed—but when she UW-Madison’s call for applications, she knew immediately that the position was perfect for her.

Not everybody was so thrilled about the fellowship. The American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers, who goes by the nom de YouTube “Factual Feminist,” complained, “We don’t need feminist biology any more than we need femistry or galgebra.” In what VanSickle remembers as “totally the highest aspersion,” even famous scientist and Harvard professor Steven Pinker tweeted about Sommers’ video.

“There are people where you get the feeling that, as soon as they hear the word ‘feminist’ they stop listening, regardless of what the explanation after that is. But I think that’s to be expected. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t need feminist biology,” VanSickle says. “I’m lucky because mostly I feel like I’m surrounded by people who are very supportive of this and who, even if they don’t call themselves feminist biologists, are interested in this kind of research and are glad someone’s doing it.”

As for her favorite fellowship experience so far, VanSickle can’t pick just one: Was it when she met like-minded lady scholars at the UW-Madison’s symposium on feminist biology? Or when she introduced her students, whom she teaches about the intersection of gender and biology, to a new perspective on ancient gender roles? Or maybe it was when she and the other biologists debated and generated ideas on what to study next about women in evolution?

As she talks about the endless possibilities for feminist biology, for her future research, VanSickle gets excited—she’s already a year in and there’s so much left to learn.

“For me, feminist science really is better science,” VanSickle says. “It’s science that is asking more fully formed questions and asking questions of groups that otherwise are maybe not being addressed.”

What could be more feminist than that?

Photo courtesy of Caroline VanSickle





Carter Sherman is a former Ms. editorial intern. She recently graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and international studies, and has previously interned at Elle and Los Angeles Magazine. Follow her on Instagram at @heyyymizcarter.