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March is Women’s History Month—a time to celebrate the past, present, and future of women and their vital contributions to American society, culture, and history. And on March 8, this year’s International Women’s Day will be recognized with themes like #InspireInclusion and Invest in Women: Celebrate progress.

The Duke community offers a number of ways to engage with these themes all month long, with events like the 17th Annual Feminist Theory Workshop, the 2024 Reproductive Justice Conference, and the WiSE Annual Symposium. Read below for details on these events and for enlightening interviews with staff and students from the Women’s Center; the Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies Department; Women in Science and Engineering; and the Center for Global Reproductive Health.

Reproductive Justice Conference on Black Maternal Health

Reproductive Justice Conference flyer
According to McInnes, this year's conference "blossomed" around the "radical self-love framework" provided in Sonya Renee Taylor's The Body Is Not an Apology.

On March 6, the Duke Women’s Center will host the 2024 Reproductive Justice Conference: Healing Black Bodies and Black Maternal Health at the Karsh Alumni Center. Lydia McInnes, who joined the center as the assistant director of gender equity in April 2022, says the conference was an older program that was just revamped last year.

“We were dealing with the [Supreme Court’s] Dobbs decision, and that guided our approach to the reproductive justice conference. Essentially, we wanted to bring in folks from different backgrounds to have a conversation about what reproductive justice looks like,” says McInnes. “The Pratt School does some really cool work around reproductive health engineering, so we brought them in for our conversation.”

Side-by-side headshots of Tayla Suitte and Lydia McInnes
McInnes refers to herself and Suitte as "a true tag-team duo" ever since Suitte joined the team in October 2023.

Afterwards, a survey of participants revealed an interest in black maternal health, specifically, which then became this year’s conference theme. The conference will include a keynote address by Sonya Renee Taylor, panels on local and state activism and reproductive justice scholarship at Duke, and an interactive zine workshop.

Assistant Director of Community Engagement Tayla Suitte says that she is most excited for the workshop, describing a zine as “a collage of art” and “a medium used to express issues that affect marginalized communities.”

“I think stories can be told in ways that are more than just a discussion,” says Suitte. “It doesn’t matter what your skill level is. The things that you take away from an experience can be created and made and beautiful in their own way.”

Graphic with photos and statistics on Wine Down Wednesdays
Monthly Wind Down Wednesday events include craft-making, and most are open to everybody (including male allies).

Duke Women’s Center also welcomes engagement beyond Women’s History Month, offering monthly programming that includes Wind Down Wednesdays, Lunch & Learn Workshops, and Her Garden, a new women-of-color mentoring program.

Her Garden will focus on professional development, community building, and discussions around “the Superwoman complex” and other topics that affect women of color at Duke.

Accessibility-Forward Feminist Theory Workshop

Poster with details for the 17th Annual Feminist Theory Workshop
The selection process for speakers is handled by an internal GSF committee and begins a year in advance of each workshop.

Scheduled for March 22–23 at Penn Pavilion, the 17th Annual Feminist Theory Workshop offers another opportunity to think broadly about women, gender, and feminism this month. The long-standing workshop—which includes keynote speakers, break-out seminar discussions, and a roundtable—is hosted by Duke’s Department of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies (GSF) and co-sponsored by a number of Duke entities and external institutions.

“It’s really all about making space for a diverse intellectual community to come together and exchange views,” says Julie Wynmor, assistant to the director of graduate studies and program coordinator in GSF. “We bring young scholars and well-known feminists together, where they inspire each other and leave more affirmed in their study of feminist theory.”

Nat Raha speaks into a microphone
Poet and trans/queer activist-scholar Nat Raha, Ph.D., served as co-keynote speaker at last year's workshop.

Apart from March 2020, when it was canceled due to COVID-19, the annual Feminist Theory Workshop has run consecutively since 2007. And in the aftermath of the pandemic, the conference is now open to both virtual and in-person attendance.

“The virtual aspect of the workshop allows so many more people to participate,” says Wynmor. “Additionally, the workshop has no cost. We’re trying to reduce barriers that restrict accessibility as best we can.”

In that same spirit of accessibility, the workshop grants roughly 20-25 travel awards per year so that international graduate students can attend. And while registration itself is free, Wynmor attests that the workshop is “invaluable.”

Headshot of Julie Wynmor
Wynmor, who has been with GSF since 2016, orchestrates the annual workshop.

“Human beings are grappling with a lot of issues and different ideas about gender, and also just trying to bring out that everyone is human,” Wynmor says. “Feminist theory is an opportunity for all who identify as women to be heard. The more diversity we have, the more we can learn and grow as a community.”

GSF will also be holding its Third Annual Black Feminist Theory Summer Institute in August, convened by Professor and Department Chair Jennifer C. Nash. This year’s institute will focus on scholarship related to ideas and practices of “home.”

Annual Symposium Soliciting Women in STEM

Side-by-side headshots of Marius and Kulshrestha
Marius (left) is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in cell and molecular biology, and Kulshrestha (right) is a second-year Ph.D. student in genetics and genomics.

For those looking for STEM-related March programming, the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) Annual Symposium is open for registration and accepting sign-ups for its poster session. According to co-Presidents Anvita Kulshrestha and Choiselle Marius, this year’s symposium will focus on how to make STEM accessible and on the different barriers that exist for women in STEM going into the workforce.

While they both belong to programs in the biological sciences, Kulshrestha and Marius say that they are particularly eager to spread the word to graduate students in math, engineering, and the physical sciences.

WiSE and Keep Durham Beautiful
In October 2023, WiSE members volunteered at the Keep Durham Beautiful Big Sweep event, gathering over 300 pounds of trash to help preserve a safe and healthy community.

“Finding a way to further extend who we’re able to bring into WiSE is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about,” says Marius. “A lot of the fields that we’re in are male-dominated. I love my lab, but having a space outside of the lab is also really important.”

To create a sense of community among women in STEM, WiSE holds a general body meeting every semester and multiple social events, like First Friday Chats & Cheers at Devil’s Krafthouse. Furthermore, they collaborate with the Boys & Girls Club and Keep Durham Beautiful on service projects, and they partner with The Graduate School and the Career Center to host professional development workshops and panels.

Group photo of WiSE board members
WiSE Board members at the Spring General Body Meeting

“Something I like about WiSE and graduate student groups in general is the amount of freedom we have,” says Kulshrestha. “We’re allowed to apply for funding with The Graduate School and then essentially create our own programming from that, catering everything to the interests of our members.”

When asked to reflect on Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, Marius and Kulshrestha expressed the importance of “promoting women” and creating a “comfortable environment.”

“I think it’s about acknowledging and appreciating the women around us and their contributions, both personal and professional,” says Kulshrestha.

Global Reproductive Health and Cervical Cancer Prevention

Headshot of Purity Chepkoech
Chepkoech said that the Master's program in Global Health at Duke stood out to her in part because of its emphasis on field work.

Across Duke, women in STEM are advancing scientific research on a global scale.

Second-year Global Health Master’s student Purity Chepkoech is working with a team at the Center for Global Reproductive Health, raising awareness around cervical cancer prevention.

The Duke-based team is led by Megan Huchko, MD, MPH, and they have partnered with a team in Kisumu, Kenya, to help counsel women about HPV screening and the treatment of pre-cancers. Chepkoech graduated medical school in Kenya and worked as a general physician for six months before coming on board.

“I developed an interest in women’s health when I was in medical school, specifically, because I witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of a lack of awareness,” says Chepkoech. “We would get advanced stage 3 and stage 4 cases of cervical cancer, and this is something that's preventable. There's even a policy for free screening and treatment services. But the problem is, there's a lot of social and cultural factors that make women not go for screening early.”

Group photo of the Kenya-based team
Chepkoech (third from right) stands in front of a hospital with the research team in Kisumu, Kenya.

Chepkoech’s master’s thesis is titled “The Impact of Community-Based Reproductive Health Intervention on Women’s Empowerment,” and she earned a 2023–2024 Dean’s Research Award for Master’s Students from The Graduate School to help support her work.

“It’s really meaningful to me to be in this position where I am shaping the lives of women in the future,” Chepkoech adds. “The level of stigma within the communities that we are working with is actually going down. People now are more willing to talk about cervical cancer and HPV openly.”

Chepkoech says of Women’s History Month: “It's a time to reflect on how far women have come in history and to look critically into what we need to do going forward. There are unique challenges that low and middle-income countries face. And this month actually makes me reflect more on that, and on what I could do to impact the lives of women and girls back home.”

The Center for Global Reproductive Health says its goal "is for Duke to become a leader in global reproductive health" and "will do this by convening faculty, researchers, students, and advocates to address the key policy, cultural and reproductive health issues that impact women’s well-being and empowerment around the world."