Meet Banu Subramaniam, Wellesley’s New Chair of Women’s and Gender Studies

A portrait of Banu Subramaniam
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

This fall, Wellesley is excited to welcome Banu Subramaniam to campus as the Luella LaMer Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.

Subramanian holds a B.S. from the University of Madras, India, earned a Ph.D. in zoology and genetics from Duke University, and is the author of three books: Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism (University of Washington Press, 2019), Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity (University of Illinois Press, 2014), and the forthcoming Botany of Empire: Plant Worlds and the Scientific Legacies of Colonialism (University of Washington Press, April 2024).

We asked Subramaniam about her new role, her journey from plant biology to women’s and gender studies, and how she has spent her first semester at the College.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

First, and this seems especially important to ask as you are the chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, what pronouns do you use?

I try not to use pronouns if possible. I’m delighted to have my gender read in many ways over my life, so by now I don’t have a particular preference—any and all are fine by me, including “it.” We usually use “it” to refer to plants and animals, but we’re animals too, so why not reclaim it?

What has it been like being both a new professor on campus and the chair of your department?

It’s a lot of socializing! [laughter] I’ve been trying to meet lots of people and wrap my head around how a small liberal arts college functions—I spent 20 years in the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at UMass Amherst, which is a very different kind of institution. I’ve been taking a wait-and-watch approach before making any big plans. I am very collaborative in my work and in my approach, so I’m looking out for who will play with me.

You were trained as a plant evolutionary biologist. What brought you to women’s and gender studies?

When I came to the U.S. for my Ph.D., it was my first trip out of India. During graduate school I grew alienated within science. I met someone in women’s studies and started taking courses, and that saved me! It gave me the tools to understand how the culture of science functioned. There’s a wonderful anthropologist, Sharon Traweek, who calls the culture of science a “culture of no culture.” We are taught that science is neutral, but Traweek and others got me to see that scientists are human beings who inevitably bring their cultural assumptions into their scientific practice. The field of feminist science and technology studies thus pushes us not to pretend objectivity is possible, but rather to work reflexively and mindfully. Women’s studies gave me the tools to stay on in science with new tools, theories, and skills. Life has never been the same!

What are your plans for your classes and research as you get started at Wellesley?

I’m looking forward to collaborating with various departments and developing team-taught courses. I want to make women’s and gender studies the home for everybody who is interested in questions of gender, race, and sexuality. I think everyone should be interested, because they are so central to knowledge production. So often we think about knowledge as [being] unbiased, neutral, apolitical, and I don’t believe that is possible. Knowledge is political. I want students to ask: Why am I writing this way? Why are we using only these methods to study? What are the problems of these methods? For example, in terms of writing, historians of science point out that scientists did not always write in the passive voice. That emerged when animal experimentation began. Scientists didn’t want to write things like, “We took 50 rats and bonked them on the head and 20 of them died!” The passive voice allowed scientists to not take culpability for the violence that goes with animal experimentation. Thus, “50 rats were procured” and such. History teaches us so much about our fields and traditions.

I’m also interested in what it means to do experimental biology as a feminist, informed by these histories and philosophies. I just finished my book Botany of Empire, which examines how the plant sciences and botany are profoundly shaped by empire, and how those histories still live on in how we theorize plants today. But studying plants has also been shaped by gender: Why should we talk about male and female parts of flowers? Why does plant reproductive biology read like a tale of Victorian gentlemen and ladies?

What courses have you been teaching this fall?

I am teaching a seminar called Naturecultures: Feminist Futures & Environmental Justice, which is about how there is no separation of the natural and the cultural, which is why it is one word. Thinking about Wellesley’s natureculture, I’ve taken the class to the botanic gardens, and we ask questions: Why do these trees all look so beautiful? How much work does it take for a campus to look beautiful? What does it mean to be wild? How have the histories of colonialism shaped modern day climate change? How might we reimagine our naturecultural world?

The course is organized as an examination of binaries. For example, consider native/alien plants, and our fear of foreign or “invasive” plants. My work shows how our language about foreign plants resembles that [which we use to describe] foreign humans: They’re dirty, they’re bringing disease, they reproduce too much—the classic third-world female overpopulation trope. But how long does something need to be in a place to be considered “native”—50 years? One hundred years? One thousand years? There is no clear scientific definition. Everyone agrees kudzu is a terrible thing, but tumbleweed is also foreign—it’s Russian thistle—but now it’s seen as an icon of the American West. The Georgia peach is Chinese in origin, but we’ve embraced it as American. It turns out the politics of belonging is complex in humans, plants, and animals alike. To be a good biologist, I think, we must understand how histories of plants and animals are nearly always entangled with human histories.

Finally, a few rapid-fire questions. Since coming to Wellesley, have you discovered a favorite place on campus?

The botanic gardens and the Global Flora greenhouse. And talking to Kristina Jones, director of the gardens—she’s amazing!

What are you reading right now?

I’m in the midst of Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, because Irene Mata and Julie Walsh in the Newhouse Center have put together an excellent series on young adult fiction. I also love reading N.K. Jemisin and Octavia Butler. The worlds of sci-fi and speculative fiction are really exciting right now, because they are the places that help you imagine differently.

Where do you live?

I split my time between Fiske House [on campus] and my home in Arlington, Mass.

Do you share your home with any plants or animals?

I have a favorite curry leaf plant. I’ve kept it alive for six or seven years now, and I’ve discovered the trick is that in the summer you give it lots of light and in the winter, you just try not to kill it.