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“The Opposite Sex: A History” dives into European gender history

A gender non-specific bathroom sign hangs outside a Campus Y bathroom.

Stefani Engelstein, professor and chairperson of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literature at Duke University, will deliver the 25th annual Mary Stevens Reckford Memorial Lecture in European Studies on Feb. 25.

The lecture, titled “The Opposite Sex: A History,” plans to highlight the unique and dynamic relationship between the two sexes through a historical lens and examine how to think about the relationship in modern society. 

The Institute for the Arts and Humanities is hosting Engelstein for this year’s lecture. The event was created by UNC classics professor Kenneth J. Reckford to honor his late wife who took graduate courses at the University for five years and had a profound interest in European topics.

Sophia Ramos, the communications specialist for the IAH, said each year’s lecture is designed to appeal to the public and was created “to provide pleasure, instruction, an interdisciplinary approach and a sense of shared humanity.”  Engelstein said she hopes to help achieve the IAH’s goal of bringing the humanities to a broader and more public stage with her lecture. 

Engelstein is an accomplished professor and author, primarily specializing in 18th and 19th century German and British studies. She has done research that intertwines several academic disciplines including literature, science and philosophy. 

“I enjoy reconstructing the conversations that occur between scientific, literary and philosophical texts about how humans should investigate and understand the natural world and each other,” Engelstein said in a Q&A with the IAH.

Engelstein said she is going to use her blend of academic interests to explore the relationship between the sexes in her lecture. She wants to examine how this relationship plays into important societal structures such as politics, the economy and religion.

“I’m going to be talking about the history of the concept that the sexes are actually opposed to each other as opposed to just different from each other,” Engelstein said of her upcoming lecture.  

Engelstein said she hopes to subvert and challenge people’s preconceived notions about the sexes. She said she believes certain aspects of her lecture will enlighten people to new concepts.

“The concept of the relationship between the sexes, that is being challenged to some extent, only goes back around 200 years,” Englestein said. “The fact that this idea is not quite as old as we think will surprise people.”

Engelstein said she hopes her lecture’s historical examination and analysis will bear relevance in today’s social and political climate.

“This is a historical moment when many people are considering the nature of the relationship between gender, sexes and sexuality in this country,” Engelstein stated. ”Thinking about that concept historically seems like it will give us a better basis to think about the way we use and imagine those terms.”

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