Women’s Center hosts first Women’s and Gender Studies Wednesday

Dr. Julie Elman spoke about science and politics related to gender.

Julie Passanante Elman spoke about the intersection of scientific studies and politics at the first Women’s History Month featured speaker lunch of the month on Wednesday.

The Women’s Center is hosting lunches throughout March to celebrate Women’s History Month.

Elman, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at MU, graduated from George Washington University with a Ph.D. in American studies.

Elman talked to a room of about 30 people about her work. She opened with a question: “Are there times when scientific studies and papers are political?”

Elman, who is now working in a subfield of feminist theory called feminist science studies, asserted that there is a synthesis to any form of intellectual writing. The political beliefs of one scientist might play a role in his or her theories and findings.

“We all hear about scientific findings through a mode of transmission,” Elman said.

She gave the example of breast cancer screenings, saying that they didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

“Activists first had to fight to prove that mammography saves women’s lives,” Elman said.

Elman also talked about the drug Zidovudine, or AZT, and the impact it had on people suffering from AIDS. They could take AZT to treat their condition, but they couldn’t take it in conjunction with any other drugs.

“AIDS activists said, ‘In order to use the drugs I need to save my life, I have to go off the other drugs I need to stay alive,’” Elman said.

This inherently political issue required the attention of scientists, and the findings of the scientists needed to be distributed in order to reach victims of AIDS.

“Gender studies give you the tools to understand where you are in this matrix,” Elman said.

As a graduate student, Elman studied disability theory and went on to write a monograph titled “Chronic Youth: Disability, Sexuality, and U.S. Media Cultures of Rehabilitation.” While she was in graduate school, a student commented to her that “you must’ve gone into disability studies because your mother is disabled.”

Although her mother suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, Elman had never considered the arthritis a disability until that moment.

“Sometimes our lives shape our work in ways we can’t fully account for until people point it out,” Elman said.

Elman also talked about the cultural normalization of using words or phrases such as “temporarily disabled” or “crazy” when describing adolescents. She discussed how this type of rhetoric is accepted and that people don’t necessarily realize that it is ableist, or discriminatory in favor of able-bodied people, in nature.

Elman said her biggest piece of advice for the journalism students who take her classes is to stop producing “inspiration porn.” An example of this, Elman said, is the propagation of the idea that “the only disability in life is a bad attitude.”

She mentioned the TED Talk “I am not your inspiration, thank you very much” by Stella Young, a woman in a wheelchair who claims the fact that she is in a wheelchair does not mean she is special or inspirational. Young argues that memes of disabled people with captions such as “you have no excuse” objectify the person pictured, claiming a rhetoric of “it may be hard, but at least you aren’t disabled.”

A male student raised his hand after Elman’s lecture. He said he was currently writing his dissertation, and he had noticed an uncanny type of disconnection when writing about females because he is not a woman and therefore cannot fully understand the female experience. Elman suggested that he surrender his authority to his subjects.

“You can acknowledge that you don’t know and that you haven’t had this experience … acknowledge the tension,” Elman said. “You can say, ‘This form of disconnection might have to exist but my concerns are feminist in nature.’”

Women’s History Month originated in 1981 when Congress passed Pub. L. 97-28, authorizing the president to proclaim the week of March 7, 1982, as “Women’s History Week.”

The Women’s Center will be hosting two more Women’s and Gender Studies Wednesdays in March, along with multiple other events such as the Women’s Leadership Conference at Memorial Union and A Fireside Chat with Issa Rae at Jesse Auditorium, both on March 18. Rae, the creator and star of the HBO series “Insecure,” is the first black woman to have her own show on HBO.

Edited by Kyle LaHucik | klahucik@themaneater.com

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