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November 17: Ruth Harriet Bleier and Gender Studies

November 17, 2013
38Ruth Harriet Bleier, author of two essential books of women’s studies, Science and Gender: A Critique of Biology and Its Theories on Women (1984) and Feminist Approaches to Science (1986), was born in New Kensington, Pennsylvania on this date in 1923. Bleier was a physician in Maryland who publicly supported civil rights in the 1950s, was called to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and lost her hospital privileges to the blacklist. She used the “hiatus” to become a neurophysiologist specializing in animal brains, and in the 1970s began to investigate and expose how sexism and other cultural biases affected professional and academic biology. Bleier helped found the Association of Faculty Women (AFW), and was instrumental in the creation of the pioneering Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “When Bleier identified herself as a lesbian after her marriage ended,” says her biography at the online Changing the Face of Medicine, “she cautioned against the tendency toward lesbian separatism, working instead for lesbian rights within the women’s movement. She helped set up Lysistrata, a feminist restaurant, organized lesbian-friendly community activities in Madison, and supported A Room of One’s Own, a feminist bookstore. She also campaigned for abortion rights with her partner, Dr. Elizabeth Karlin.” Bleier died from cancer at 64. The University of Wisconsin has an endowed chair named for her and a Ruth Bleier scholarship fund for women in the sciences. “In areas of research having obvious implications for gender and gender differences, methodological and conceptual biases have been permitted and overlooked that would in other areas of science, have rendered the research unacceptable, if not laughable.” —Ruth Bleier