While in their own way many modern women feel as professionally constrained as the 19th-century governess Virginia Woolf quoted in her 1938 feminist essay, society is awakening to the unique contributions of the so-called “lesser sex.”
Nowhere is this more evident than at universities across the country, where the door from the kitchen to the laboratory is open wider than ever before.
From health science to political science — even literature, where intellectuals strive to interpret the work of Woolf and other great authors — women in all disciplines are assuming prominent research roles.
More and more, women also find themselves the subjects of that research. Their opinions and perspectives — and their unique physiology — have become increasingly valuable as scholars of both sexes strive to make their work more reflective of society.
The University of Florida, by any measure, stands at the vanguard of this revolution. UF has had a women’s studies program since 1977, and recently consolidated gender-related research into an interdisciplinary Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research.
The university is also a major participant in the Women’s Health Initiative, a multicenter research project studying major health threats to women. UF’s Health Science Center is one of 40 selected to play key roles in the $628 million, 15-year effort funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The massive project will involve more than 163,000 women. UF’s $8.8 million share will be used to study 3,600 of them, ages 50 to 79.
Also, faculty at UF’s Health Science Center have proposed the “Florida Institute for Women: Health Gatekeepers” to integrate research and educational activities in the creation of innovative health-care delivery systems that will capitalize on the vital caregiving role of women.
And in February, more than 200 national leaders in women’s health convened in Gainesville to define a national agenda for women’s medical research.
Some might dismiss this trend as a forced apology for years of neglect or a backlash that seeks to omit men. Some cynics might even label gender-based research irrelevant or useless.
But those involved take a more positive approach.
They celebrate the opportunity to study and analyze the diverse opinions and interpretations women and men bring to all disciplines. And they point to the life-saving lessons learned by focusing medical research on women, who may share the same diseases as men in name, but whom physicians are finding often react very differently to those ailments.
“I had a professor once who used to say you never know when you’re going to find a good idea — always be open to research about important questions regardless of where you go to look for the answers,” says Terry Hynes, dean of the College of Journalism and Communications. “If you leave out half the human race when you’re trying to find the answers, it seems to me likely that one could miss out.”
Sue Rosser, the new director of UF’s Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research, says, “As a postdoctoral student at the University of Wisconsin in the early `70s, I realized as a biologist who had two children that I really didn’t know a lot about how my own body worked. It was a time throughout the country when women were coming to the realization they had not been included in academia, either in terms of the research being done or the focus of the way things were being taught. There was just this huge gap of information.”
The Forgotten Gender
Not long ago, if you weren’t a 180-pound, middle-aged, white male, you didn’t count in medical research.
Scientists based their findings on a group comprised almost exclusively of men who largely fit the classic mold, then applied those data to women, without great concern for possible physiologic differences.
“Women are the forgotten gender in much health research,” Rosser writes in Women’s Health — Missing From U.S. Medicine. “The selection and definition of problems for study, the choice of experimental subjects and conclusions drawn from the data in clinical trials often fail to include women or women’s changing needs throughout the life span.”
As a result, physicians often are hampered by a dearth of information when deciding a course of treatment for women, despite the fact that our population is increasingly elderly, minority and female, Rosser says.
For example, although heart disease is the leading killer of both sexes, the more than 22,000 doctors included in a seven-year study of the effects of aspirin on cardiovascular disease were all men. And little study has been undertaken on AIDS in women, despite the fact that women constitute the group in which AIDS is increasing most rapidly.
This has startling consequences. Women have a death rate 10 times higher than men from heart attack. In the case of AIDS, the average life expectancy after diagnosis for a man is more than two years. For a woman, it is only about four months.
The Women’s Health Initiative — to focus on health threats such as osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and breast and colon cancer — is making women’s health a priority through the collection of baseline data on previously understudied causes of death in females.
“This is the major study on women to be completed this century, and I think it’s going to direct medical care for women for a century to come,” says Dr. Marian Limacher, UF’s project director and a cardiologist at the College of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “It gives us the opportunity to answer some of the nagging questions we’ve had for years.”
The Road Less Traveled
Rosser says the evolution of women’s studies can be traced from a time known as the “absence of women not noted” to the present, when research recognizes that women’s experiences must be included because women have had half of the world’s lived experience.
“The ultimate goal, and we’re nowhere near this, would be the inclusion and integration of the same information about women as we have about men,” Rosser says. “We don’t want to go from the absence of women not noted to the absence of men not noted.”
This framework goes to the heart of the scientific process and rocks long-standing assumptions that since science is “objective,” gender does not influence who becomes a scientist or what kind of science is produced. In reality, most scientists are male and, therefore, science reflects a masculine perspective, Rosser says.
“Many scientists would suggest that science is `manless’ as well as `womanless’; they are unaware of or would openly reject the notion that gender might influence the theories, data collection, subjects chosen for experimentation or questions asked,” Rosser writes.
During the past two decades, several factors have combined to alter that outlook. The significant minority of women now in medical school have started to question the bias toward a male standard.
“When I entered medical school at Loyola in 1974, it was the first year there were more than a token number of women,” says Dr. Nancy Hardt, associate professor of pathology and obstetrics/gynecology at UF’s College of Medicine, whose research interests include silicone breast implants. “We were grateful to be included and tended to go along with the program. Now the proportion of women to men in most medical school classes is near 50:50. Current students are more comfortable than we were in pointing out perceived bias in teaching.”
Indeed, until more women began to enter medical school, the male-dominated profession tended toward a male standardized patient, except in the obvious area of reproduction.
“Of course reproduction had an important place in our curriculum,” Hardt says, “but we are coming to realize that women’s health encompasses more than just reproduction. It wasn’t that our professors didn’t think women were important; they just thought that in matters unrelated to reproduction, women were the same as men.”
Two other factors affected researchers’ decisions to exclude women from most medical studies: the fear that drugs tested on women of childbearing age could harm the fetus if a woman became pregnant during the trial, and the belief that medications are metabolized differently by women because of the influence of fluctuating hormone levels associated with the menstrual cycle — a difficult variable to control.
Both the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration have now changed their guidelines to include clinical trial participants who are of childbearing potential.
“I think it’s very important for us to understand that the circumstances of women differ significantly from their counterparts who are male, particularly in the population of older adults I study,” says Dr. Raymond Coward, director of UF’s Institute for Gerontology. “It has become routine in gerontology now to differentiate between older males and older females. We simply are too aware of the enormous differences in their lives. In our case it wouldn’t be acceptable science to do otherwise.”
Researchers stress that emphasizing women in medical education improves the situation for both sexes.
“Since women are the bearers of both male and female children, the health of the nation depends on the health of its women,” Rosser writes.
The possibilities for applying gender to research are endless. Just ask Sandra Russo, who found a gender issue among the goat herds of Africa.
Several years ago, Russo and some colleagues were introducing dairy goats to a community in Kenya that was in dire need of help. The researchers assumed the tribe’s men tended to livestock, so they spent long hours teaching them the basics of proper goat care.
But their underlying assumption was wrong. In that culture, it was a woman’s role to care for animals, and because the men weren’t passing along what they learned to the women, goats were dying. Once the researchers began directing their teaching at the women, the goats fared much better.
Today, Russo serves as co-director of gender, environment and agriculture programs at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS). Russo is co-principal investigator on several projects under the MERGE program, an acronym for Managing the Environment and Resources with a Gender Emphasis. Marianne Schmink, director of UF’s Tropical Conservation and Development Program, is principal investigator.
“I don’t find the actual study of women difficult; what I find difficult is my professional peers not considering the study of women as a credible area of research,” Russo says. “Often the topic itself is dismissed lightly as `that’s just because you’re a feminist.’
“Some researchers say, `I’m a scientist, and science is gender neutral.’ But science is not gender neutral.”
If goats lit the way for Russo, it was griping and grumbling that led Diana Boxer to gender-based studies. As a sociolinguist, she analyzes conversations to detect differences in how women and men communicate. Her projects include studying the simplest units of rule-governed speech, things like compliments, apologies or complaints.
“Most people gripe because they want a commiserative reply, and that builds solidarity in a relationship and rapport,” says Boxer, assistant professor of linguistics and author of Griping, Grumbling and Bitching, and Complaining and Commiserating. “Whereas women tend to give commiserative responses, men tend to give advice on how to solve the problem.”
Patricia Miller, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a professor of psychology, says that it’s time to move beyond a simple “sex differences” approach.
“A lot of early work on sex differences was focused on the male as normal, and on women as different from that,” Miller says. “Or they focused on what males are better at than females, and what females are better at than men. But those really aren’t very interesting questions. I think what’s more important is to look at how gender is an important variable in practically anything we choose to study. Incorporating research on women enriches the discipline and brings about better scholarship.
“Somebody once suggested that if Newton had been a woman, when the apple fell out of the tree, it still would have fallen down rather than up, but a woman might have asked different questions about the force of gravity than he did,” Miller adds. “They wouldn’t be better questions or worse questions, but they might be different questions. There are many ways to look at reality.”
Suzanna Smith, a family sociologist who has studied Florida’s commercial fishing families, says being a feminist means having a humanizing consciousness that pervades professional life.
“It means as a researcher making visible women who have in the past been invisible, and emphasizing women’s strengths and the contributions they make to their families and their communities,” says Smith, associate professor of human development at UF. “I think as a teacher and practitioner it means advocating on women’s behalf.”