Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Ruth Bleier


            Ruth Harriet Bleier was a renowned neurophysiologist and celebrated scholar who dedicated her life to disproving biologically based gender biases in the scientific community.  She was born in 1923 in the town of New Kensington in Pennsylvania and went on to receive her B.A from Goucher College in 1945.  She went on to study medicine at The Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania and received her M.D in 1949. She opened up her own general medical practice in the inner city of Baltimore and served the community there for the next ten years. During this time she married a Child Psychiatrist, Leon Eisenberg, and raised two children while still managing to maintain a successful medical practice.
            Deciding to pursue further education, Ruth took on a postdoctoral position studying neuroanatomy at John Hopkins University School of Medicine.   After completing her fellowship in 1961, Ruth decided to give up her practice and become an instructor of psychiatry and physiology.  A few years later in 1967 she left Baltimore to take on a position in the Neurophysiology Department at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. 
            At around this time, her marriage with Leon ended and Ruth identified herself as a lesbian and began advocating for lesbian-rights within the women’s movement.  Ruth helped set up a feminist restaurant, participated in lesbian-friendly community activities, supported a local feminist bookstore named “A Room of One’s Own”, and campaigned for abortion rights.  She found a new partner to spend her life with, Dr. Elizabeth Karlin, and lived out the rest of her days fighting for equality. Unfortunately Dr. Bleier died at her home in January 1988 after a long battle with cancer.

Major Professional Contributions-
It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that Ruth began to question the gender-biases assumptions and practices surrounding and fueling the field of Biology. She dedicated the rest of her professional career to disproving stereotypical biological gender-biases by challenging traditional biological determinism theories and questioning the true origins of gender differences.  Dr. Bleier was a widely recognized expert on the animal hypothalamus, and as the author of three works on the topic, she was highly respected in her field.  Using this stature to her advantage, Ruth took a feminist approach and went on to scientifically disprove that gender differences in the areas of math, verbal skills and creativity were biologically based.  She argued that such differences were not only biologically determined, but socially constructed as well.
She wrote a book entitled “Science and Gender, A Critique of Biology and Its Theories on Women” and an anthology entitled “Feminist Approaches to Science” and even went on to form the Association of Faculty Women (AFW), which advocated for salary equity.  She was also the primary driving force behind the creation of a Gender and Women Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1975 and remained the chair of the department from 1982-1986.

Relevance to Class-
            As we learned in the Hyde reading this week, there are many theories on Gender Development, some based in biology and some based on social learning.  While each theory explains the origin of gender differences in a different way, they all seem to agree that no one theory alone is responsible for the differences between men and women.  The gender differences we observed in society today are the result of both biological and social inputs.  Ruth agreed with this notion, acknowledging that Biology does play a role in gender differences, yet also pointing out the significant influence that society plays in sex-typing. She specifically fought the popular naturalistic notion that women are biologically inferior and therefore cannot compete with men in the fields of science and math.  She attributed lower performance among females to society’s message that girls are not supposed to be good at math. These messages are internalized and in turn little girls begin to believe that they cannot compete. Because of professional scholars like Ruth Bleier challenging traditional sexist messages, perhaps a little girl can aspire to be a surgeon without having to prove that she is not biologically inferior.


Christine Ginley
Psychology of Women- Dr. Hill
February 6th, 2013