Reframing Epidemics: Women and AIDS in the 1980s

Friday, January 4, 2019: 4:30 PM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Sara Matthiesen, George Washington University
Sociologist Steven Epstein’s groundbreaking book Impure Science: Aids, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge notes the powerful role the AIDS epidemic played in linking disease to identities: “From the start—and up to the present day—AIDS has been understood both in epidemiological and lay parlance as a disease of certain already-constituted social groups distinguished by their ‘lifestyle,’ their social location, or both. The result is that the very meaning of AIDS has been bound up with the cultural understanding of what such groups are like, while the very identity of the groups has been shaped by the perception of them as ‘the sort of people who get this illness.’” This paper considers how Epstein’s formulation collides with documenting the early years of the epidemic as it impacted women, a group that was widely and repeatedly believed to not be “the sort of people who get this illness” despite empirical evidence showing otherwise. How did women and AIDS activists take on the epidemic in the face of the federal refusal to even acknowledge the disease, much less reimagine its impacts? This paper explores how women and AIDS projects in the 1980s attempted to both make “women” a designated risk group and argue for a public health response that targeted the gender and race specific power differentials that rendered women vulnerable. Women’s needs were especially pronounced when it came to the biological and social realities of reproduction; women’s procreative capacities and caretaking responsibilities were most impacted by a positive diagnosis. This paper traces how activists made HIV/AIDS a reproductive rights issue long before it was declared a “women’s health issue” in the 1990s. It illustrates that new interpretative frameworks are necessary to uncover the multiple histories and impacts of the epidemic.
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