UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Spring/Summer 1998
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Women's Work

Can we make the ringing stop?

Women's Work
UB's New Women and Gender Institute takes on cutting-edge scholarship

A crowd of several hundred women and more than 20 men is milling about Harriman Conference Theatre, sizing up poster displays for such research topics as "Stroke in Young Women," "African-American Women and Depression" and "Environmental Exposure to Organochlorines and Post-Menopausal Breast Cancer." In all, 35 current research projects by UB women – in fields ranging from nursing and sociology to educational psychology and classics – are in the spotlight here.


Margaret (Peggy) Acara (left) and Isabel Marcus, codirectors of the Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender, are determined to make the most of an exciting new academic opportunity.

(Click to view larger image.)
Photo: Frank Cesario

It is the kickoff event for the recently organized Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender, whose codirectors, Margaret (Peggy) Acara, professor of pharmacology and toxicology, and Isabel Marcus, professor of law, exemplify the institute's interdisciplinary focus. Acara is a seasoned scientist who has collaborated on a major funded project to use magnetic resonance imaging to determine the effects of alcohol on the brains of rats. Marcus is both a legal scholar and a political scientist who has focused her research and writings primarily on women's issues – domestic violence in particular – and is currently working on a book, Dark Numbers: The Emergence of Domestic Violence as a Law and Public Policy Issue in Eastern Europe and Russia.

Acara and Marcus work in comfortable collaboration, although they knew each other only casually before the institute's formation in 1997. Marcus also serves as director of the longstanding Women's Studies Program, which is now functioning as the institute's teaching division. Acara, an editor of two international scientific journals, will direct the institute's research activities.

As the audience settles in for the formal presentations celebrating the theme of scholarship on women and gender, the interdisciplinary motif is everywhere apparent. Carrie Tirado Bramen, assistant professor of English, begins the panel with a historical overview of her field. She notes that although women are broadly defined as "culture-carriers" linked to literature and the arts, the field of literary studies traditionally has "masculinized" itself by authorizing the participation of women as subjects of male literary discussion, or as teachers of works authored by men, while deriding their role as legitimate literary critics or university literary scholars.

"It has only been during the last 25 years that the involvement of women, people of color and ethnic minority groups has revitalized the study of literature by challenging its assumptions, expanding its canon and provoking the exploration and reinterpretation of the literary and cultural landscape," she says.

Susan V. McLeer, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry, discusses the changing face of the medical field, now that women are entering medical schools in large numbers. McLeer – one of only four women in the U.S. to head university departments of psychiatry – points out that in 1997, women constituted 42 percent of the total enrollment in U.S. medical schools, considerably more than the 5 percent they made up when she entered the field in 1970.

Yet women physicians are usually involved in primary-care specialties and are often discouraged from entering higher-paying, high-status, male-dominated surgical specialties, McLeer argues. Although 26 percent of the members of American medical school faculties are women, only 10 percent of those women are full professors.

A lively discussion follows the panel session, as several audience members trade comments with those at the dais – promoting just the kind of interdisciplinary dialogue the institute is seeking. For example, Carol Zemel, professor and chair of art history, wants to know more about nursing professor Marjorie White's assertion that higher pay is given to nurse anesthetists, who are predominately male. Suzanne Hildenbrand, of the School of Library and Information Studies, also responding to White's presentation, allows that hers, too, is a "female-intensive" field and so faces similar problems and issues.

"It has only been during the last 25 years that the involvement of women, people of color and ethnic minority groups has revitalized the study of literature by challenging its assumptions, expanding its canon and provoking the exploration and reinterpretation of the literary and cultural landscape."

–Carrie Tirado Bramen

The institute had its beginnings in the influential study "Planning UB's Academic Future," written by Provost Thomas E. Headrick and published more than a year ago. Along with calling for a reorganization of the arts and sciences departments, which takes effect this fall, the report recommends a series of new research centers and interdisciplinary programs, organized to support significant research and build on research strengths in separate departments and schools, especially in the biological and chemical sciences but in many other cross-disciplinary fields, as well. Among those envisioned was the women and gender institute, which was formally launched in January.

The university has committed resources for three years to develop the institute; institute planners clearly want to make the most of the opportunity. Headquarters are on the second floor of the historic Harriman Hall; a second location opened this spring in O'Brian Hall on the North Campus. The idea is not merely to accommodate the traveling needs of busy faculty members, but also to visibly unify researchers interested in women and gender studies on the South Campus, with their health sciences focus, and those on the North Campus, who tend to be more concentrated on feminist theory.

"We have conceived the institute to be an all-university activity," Headrick told those attending the Harriman event, "serving our multiple missions of research, education and public service, drawing faculty from the arts and sciences and professional disciplines on both campuses.

"The institute is also about expanding the understanding of and the opportunities and roles for women within this university, within the academy, and across the world. Its work will give voice to aspirations that have been frustrated, and substance to ways that have been devised to remove the obstacles."

Interest in the institute remains strong among faculty and staff. An initial mailing brought responses from more than 500 individuals; 200 faculty and staff have now formally signed on as members. Activities planned for 1998-99 include a lecture and roundtable discussion featuring Suzanne Gordon, author of Life Support: Three Nurses on the Front Lines; an international women's film festival; and a conference on "Gender and the Changing Curriculum."

Marcus describes the theory behind the institute's academic goals: "To a more conventional academic or administrator, this would look like the failure to be focused. In fact, it's quite the contrary: It's the difference between specialized and holistic medicine. A good part of what we are doing is to identify what contributions scholarship and research on women and gender have produced thus far and to develop them further.

"Now why do we call it 'gender studies,' as well as 'women studies?' This is a very important academic and intellectual issue, and it has political implications. When you say 'gender,' what you are doing is saying that men are the object of study, rather than the universal referent. If you look at the social sciences and the humanities, the implicit referent – historically – has been male. And when you say that you are studying gender, you are making men the object of study in the same way that you are making women the object of study."

As to methodology and approach, Acara explains, "We have been identifying clusters of faculty and their respective interests. The areas identified so far are many and include health and social policy, the representation of women in art and literature, pain and stress, and aging. Within any one cluster, there is further elaboration. For example, within the aging group, you might have a basic scientist interested in aging and cells, and a nurse interested in how elderly individuals are being treated in nursing homes. We are trying to pull all these groups together."

In May the institute announced grant awards for the development of four courses chosen for their innovative and interdisciplinary qualities: Labor Market Segmentation: Gender and Ethnicity (Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen, geography); Mechanics in Context (Deborah Chung, mechanical and aerospace engineering); Gender and Technology: An Advanced Theory and Practice Workshop (Mary Flanagan, media study); and Women's Health (Bernice Noble, microbiology).

In short, the possibilities are endless – and so is the potential for putting UB on the map in the field of women and gender studies. Acara notes, rather excitedly, that "one conversation leads into another, with all the resulting interdisciplinary richness."

"What we've discovered," adds Marcus, "is that there is an enormous number of extraordinarily talented women, and some men, who have joined us. Over the years, a network has developed, particularly among faculty interested in teaching about women, composed largely of women, but some males, who have known this for a long time. It's not that we are inventing something; rather, it's that there are now not the kind of constraints and barriers that had previously existed. That's how I see the institute and that's how I see the mandate I have to develop the women's studies curriculum."

And though the institute continues to support traditional activities, such as Women's History Month (in March), the aim is for something far more pervasive and permanent in UB's scholarly life.

As Bernice Noble, cochair of the President's Task Force on Women, puts it when asked about her dreams for the institute: "I would like it to make a million dollars! I would like us to set up a few more courses, hopefully North-South Campus courses. I would like us to generate a couple of really good grants. But I also would like us to be a presence, so that the level of appreciation of women's contributions to all areas of scholarship would be elevated for everyone.

"And not just during Women's History Month."

– Ann Whitcher, with reporting by Patricia Donovan, University News Services

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