By Susan M. Reverby for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on November 16, 2009


My students at Wellesley College—or often their fathers—have asked for nearly three decades now: “What do you do with a Women’s Studies major?”

I answer: “Think clearly” or “Anything!”

Recently, this query became more personal, though. I am launching my latest book Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy on the longest running (1932-1972), non-therapeutic research study in American history. As the publication date for my drew near, my students and colleagues kept asking, “Why is a Women’s Studies professor writing about this?”

I never really saw it as strange. The study involved hundreds of African American men, most of whom had late-stage syphilis, to whom U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) doctors lied. The men were told they were being treated for their ills, when in fact they were just being monitored.

Teaching Women’s Studies often involves discussions about the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Yet like so many intellectual passions, this one started as a flirtation: a short article in response to my sister-historian Darlene Clark Hine, who challenged me to write about Eunice Rivers Laurie, the African American nurse who served as the liaison between the men being studied in Alabama and the PHS.

I wrote an article about Nurse Rivers and even proposed a book focused on her and how she is imagined. But the editor I took it to caught me up short, saying, “There is no book here.”

Indeed, she was right. There just was not enough for a historian to work with. The book would have had to incorporate the imaginary, like playwright David Feldshuh’s play and movie Miss Evers’ Boys.

To recover from “there is no book here,” I edited a book, Tuskegee’s Truths, a 600-page collection of primary documents and secondary articles about the study, in which I gave Nurse Rivers her own section.

But I still faced the question of what my “real” book would be about.

My teaching made it clear. I wanted to write about all the highlights that I teach: the meta-language of race and/or gender that drowns everything else out; the power of representations to shape memory and knowledge; a challenge to the binary of suffering and resistance; and an understanding of how cultural trauma is experienced by individuals and communities.

The lessons I’d learned in Women’s Studies underlay everything I wrote, even when I was analyzing medical thinking about race and syphilis; coding medical records looking for the reality of individual experience; trying to understand why the doctors thought they had done nothing wrong; or challenging the false belief that the men were infected by the PHS doctors, which lingers still in cultural memory.

So I know my answer to my students and their fathers is right. Women’s Studies gives you the analytic tools you need to think about anything. Joan Scott, writing in the early 1990s, reminded us all that gender was always a “useful category of analysis,” an insight that’s equally true in the twenty-first century.

Susan M. Reverby is the McLean Professor in the History of Ideas and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College and author of Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and its Legacy (2009) and editor of Tuskegee’s Truths: Rethinking the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (2000).



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