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Defining a Crisis: The Rhetorical Exclusion of Women in the United States AIDS Epidemic, 1981-1993

Ash, Hillary (2020) Defining a Crisis: The Rhetorical Exclusion of Women in the United States AIDS Epidemic, 1981-1993. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This dissertation examines the U.S. AIDS crisis from 1981 to 1993 to understand how women came to be excluded from media and epidemiological narratives of the epidemic. While some women were visible within the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) surveillance infrastructures and counted as AIDS cases, many were not. This was a consequence of biomedical authorities forming AIDS theories based on how it manifested in the first identified cases: gay men. This invisibility resulted in many women being unable to qualify for social security income and government benefits before their deaths, and it led to many women’s AIDS-related deaths going unreported by the CDC. Thus, data about people with AIDS in this era is unable to account for a significant portion of women. By employing rhetorical criticism, close textual readings, and archival research, I argue that women’s exclusion must be understood as informed by histories of women’s health and as a consequence of narratives that focused on gay men. I rhetorically analyze names, definitions, and classifications in their historical context as epistemological techniques to understand how such narratives came to exist. In my historical description, I examine how the AIDS crisis was informed by and perpetuated longstanding sexism in the biomedical establishment. My first case study explores how early names for AIDS, such as “gay cancer,” created affective ties between AIDS and gay men. These ties persisted throughout the 1980s, which contributed to women’s inability to be seen. In my second case study, I analyze surveillance case definitions used by the CDC to define an AIDS case for epidemiological tracking. These definitions were flawed in their ability adequately to track AIDS across all populations and communicated a certainty that did not exist in practice. In my third case study, I explore how the CDC’s surveillance documents obscured data that it had collected and both sexed and sexualized AIDS. This framing occurred as a result of the disproportionate information gathered about gay and bisexual men in comparison to all women. This dissertation’s conclusion posits what lessons might be learned from the AIDS crisis to better understand present-day pandemics.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Ash, Hillaryhia14@pitt.eduhia140000-0002-6115-2919
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairOlson,
Committee MemberKuchinskaya,
Committee MemberZboray,
Committee MemberWebel,
Date: 16 September 2020
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 28 July 2020
Approval Date: 16 September 2020
Submission Date: 3 August 2020
Access Restriction: 2 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 2 years.
Number of Pages: 254
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Communication: Rhetoric and Communication
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: rhetoric; hiv/aids; epidemic, pandemic
Date Deposited: 16 Sep 2020 13:20
Last Modified: 16 Sep 2022 05:15


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