February 7, 2011

Emory Profile

Elizabeth Wilson: Scientist feminist creates new models of inquiry

Elizabeth Wilson, Professor of Women's Studies

When Professor of Women's Studies Elizabeth Wilson was an undergraduate in New Zealand, a women's studies department did not exist. So she chose to major in psychology and continued to champion feminist issues like reproductive rights outside of the classroom.

Today, a new "bilingual" breed of feminist scientists (or scientist feminists) has emerged, scholars who view the human body as more than a reliably rational machine. Instead, they understand it to be a complex system profoundly integrated with its environment.   

"18-year-olds today see a middle path, a way to incorporate both sides," says Wilson. "It's an important growth area in women's studies." 

Wilson joined Emory in the spring of 2009 after working as an Australian Research Council Fellow at the University of New South Wales. Her research explores the intersection of biology, psychoanalysis and evolutionary theory to create new models of feminist inquiry.

Emory's top-ranked women's studies department was a natural fit, she says, given its emphasis on interdisciplinary scholarship. 

In Wilson's "Introduction to Studies in Sexuality" course, she asks undergraduates to suspend their political ideologies and consider such provocative questions as the biological theories of homosexuality or the "queer anti-marriage argument," exploring why gays and lesbians would want to join an intrinsically discriminatory institution.

She has taught other intriguing courses, including "Hysteria to Prozac: The Gender Politics of Mental Illness" and "A User's Guide to Freud: Gender, Sexuality and the Unconscious."

Emotions matter

Wilson's latest book, "Affect and Artificial Intelligence" (University of Washington Press, 2010), argues that pioneers in artificial intelligence from 1945 to 1970 were interested in developing intelligent agents that not only think, but also learn, feel and grow.

"If you're trying to build an agent that works with humans on a regular basis, building an emotional robot makes the interaction more flexible and robust," she says. "These were concerns from the beginning."

Her upcoming fourth book, "Gut Feminism," applies a feminist lens to biomedical theories of depression.

"Traditionally, men were seen as the mind and women as the body," Wilson says, adding that any attempt to forge mind-body connections across gender lines was greeted with hostility.

Feminists have long been resistant to harnessing scientific data because they felt sidelined by the scientific community, while scientists have been suspicious of any attempt to introduce bias, she explains. 

Calling on extensive medical data about how antidepressants navigate their way through the body, Wilson argues that the neurological regulation of depression is not limited to the brain, but also involves an enormous network of nerves in the gut.      

 "Antidepressants don't just go straight to the brain and nowhere else," she adds.

Two cultures reunited

British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow argued in his influential work, "The Two Cultures," that the breakdown in communication between the sciences and the humanities was a major stumbling block to solving the world's most pressing problems.

That debate has raged on for more than 60 years, notes Wilson, but the last few years have brought a renewed commitment to collaboration between the sciences and feminist theory, and a critical mass of literature to back it up.

"Today, we are really in a good position to train students in both cultures," she says.

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