Ruth Harriet Bleier was a renowned neurophysiologist who was among the first American scholars to examine gender bias in the modern biological sciences from a feminist perspective. Throughout her career she combined her interests in scientific and academic work with a commitment to social justice and activism.
Born in 1923 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, Bleier graduated with a B.A. degree from Goucher College in 1945. She went on to earn her M.D. degree from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1949, then interned at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. Together with fellow physician and child psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg, she raised two children while running her own general medical practice, serving Baltimore's inner-city poor for nearly a decade.
During the early 1950s she advocated for civil rights with the Maryland Committee for Peace, which resulted in her subpoena to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), then headed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Refusing to cooperate, she soon fell victim to the committee's infamous blacklist, losing her hospital privileges as a result.
Bleier used the time to pursue further education, entering the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to study neuroanatomy with Professor Jerzy Rose in 1957. She completed a post-doctoral fellowship in 1961, and gave up her practice to become an instructor in psychiatry and physiology at the Adolph Meyer Laboratory of Neuroanatomy. In 1967 she left Hopkins to join the department of Neurophysiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with concurrent appointments at the Weisman Center of Mental Retardation and Human Development, and the Wisconsin Regional Primate Center.
During her academic career, Bleier became a well-respected authority on the animal hypothalamus, publishing three definitive works on the subject. Integrating her scientific and academic work with her commitment to feminism, she went on to explore and expose pervasive gender biases in the structure, processes, and language of the sciences. Her book Science and Gender: A Critique of Biology and Its Theories on Women (published in 1984) and her anthology Feminist Approaches to Science (published in 1986) have become essential reading in the field of women's studies, providing insight into the controversial issues of biological determinism and the origins of gender differences.
Dr. Ruth Bleier remained a committed activist both within the university context and in the community at large. Shortly after her arrival at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she became a founding member of the Association of Faculty Women, which succeeded in establishing equity pay for faculty women and integrated the gymnasium through a well-publicized "shower-in" in the men's locker room. She also helped establish the Women's Studies Program in 1975, and remained with the program for the rest of her career, serving as chair from 1982 to 1986.
When Bleier identified herself as a lesbian after her marriage ended, she cautioned against the tendency toward lesbian separatism, working instead for lesbian rights within the women's movement. She helped set up "Lysistrata," a feminist restaurant, organized lesbian-friendly community activities in Madison, and supported "A Room of One's Own," a feminist bookstore. She also campaigned for abortion rights with her partner, Dr. Elizabeth Karlin.
Bleier's death from cancer in 1988 came as a surprise to those who knew her as an energetic woman who seemed much younger than her sixty-four years. She is remembered as "an unflagging friend to people who faced discrimination and a generous contributor to women's causes." The University of Wisconsin-Madison annually awards Ruth Bleier Scholarships to encourage women to pursue careers in the natural sciences, medicine, or engineering, and the Department of the History of Medicine has endowed a chair in her honor.