Example Of Women in the 1980s Who Had Aids and Were Forgotten Essay

Women have for a long time been categorised under the minority umbrella. Historically, women have faced plenty of challenges in their quest for freedom of choice and equity. In June 1981, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the first case of AIDS in the United States. As the epidemic swept across the United States and finding its way in other countries, many people perceived it as a moral illness—a choice (Russell n.p). When the first cases of AIDS were reported in the United States, it was thought that only gay people were infected by the disease. The homophobic framing of the AIDS epidemic made women be overlooked in women in their research. Medical professional aimed focused almost all their efforts on symptoms that presented in men and not women. Because of the homophobic panic and reactions to the pandemic, women in the 1980s found themselves in the position where they did not only get accurate information on the state of their health, but even their partners were more likely to conceal the health state, a situation that placed women at the time in a worse position to contract and die for the disease. Many women who had tested positive for the disease in the early 1980s found themselves between a rock and a hard place as they were forgotten, silenced by society, and had to fight their invisibility. The objective of this study is to examine challenges women in the 1980s faced in the face of the AIDS epidemic. The study argues that the lack of information on HIV/AIDS at its initial stages and the dominant theory that AIDS was a moral illness made it harder for women to protect themselves. Women lacked the freedom of choice to protect themselves from the disease as not even their husbands were willing to share their health status.

The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s came at a time women were already fighting the roles to which they were being reduced. Women had to battle challenges that spanned from cultural representation, physical victimization, to structural inequities. Many years even before the AIDS movement, women in the United States and Europe had organised around many health issues and the stereotypes labelled against the female gender. According to Elbaz (103) “Women were also perceived as essentially immoral, unable to control their sexual functions and unable to make responsible decisions.” Health issues concerning women have thus been tackled with measures driven by assumption. For instance, Elbaz (104) notes that the syphilis outbreak during World War I was tackled with measures that were had detrimental consequences on women. That is, instead of distributing condoms to servicemen during the War, the government placed more than 30,000 women under quarantine in response to the soaring numbers of syphilis cases. The assumption that women are unable to control their sexual functions also made the government implement discriminatory policies in the 1950s that subjected Puerto Rican women to sterilization as a means of population control (Elbaz 106). 

Like in the past, women were rendered invisible in the AIDS epidemic with a host of some respectable medical professionals concluding that the disease was not a threat to the vast majority of heterosexuals. According to Elbaz (107), the greatest challenge heterosexual women faced at the onset of the AIDS epidemic was the confusion and the preconceived notion that was supported even by experts that women could not contract HIV. Medical professionals at the time did not just promote the idea that AIDS was a gay disease, they went ahead to categorise it as a gay “male” disease. To some extent, contradicting information on the transmission of HIV left many women in a poor position to contract the disease. For example, Elbaz (108) says that it was believed that the rugged vagina (built to be abused by such blunt instruments as penises and small babies), provided too tough a barrier for the AIDS virus to penetrate. This misled view on the disease transmission made many women not seek proper protection against the disease. Russell (n.p) argues that the depiction of the AID epidemic as a “gay plague” also made many women who were victims of the disease to fear disclosing their status. 

Despite getting lower attention, women were more likely to die from AIDS than men as formerly perceived by medical professionals. A study by New York AIDS Surveillance at the height of the AIDS epidemic revealed that women’s death rate had quadrupled from 1985 to 1988 (Elbaz 109). The study showed that during this time, AIDS ranked as the leading cause of death among women, especially those from minority communities. The highest population was among mothers in their productive stages of life from minority ethnicities. The findings of this study elicited different assumptions. First, ethnic minority women were less likely to access clinical trials and the healthcare system. Second, these women were more likely to contract the disease due to the lack of information about its transmission. The poor position these women were placed, both by the professional community, and the society at large created a scenario where more women died from the disease without having the opportunity to tell their story or seek medical support. Elbaz (109), argues that the resistance of the government epidemiologists at the time to recognize women as a vulnerable population to HIV infections and downplaying stunning statistics to prove so discouraged efforts to help women out of the epidemic. In other words, women were a neglected population that was forgotten both by the government and professional communities in providing the right direction and information in the fight against HIV in the 1980s.

Fewer studies on the symptoms of AIDS symptoms in women were conducted as it was assumed that women were the invisible forces in the disease epidemic. According to Matthiesen (579) almost a decade after the first case of HIV was reported by the CDC, women still had to fight against the assumptions of their invisibility to the disease. Matthiesen (586) notes that women had formed activist movements to put more pressure on the federal health agencies to expand the official definition of AIDS and include opportunistic infections more often found in women and poor people. Even though thousands of women had been reported to have contracted AIDS in the 1980s, it was not until the end of the decade that major health agencies included women in HIV biomedical research. Women were hugely underrepresented in these trials as research camped more on symptoms in men. Elbaz (112) notes that “Many trials also excluded women of childbearing age unless they submitted to a definitive mode of contraception—a euphemism for sterilization.” It was a requirement that Elbaz (112) says belied the notion that a woman’s health was not as important as that of a “potential foetus.” Importantly, women’s exclusion from biomedical trials extended the assumption held that women were irresponsible individuals. The exclusion of women in HIV/AIDS drug testing was a huge setback in finding a cure or protection for a disease that had already proved to affect people of all genders and social statuses. Elbaz (110), for example, notes that women had some unique experiences with the diseases that were different from men and thus required a specialised look into their cases. In other words, women are at a higher risk to get the disease as they could easily harbour enough HIV through their menstrual blood or vaginal discharges. By concentrating more on men in finding a cure for the disease, medical professionals were more likely to overlook the risks women faced, hence come up with drugs that did not fully address such risks.

The story of Michelle Lopez as narrated by Emma Russell in the Vice article, “Aging, Overlooked, and HIV-Positive” is one of the good examples of the importance of women in the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. When Lopez was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s, she was devastated (Russell n.p). Lopez had only come to know her status when she left her abusive boyfriend to seek help in one of the domestic violence shelters in Brooklyn. Like many women at the time, Lopez could not understand how she contracted the disease yet she was not gay. Russell (n.p) notes that when Lopez reached out to her boyfriend to inform him of the sad news, she was shocked by the reply she got. Lopez was afraid that she might have infected his boyfriend until he replied “Ain’t life a bitch. I’ve been living with this for so long” (Russell n.p). The fact that her boyfriend knew all along that he had the disease and did not tell her broke Lopez’s heart. She had no choice but to walk away from the situation because nothing more could get the virus from her body. Lopez’s story is not unique neither is it isolated. It is similar to that of Janice Sweeting-Saud as narrated by Russell. Like Lopez, Janice’s partner failed to tell her about his health status even when he was aware he had been diagnosed with HIV. Concealing one’s health status from a partner in the 1980s was the super-spreader of HIV/AIDS. According to Waites (482), one of the main reasons heterosexual partners hid their health status was because of the homophobic fear that had been labelled against the disease. Many believed that they would be stigmatized or thought of as being gay if they disclosed their health status to their partners. Also, due to the lack of information, some thought that women were invisible to the diseases and hence could not be infected even if they had unprotected sex with an HIV positive partner. The invisibility forces assumption, therefore, played a vital role in the spread of HIV/AIDS among women in the 1980s.

Mainstream media and films play important role in educating society and giving the real picture of a situation to help individuals at risk take appropriate measures. However, according to Waites (479-492), the mainstream media did not adequately play its role in providing accurate information about the plight of women in the face of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. For instance, HIV infection in women was hugely downplayed in many Hollywood films produced in the 1980s. Waites (479-492) give an example of different films where women victims of HIV are not provided accurate or adequate information about their disease by the doctor. These films depict the challenges women in the 1980s faced but do very little to challenge the assumption. Also, Waites (488) says that in some cases, films did not appropriately provide the background of how a woman infected in the play was infected. By giving more detailed information about HIV and women, more women could have taken precaution and protected themselves against infection even from their partners. 


This study has examined the challenges women victims of HIV/AIDS faced in the 1980s. The study reports that the homophobic labelling of HIV in the 1980s isolated women in matters to do with the disease putting them in a more exposed position to contract and die from the disease. For example, the study finds that women were never involved in HIV biomedical trials, with exceptions to those who submitted to a definitive mode of contraception. Women were also forced to fight their invisibility to the disease assumption to ensure that research into the disease also included them and provided them with protection. The report concludes that due to neglect and being forgotten in the HIV epidemic, more women died from the disease, deaths that could have been prevented by accepting that the disease affected everyone and that like men, women deserved equal protection and access to information about their health.

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Works Cited

Elbaz, Gilbert. "Women, AIDS, and activism fighting invisibility." Revue francaise detudes americaines 2 (2003): 102-113.

Matthiesen, Sara. "Equality versus Reproductive Risk: Women-and-AIDS Activism and False Choice in the Clinical Trials Debate." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41.3 (2016): 579-601.

Russell, Emma. “Aging, Overlooked, and HIV-Positive.” Vice (2018)

Waites, Kathleen J. "Invisible Woman: Herbert Ross' Boys on the Side Puts HIV/AIDS and Women in Their Place." The Journal of Popular Culture 39.3 (2006): 479-492.

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