Meet Jean Elson: Sociologist, Sexual Behavior Professor, and AAUW Member

March 13, 2009
Jean Elson

Jean Elson

This semester, like most semesters, Jean Elson, a 1998-99 American Fellow, has about 200 students enrolled in the two sections of her sexual behavior class at the University of New Hampshire. ‘I think that college students are hungry for accurate information about sex and the opportunity to discuss the social implications of a topic that is so relevant to their lives, yet so complicated,” Jean said. In the past Jean has opened the class by asking individual students in the crowded lecture hall to read off sexually explicit words that are still taboo in today’s society. While some might see the class as a glorified sex-ed course, Jean is always forced to turn away students to avoid overcrowding.

Jean’s journey to the front of the classroom began when she was still a student. In graduate school her research focused on gender and medical sociology, an interest she has held for many years. From there Jean earned an AAUW fellowship to help her pursue her doctorate, which she earned from the Department of Sociology at Brandeis University. ‘As a divorced mother with two children, the financial support was essential to completing my dissertation,” explained Jean. The fellowship was not, however, her first connection to AAUW; Jean had joined before attending graduate school and is still a member today. ‘I am proud to support an organization that has been leading the fight for equality for so long.”

Am I Still a Woman?: Hysterectomy and Gender Identity

Throughout her journey Jean has given back to the sociology community. In 2004 she published her first book, Am I Still a Woman? Hysterectomy and Gender Identity, and in 2007 she presented a paper at the Kinsey Institute on young adults’ attitudes and experiences with abstinence. Jean has also been very vocal about the extended birth control medication, Lybrel, offering a new voice where drug companies are often the main speakers. In recognition of her work, Jean was awarded the University of New Hampshire Pink Triangle Award in 2007 for ‘outstanding contributions toward achieving equity and visibility for the UNH GLBT community,” and the Vagina Warrior award in 2008 for ‘teaching feminism within the context of health and sociology.”

Looking ahead to the future, Jean is ‘hopeful about the prospects for women’s healthcare under the Obama administration.” She expressed her elation for President Obama’s decision to lift the global gag rule, which restricts organizations that receive federal funding from speaking candidly about the whole range of reproductive options for women. She hopes that President Obama will appoint Supreme Court justices who support women’s rights to make decisions about their own reproductive health, that he will pass national healthcare legislation promoting women’s health, and that he will provide federal funding for comprehensive sex education. Jean also sees her own role in the public arena. ‘One of my personal and professional goals is to be a public sociologist; I believe that sociology can help inform the public debate on many issues.”

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