Invisible in a Time of Crisis Women, Surveillance Definitions, and Rhetorical Possibilities in the AIDS Epidemic’s First Decade

Main Article Content

Hillary A. Ash


Using the 1980s Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) surveillance definitions for AIDS, this article examines how the CDC’s rhetorical techniques may have been harnessed to create more inclusive AIDS morbidity and mortality data in the U.S. epidemic’s first decade. The CDC’s decision to privilege disease specificity over sensitivity led women, people of color, and drug users to be underrepresented in epidemiological reporting due to AIDS’s manifestation as more commonly seen—­and therefore less specific—­diseases in these populations. My analysis of the first three AIDS definitions shows heavy reliance on four classical topoi as the CDC sought to constrain who was and was not considered an AIDS case for national reporting. I argue that, while these four topoi—­space, time, correlation, and causation—­did constrain symptoms to the desired specificity, the CDC had the ability to place similar specifications on common diseases for the sake of including vulnerable communities in surveillance data.

Article Details

Research Articles
Author Biography

Hillary A. Ash, University of Pittsburgh

Ph.D. Candidate

Department of Communication



Alhayek, Katty. (2014). Double marginalization: The invisibility of syrian refugee women’s perspectives in mainstream online activism and global media. Feminist Media Studies, 14(4), 696-700.

Arend, Elizabeth D. (2005). The politics of invisibility: Homophobia and low-income HIV-positive women who have sex with women. Journal of Homosexuality, 49(1), 97-122.

Bennett, Jeffrey A. (2009). Banning queer blood: Rhetorics of citizenship, contagion, and resistance. University of Alabama Press.

Bitzer, Lloyd F. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1, 1-14.

Brier, Jennifer. (2009). Infectious ideas: U.S. political responses to the AIDS crisis. University of North Carolina Press.

Brouwer, Daniel. (1998). The precarious visibility politics of self-stigmatization: The case of HIV/AIDS tattoos. Text and Performance Quarterly, 18(2), 114-136.

Browne, Simone. (2012). Race and surveillance. In Kirstie Ball, Keven Haggerty, & David Lyon (Eds.), Routledge handbook of surveillance studies (pp. 72-80). Routledge.

Centers for Disease Control. (1982). Update on acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)—United States. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 31(37), 507-514.

Centers for Disease Control. (1985). Revision of the case definition of acquired immunodefiency syndrome for national reporting—United States. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 34(25), 373-375.

Centers for Disease Control. (1987). Revision of the CDC surveillance case definition for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome for national reporting—United States. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 36(Supple. 1), 1S-15S.

Chambré, Susan M. (2006). Fighting for our lives: New York’s AIDS community and the politics of disease. Rutgers University Press.

Charland, Maurice. (1987). Constitutive rhetoric: The case of peuple Quebecois. The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73(2), 133-150.

Chesebro, James E. (1985). Definition as a rhetorical strategy. The Pennsylvania Speech Communication Annual, 41(1), 5-15.

Cohen, Cathy J. (1999). The boundaries of blackness: AIDS and the breakdown of Black politics. University of Chicago Press.

Corea, Gena. (1992). The invisible epidemic: The story of women and AIDS (1st ed.). HarperCollins.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.

Croissant, Jennifer L. (2014). Agnotology: Ignorance and absence or towards a sociology of things that aren’t there. Social Epistemology, 28(1), 4-25.

Cvetkovich, Ann. (2003). An archive of feelings: Trauma, sexuality, and lesbian public cultures. Duke University Press.

Daniels, Cynthia. (1996). At women’s expense: State power and the politics of fetal rights. Havard University Press.

Ding, Huiling. (2013). Transcultural risk communication and viral discourses: Grassroots movements to manage global risks of H1N1 flu pandemic. Technical Communication Quarterly, 22(2), 126-149.

Denenberg, Risa. (1990). Unique aspects of HIV infection in women. In ACT UP/New York Women & AIDS Book Group (Ed.), Women, AIDS, and Activism (pp. 31-43). South End Press.

Dubrofsky, Rachel E., & Magnet, Shoshana Amielle. (2015). Feminist surveillance studies: Critical interventions. In Rachel E. Dubrofsky & Shoshana Amielle Magnet (Eds.), Feminist Surveillance Studies (pp. 1-17). Duke University Press.

Edley, Paige P. &, Battaglia, Judy E. (2016). Dying of dissmissal: An autoethnographic journey of chronic illness, feminist agency, and health advocacy. Women & Language, 39(1), 33-48.

Epstein, Steven. (2007). Inclusion: The politics of difference in medical research. University of Chicago Press.

Fleming, Patricia L., Ward, John W., Janssen, Robert S., De Cock, Kevin M., Valdiserri, Ronald O., & Gayle, Helene D. (1994). Guidelines for the national human immunodeficiency virus case surveillance, including monitoring for human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Recommendations and Reports, 48(RR13), 1-28.

Gamson, Josh. (1989). Silence, death, and the invisible enemy: AIDS activism and social movement “newness.” Social Problems, 36(4), 351-367.

Gould, Deborah. (2009). Moving politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s fight against AIDS. University of Chicago Press.

Grabill, Jeffrey T. & Simmons, W. Michele. (1998). Towards a critical rhetoric of risk communication: Producing citizens and the role of technical communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 7(4), 415-441.

Grimaldi, William M.A. (1974). The aristotelian topics. In Keith V. Erickson (Ed.), Aristotle: The classical heritage of rhetoric (pp. 173-196). The Scarcrow Press.

Hegde, Radha S. (2019). Itinerant data: Unveilling gendered scrutiny at the border. Television & New Media, 20(6), 617-633.

Herndl, Diane Price. (1995). The invisible (invalid) woman: African American women, illness, and nineteenth-century narrative. Women’s Studies, 24(6), 553-573.

Jenkins, Richard. (2012). Identity, surveillance and modernity: Sorting out who’s who. In Kirstie Ball, Keven Haggerty, & David Lyon (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies (pp. 159-166). Routledge.

Jiwani, Yasmin. (2015). Violating in/visibilities: Honor killings and interlocking surveillance(s). In Rachel E. Dubrofsky & Shoshana Amielle Magnet (Eds.), Feminist Surveillance Studies (pp. 79-92). Duke University Press.

Koskela, Hille. (2012). “You shouldn’t wear that body”: The problematic or surveillance and gender. In Kirstie Ball, Keven Haggerty, & David Lyon (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies (pp. 49-56). Routledge.

Laurence, Leslie, & Weinhouse, Beth. (1994). Outrageous practices: How gender bias threatens women's health. Rutgers University Press.

Lee, Lisa M., Teutsch, Steven M., Thacker, Stephen B., & St. Louis, Michael E. (2010). Principles & practice of public health surveillance. Oxford University Press.

Leff, Michael C. (1983). The topics of argumentative invention in Latin rhetorical theory from Cicero to Boethius. Rhetorica, 1(1), 23-44.

Levine, Carol, & Gary L Stein. (1991). What's in a name—the policy implications of the CDC definition of AIDS. Law, Medicine & Health Care, 19(3-4), 278-290.

Lichtenstein, Bronwen. (2008). Secret encounters: Black men, bisexuality, and AIDS in Alabama. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 14(3), 374-393.

Loraux, Nicole. (2006). The invention of Athens: The funeral oration in the Classical city. Zone Books.

Lyon, David. (2001). Surveillance society: Monitoring everyday life. Open University Press.

Magnet, Shoshana & Mason, Corrine. (2014). Of trojan horses and terrorist representations: Mom bombs, cross-ressing terrorists, and queer orientalisms. Canadian Journal of Communication, 39(2), 9-26.

Martel, James R. (2015). When the call is not meant for you: Misinterpellation, subjectivity, and the law. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 48(4), 494-515.

Marx, Gary T. (2012). Preface: “Your papers please”: Personal and professional encounters with surveillance. In Kirstie Ball, Keven Haggerty, & David Lyon (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies (pp. xx-xxxi). Routledge.

Mason, Corinne & Magnet, Shoshana. (2012). Surveillance studies and violence against women. Surveillance & Society, 10(2), 105-118.

McGovern, Theresa M. (1994). S.P. v. Sullivan: The effort to broaden the social security administration's definition of AIDS. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 21(4), 1083-1096.

McKeon, Richard. (1987). Rhetoric: Essays in invetion and discovery. Ox Bow Press.

Miller, Carolyn R. (2000). The Aristotelian topos: Hunting for novelty. In Alan G. Gross & Arthur E. Walzer (Eds.), Rereading Aristotle’s Rhetoric (pp. 130-148). Southern Illinois University Press.

Nichols, Deborah. (1991, June). Women, HIV and AIDS. Positively Aware: The Monthly Journal of the Test Positive Aware Network. ACT UP Chicago Records 1969-1996, [Box 19, Folder 10], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Patton, Cindy. (1994). Last served: Gendering the HIV pandemic. Taylor & Francis.

Preda, Alex. (2004). AIDS, rhetoric, and medical knowledge. Cambridge University Press.

Prelli, Laurence J. (1989). A rhetoric of science: Inventing scientific discourse. University of South Carolina Press.

Quinan, Christine. (2017). Gender (in)securities: Surveillance and transgender bodies in a post-9/11 era of neoliberalism. In Matthias Leese & Stef Wittendorp (Eds.), Security/Mobility: Politics of Movement (pp. 152-169). Manchster University Press.

Reeves, Carol. (1990). Establishing a phenomenon: The rhetoric of early medical reports on AIDS. Written Communication, 7(3), 393-416.

Reeves, Carol. (1992). Owning a virus: The rhetoric of scientific discovery accounts. Rhetoric Review, 10(2), 321-336.

Roberts, Dorothy. (1997). Killing the Black body: Race, reproduction, and the meaning of liberty. Pantheon Books.

Rodríguez-Madera, Sheilla & Toro-Alfonso, José. (2008). Gender as an obstacle in HIV/AIDS prevention: Considerations for the development of HIV/AIDS prevention for male-to-female transgenders. International Journal of Transgenderism, 8(2-3), 113-122.

Roth, Rachel. (2000). Making women pay: The hidden cost of fetal rights. Cornell University Press.

Schiappa, Edward (1993). Arguing about definitions. Argumentation, 7(4), 403-418.

Schiebinger, Londa. (2005). Agnotology and exotic abortifacients: The cultural production of ignorance in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 149(3), 316-343.

Scott, J. Blake. (2003). Risky rhetoric: AIDS and the cultural practices of HIV testing. Southern Illinois Unversity Press.

Smith, Andrea. (2015). Not-seeing: State surveillance, settler colonialism, and gender violence. In Rachel E. Dubrofsky & Shoshana Amielle Magnet (Eds.), Feminist Surveillance Studies (pp. 21-38). Duke University Press.

Segal, Judy Z. (2007). Breast cancer narratives as public rhetoric: Genre itself and the maintanance of ignorance. Linguistics & the Human Sciences, 3(1), 3-23.

Selod, Saher. (2018). Forever suspect: Racialized surveillance of Muslim Americans in the war on terror. Rutgers University Press.

Shotwell, Alexis. (2014). “Women don't get AIDS, they just die from it”: Memory, classification, and the campaign to change the definition of AIDS. Hypatia, 29(2), 509-525.

Tillery, Denise. (2017). Commonplaces of scientific evidence in environmental discourse. Routledge.

Treichler, Paula A. (1999). How to have theory in an epidemic: Cultural chronicles of AIDS. Duke University Press.

Tuana, Nancy. (2006). The speculum of ignorance: The women’s health movement and epistemologies of ignorance. Hypatia, 31(3), 1-19.

Waggoner, Miranda. (2017). The zero trimester: Pre-pregnancy care and the politics of reproductive risk. University of California Press.

Walsh, Lynda. (2010). The common topoi of STEM discourse: An apologia and methodological proposal, with pilot study. Written Communication, 27(1), 120-156.

Walton, Douglas. (2001). Persuasive definitions and public policy arguments. Argumentation

And Advocacy, 37(3), 117-132.

Youmans, William Lafi. (2017). How the Central Intelligence Agency recruited Arab Detroit:

Government communication, interpellation, and citizenship. The Communication Review, 20(1), 26-49.

Zarefsky, David. (1997). Definitions. In James F. Klumpp (Ed.), Argument in a Time of Change: Definitions, Frameworks, and Critiques, (pp. 1-11). University of Utah.

Zarefsky, David. (2004). Presidential rhetoric and the power of definition. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 34(3), 607-619.