I teach students to recognize the myths about gender, sexuality, race and nature in the world around us.

Emma Gaalaas Mullaney

To make her point, Professor Emma Gaalaas Mullaney, international relations, shows students a natural history museum diorama about bighorn sheep: a ram proudly stands atop a cliff, while a nearby ewe gazes after her lambs. Mullaney's point is not about sheep, though — it's about how patriarchy quietly shapes our world.

"Bighorn sheep have never behaved that way, so why do we design museum exhibitions to mimic 1950s Leave It to Beaver- style households? Our understanding of the world is shaped by our social institutions — in this case, by patriarchy," she says. "I teach students to recognize the myths about gender, sexuality, race and nature in the world around us."

A top priority for Mullaney is teaching students to use feminist theory to better understand these myths and to measure inequality.

"A common misunderstanding of women's studies is that it's exclusively about what women do," Mullaney says. "Feminist theory traces how gender intersects with other forms of social and biological difference in our lives. Feminist analytical tools are crucial for grappling with the inequality and violence that are produced, justified and often masked by these categories of difference."

As a human geographer, Mullaney studies farming practices in Mexico and applies feminist theory to analyze how the exercise of power affects the lives of people dependent on farming.

For generations, farmers sowed the hardiest kernels from prior crops to produce new crops. Recent government pressure for farmers to instead purchase and sow commercially bred and licensed hybrid corn varieties for sale on the global market is hailed by some as progress. But Mullaney says this illustrates how certain plants and people become more valued than others.

"We cannot understand contemporary globalization without understanding how local environmental knowledge passes — or fails to pass — from one generation to another," she says.

Mullaney's research reveals a world in which power sustains myths. It also shows how power reshapes the world.

"I study farming to understand how power works, and that leap requires theories," she says. "So while I'm working with farmers, I'm asking who gets to decide the metrics of sustainability, who gets the benefit of conservation projects, and who gets to control the natural resources that are at stake. Those are feminist questions."

Posted Oct. 6, 2016