Eugenic sterilization and child welfare in the twentieth century 304pp. Johns Hopkins University Press. £40.50 (US $54.95).
Scott W. Stern
Sex, surveillance, and the decades-long government plan to imprison “promiscuous” women 356pp. Beacon Press. £25 (US $28.95).
“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”, said Donald Trump of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, as he launched his election campaign in 2015. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he later asked, as President, referring to immigrants from Haiti and the African continent. In a tweet last month, while rationalizing policies that segregate, imprison and summarily deport asylum seekers, he framed the problem as one of outright pestilence: “Democrats . . . don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants . . . to pour in and infest our country”. And Trump’s nativism is not unique among powerful American politicians: the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, has urged “higher birth rates in this country” as a way of boosting the economy. As the immigration attorney Matt Cameron wrote in a recent issue of the Baffler: “[Ryan] did this within weeks of backing massive legislative cuts to legal immigration rates and passively blocking a legislative solution to the DREAM Act that would have ensured the lives and futures of more than one million young aspiring Americans who happened to have been born in the wrong kinds of countries to the wrong kinds of parents”.
The overtly eugenic populism that has resurged in the United States recently has been shocking to some (if not enough): Lock ’em up. Clean ’em out. Not our children. Build that wall. The Justice Department has for some time been not only deporting but criminalizing asylum seekers, penalizing the poor and stateless merely for seeking entry to the US. Most notoriously, the government has been taking children away from their families as penalty for that supposed crime. Before Trump ordered such separations to stop, the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, suggested that child removal would “disincentivize” others from coming. Under this programme, even infants and toddlers have been shipped thousands of miles away from their parents, to often untraceable destinations all over the continent. Some children have ended up in crowded cages and warehouses on abandoned army bases. Some of their identities have been lost in the process, so that they might never be reunited with their desperate parents. And, as Cameron sums it up, “we arrive now at this new border, a place that any person of conscience must recognize as a point of no moral return. A country that would not only rip children from the arms of their parents, but then intentionally orphan and exile them just to ‘send a message’, risks not only losing them, but itself”.
But if some contemporary US policies seem uniquely inhumane, it is important to recognize how many of them have direct historical precedent. It’s perhaps easy to see in the logic of America’s mass incarceration, or its so-called “school-to-prison pipeline”, or the internment camps
where ethnic Japanese citizens were confined during the Second World War, or the enduring scar of slave auctions by which familial relationships were rendered irrelevant as children were snatched from their mothers and sold as chattel. Less well remembered, however, is the Progressive Era’s embrace of social Darwinism – a pseudoscience popular in Britain and Europe as well, but which, in America, came together as a powerfully institutionalized set of laws and enforcement mechanisms premissed on a mixture of misogyny, class bias, race panic and anti-immigrant resentment. It was during this period, from the late 1800s through to the first half of the twentieth century, that New York’s infamous Eugenics Records Office was formed to issue “pedigrees” of Nordic purity. This was the era of the Social Hygiene movement, which justified moral purges, intimate oversight of poor women’s reproductive choices, separation of children from parents, mass sterilizations, and the indefinite detention of those deemed “unfit”. This, too, was a time when the “American Plan” for eugenic manipulation flourished and grew – and which, when studied and implemented by Nazi Germany, morphed into the Final Solution.
This long-ignored history is the subject of Molly Ladd-Taylor’s Fixing the Poor: Eugenic sterilization and child welfare in the twentieth century, which studies the impact of efforts to “contain” and distinguish the variously and often incoherently defined problems of “delinquency”, “immorality”, “imbecility”, “waywardness” and “feeblemindedness”. Poor people, particularly women and girls, were suspected disproportionately of being the source of such conditions. Ideologically, “treatment” was framed as an issue of public health, but Ladd-Taylor shows that an even greater concern was sparing the public purse. Thus, sorting the “deserving” from the “undeserving” poor became a primary metric in deciding quarantine, sterilization, education, or release. Venereal disease, prostitution and mental disability were seen not only as social contagions but also as biologically incorrigible, genetic, innate. “Pauperism” became an economic disease, a parasite on the public dole and a burden on taxpayers; its elimination was paramount.
Ladd-Taylor literally follows the money that underwrote hospitals, prisons and special schools, using the state of Minnesota as an exemplar. There, as in many states, public policy was driven to a great degree by perceptions of economic class as embodied. Thus, middle-class youths were often privileged as “too independent” and therefore in need of more home-training, more moral uplift, firmer parental intervention. Indeed, “delinquency” became normalized as a stage of white middle-class boys’ development. They needed “guidance, not strict punishment”, according to one judge quoted by Ladd-Taylor, because such boys had energy, initiative and “are the ones who, under proper conditions, make the very best citizens”. This belief grew out of the common law tradition of seeing the state as protector, underpinned by depictions of the juvenile court judge as a “wise and kind father”.
In contrast, the working class and very poor were treated as inherently dependent on state resources – destined for eternal pauperism, in other words. These latter became ciphers for contagion, carriers of corruption, and therefore in need of confinement. The distinction between the deserving and the undeserving rested on quite explicit assumptions of heritable worth: at one end, “innocent” delinquents needed more care and support; at the other, “dangerous” defectives warranted strict control for fear of their contaminating others and multiplying. Families were torn apart in this sorting process: those children deemed “in suitable condition of body and mind to receive instruction” were housed in institutions such as the State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children in Owatonna, Minnesota, until they could be “placed out to work or adopted”. In the mid-1880s, the school’s superintendent, Galen A. Merrill, rationalized: “There are parents who are not worthy to rear citizens of this republic”.
A second book, The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, surveillance, and the decades-long government plan to imprison “promiscuous” women by Scott W. Stern, looks at the same set of laws during more or less the same time frame, but through the particular experience of Nina McCall, one of many white working-class teenagers swept up by the state of Michigan’s over-zealous morality police, and whose life was upended by the ensuing nightmare. Suspected of having venereal disease seemingly for no reason other than her having been observed unaccompanied on a trip to the Post Office, McCall was, in 1918, detained for months without any semblance of due process. She lost her job and her reputation and became estranged from her family. Her vagina was probed endlessly and her body injected with mercury and arsenic, all in the name of “cure”. The relentless prodding of “suspected” young women was not accompanied by anything like scientific rigour, consistency of observation, accuracy of record-keeping, or coherence of diagnosis. McCall, once forcibly tested, was arrested based on a supposed diagnosis of syphilis, but ended up being given anti-gonorrhoeal medications. What makes McCall unusual among the many tens of thousands of American girls also targeted is that she sued the state. It took two years for her to be partially vindicated by the Michigan Supreme Court, which recognized her right to a trial, and even so her small victory did not slow the ideological diffusion of the American Plan for moral purge. (Tellingly, the court only ruled that McCall’s detainment was unlawful because the grounds for suspecting her of infection were a little too weak.) McCall’s story is captivating as pure biography, but it is all the more remarkable documentarily: it stands as one of the few formal challenges to these laws, and one of the very few whose heart-wrenching traces were captured in a trial record.
The American Plan (not to be confused with the anti-union movement of the same name) was a programme designed to control sexually transmitted disease. It was different from the earlier French Plan instituted by Napoleon, which sought to confine prostitution by semi-legalizing it. Known as “regulationism”, the French system required sex workers to register, submit to regular genital inspections, and confine their activities to particular (red light) districts. In contrast, the American Plan never completely bought the idea of prostitution as something that could or ought to be regulated; true to its more Puritan legacy, the US set about trying to eliminate “immorality” by outlawing it. Unsurprisingly, therefore, public governance tended to treat prostitution not merely as a moral failure but as a criminal act. “Waywardness” in a woman was deemed not only a product of socialization, but reflective of innate mental deficits associated with “imbecility” or “feeblemindedness”. Anti-corruption squads composed of police, sheriffs, social workers and religious leaders, combed the streets of cities and small towns, detaining women and girls en masse and conducting crude genital probes. And it did not necessarily matter whether these “tests” resulted in diagnosis of any sort, for the conduct of these righteous teams was itself often corrupted by greed, reputational gossip, and stereotype: black and immigrant women were presumed to be looser in their conduct. Poor women could be labelled promiscuous if they merely seemed so to a detention officer. A neighbour with a grudge could call the vice squad. In addition, police received bonuses in line with the number of arrests and detentions, and policies could be touted as “successful” based on volume alone. Although the Reagan revolution is remembered for its racialized nomination of “welfare queens” and “the undeserving poor”, these too are concepts that date back to the Progressive Era.
The cruelties as well as the efficiencies underwriting this system were at least partly the legacy of practices endured by slaves in the South and indentured servants in the urban North. During nineteenth-century slave auctions women, and men, were often stripped for display, their genitals publicly inspected for signs of disease, their personalities rated for docility and passive obedience. And, given popular medical theories of the time that African and “inferior” breeds were impervious to the normal limits of pain, the bodies of black slave women and Irish immigrants disproportionately served as the experimental playground for doctors perfecting early gynaecological methods and surgical sterilization. (Those looking for detailed accounts of this might turn to Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The dark history of medical experimentation on black Americans from colonial times to the present, 2006, and Deidre Cooper Owens’s Medical Bondage:Race, gender, and the origin of American gynecology, 2017.)
During the Progressive Era a new kind of bureaucratic order began to have appeal. The passion for too-neat typologies advanced by some natural historians and scientists – “Conceive for a moment”, Louis Agassiz wrote in a letter in 1863, “the difference it would make in future ages . . . if instead of the manly population descended from cognate nations, the United States should hereafter be inhabited by the effeminate progeny of mixed races, half indian, half negro, sprinkled with white blood . . . . I shudder at the consequences” – became crossed with the pleasing pseudo-mathematical balance sheets of actuarialism. In 1906, the Race Betterment Foundation was established in Battle Creek, Michigan, by John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of the corn flake and a tireless polemicist for the “purity of the gene pool”. An advocate of sexual abstinence, he campaigned against masturbation as well as racial miscegenation. His foundation became an influential force in advancing theories about the evils of sex unless it were seed sown in the “proper” advancement of racial hygiene and superior “pedigree”. His foundation sponsored many of the eugenic fairs and congresses that flourished during this period, including Fitter Family and Better Baby competitions. Around the same time, the biologist Charles Davenport founded the American Breeder’s Association, whose mission was to spread the alarm about “the menace to society of inferior blood”. Davenport, who supported sterilization of “unfit” human “stock” as well as restrictions on immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, went on to establish the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, which became the enduring centre of the American eugenics movement. (Over the past half-century, the laboratory has distanced itself from those origins, becoming better known as the intellectual home of Barbara McClintock, James Watson, Francis Crick, Carol Greider and others, and for their work in molecular genetics, cancer research and the discovery of telomeres. Nevertheless, the archives of the American Eugenics Movement are still housed there, and may be studied at eugenicsarchive.org.) Davenport also believed, Ladd-Taylor points out, that Mendel’s theory of inheritance in simple organisms such as pea plants could be flatly applied to traits in human populations. He thought, wrongly, that a complex range of conditions – in those days, labelled variously as idiocy, imbecility, defectiveness and degeneracy – resulted from a single trait that could be reliably predicted by dominant and recessive patterns of transmission. This mistake was used to justify sterilization, institutionalization and segregation of “fertile feebleminded” women during childbearing years.
In 1911, John D. Rockefeller, Jr created the Bureau of Social Hygiene to counter (largely baseless) public fears of “white slavery”. In the name of science, he funded a laboratory in the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford, dedicated to eugenic propositions. Women “adrift” could be rounded up, quarantined and subjected to tests not only designed to ferret out venereal disease, but to sort the subjects by IQ, degree of “degenerate” disposition, and purported educability in the arts of housekeeping. Those deemed “incorrigible” or “feebleminded” might face life imprisonment; those deemed more responsive to supervised intervention and schedules of reform might eventually be hired out as domestic servants, seamstresses, or laundresses. There were institutional distinctions among homes for the feeble-minded, detention centres, reformatories and jails. Meanwhile, the application of Mendelianism to human reproduction soon became overlaid with statistical modelling. In 1877, the prison reformer Richard Dugdale had done a study entitled “The Jukes: A study in crime, pauperism, disease and heredity”, covering seven generations of “debauchery” and “degeneracy” among a rural family living in upstate New York. In 1915, this report was rewritten by Arthur H. Estabrook, who was funded by the Eugenics Record Office to foreground the role of pure heredity. This latter version made the Jukes iconic in the public imagination, Ladd-Taylor says, as “an inbreeding rural family too lazy to look for work and living in a hovel [and who] epitomized the supposed innate unfitness of poor ‘white trash’”. While Dugdale himself had urged that improved social environment was central to “fixing” such people, the practical impact of Estabrook’s take was more sinister: it frightened the public sufficiently to spawn a movement that placed great emphasis on heritability of moral and mental weakness. Fixing the Poor clearly documents how this led to broad justifications for sterilization programmes.
Under the American Plan, degeneracy was also a matter of youth, aesthetic appearance and “obvious” abnormality. Children as young as eleven, including those who had been abused or the victims of incest, could be carelessly labelled “incorrigible” if they looked “slovenly”, and quarantined or scheduled for tubal ligation. And as Susan Schweik has shown in her masterly study The Ugly Laws: Disability in public (2010), many states were also passing ordinances during the Progressive Era limiting the ability of people deemed unpleasant-looking to move about in public without licences. The limping, burnt, or blind, polio sufferers, those with shrivelled limbs, conspicuous birthmarks or speech impediments – all might be banned not only from begging but from conspicuous “display” of themselves in public. Appearance alone became a measure of how much these subjects might be able to seek employment, pursue a career, appeal to human empathy, or ask for alms. This exacting scrutiny, the measurement of brows, of jaw, of width of noses and distance between eyes, became a literal blood sport, a phrenology of racial and class supremacy. Meanwhile, the capacious label of “feebleminded” increasingly led to diminutions of respect for the personhood of those so branded. They became the to-be-controlled, incapable of “real” or human feeling, future-less yet “insatiably” needy. Both Fixing the Poor and The Trials of Nina McCall are filled with quotes from legislators, lawyers, doctors and religious crusaders that compare victims caught in this system to “vegetables”, empty vessels and the walking dead. As Stern points out, and Ladd-Taylor would agree, “feeblemindedness was more than just a mental condition; it was an indicator of morality”. Thus, it was linked inextricably to the undermining of “our civilization”.
Yet the seeming haphazardness of categorization disguises the degree to which the American Plan was indeed a plan: and one of its features was precisely decentralization. As Nina McCall’s story illustrates, it was a system encouraged by the federal government, but whose administration was pretty much left to individual states, where standards were both varied and incoherently pursued. Thus, overall statistics remain difficult to gather. Local administrators were granted wide discretion, making it hard to hold any given person or locality accountable for mistreatment or even death.
The goal of suppressing the fecundity of the “unfit” was further enabled by increasingly survivable forms of surgical sterilization. The first eugenic sterilization law was proposed in Michigan in 1897, and the first passed in Indiana in 1907. The Eugenics Record Office produced a Model Law that was enacted by a number of states, and by around 1918, American physicians had, according to Stern, started to see sterilization “as the most effective way of combating race degeneracy”. In 1927, that Model Law, as enacted by the state of Virginia, was tested before the Supreme Court, by the claim of Carrie Buck, an eighteen-year-old girl being held as “incorrigible” at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Buck protested against involuntary sterilization on the grounds that it violated equal protection laws as well as her right to bodily integrity. She lost. In an infamous opinion (cited years later by Nazi doctors in their defence statements at the Nuremberg trials), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . . Three generations of imbeciles is enough” (Buck vs Bell, 1927). For years after the ruling, the numbers of forced salpingectomies – by which the Fallopian tubes are entirely removed – climbed, while the standards of review fell. And in 1941, a new federal agency was created, the Social Protection Division. Its mission, Stern explains, was to “persuade local officials to enforce their own laws” to stamp out social disease. In 1946, Dwight Eisenhower, while Chief of Army Staff, endorsed a federal bill (ultimately not passed) that would have extended quarantine and prosecutions under the American Plan, further lowering the standard by replacing the words “infected persons” with persons “reasonably suspected of being infected”.
The fear of poor, dissolute and particularly of mulatta women who might “pass” as white and contaminate “pure” blood lines by infecting white men, meanwhile, became a quieter form of institutional disciplining. The Trials of Nina McCall
documents efforts, during the First World War, to regulate and repress not only brothels near army bases, but to stop white soldiers from visiting black neighbourhoods as a way of preventing them from having any contact at all with black women, deemed “inevitably” promiscuous. And during the Second World War, the American Plan was applied in ways that reveal gross racial disparities. Prostitution was assumed if a white woman was merely in the presence of a black man, or, in one case, because she had been “seen repeatedly in a restaurant favored by Filipinos”. Indeed, while the data cited in both books primarily concern the mistreatment of white girls and women, the majority of women negatively affected by the American Plan were women of colour – particularly black, Chinese and indigenous. Those women’s fates are less well documented, but there are clear connections among perceptions of white female fragility, black contagion and the need for intervention. As the Surgeon General, Thomas Parran, opined in the 1940s, it is not the black person’s “fault” that syphilis is
- biologically different in [the Negro] than in the white; that his blood vessels are particularly susceptible so that late syphilis brings with it crippling circulatory diseases, cuts his working usefulness in half, and makes him [an] unemployable burden upon the community in the last years of his shortened life. It is through no fault of hers that the colored woman remains infectious two and one-half times as long as the white woman.
Stern reminds readers that even as these words were being uttered, the US was still conducting the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis study of 1932–72, in which the “natural” progress of syphilis in the bodies of 622 disenfranchised black men in Alabama was observed by the United States Public Health Service, with all treatment withheld even after penicillin was discovered. The men were told only that they had “bad blood”. (To add insult to injury, they were offered free burial insurance in exchange for participation.) Civil rights debates, too, often reverted to discussions of the sexual risks of integration, says Stern: “After the 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education, an organization called Separate Schools denounced the black community as ‘a vast reservoir of infectious venereal diseases’ . . . . When black female citizens in Birmingham, Alabama, tried to register to vote, they were sometimes asked if they had STIs”.
Come 1963, there were official records of 63,678 sterilizations having been performed under the US sterilization laws, although actual, unrecorded numbers are likely to have been far higher. By this time the use of penicillin was changing much, if not everything. The last vestiges of federal co-ordination for the American Plan melted away, leaving individual states as the unguided, inconsistent and sometimes extreme enforcers of social values; in addition, the nascent women’s movement began to challenge norms of sexual morality. Still, both Stern and Ladd-Taylor cite instances where the invocation of the American Plan persisted until the 1970s, as in Salt Lake City, Denver, or Fresno. Significantly, Stern tells how Andrea Dworkin, then a college student, was arrested during an anti-war protest in 1965. Dworkin, who would go on to become one of the best-known feminist writers and anti-pornography advocates in the world, was taken to New York City’s Women’s House of Detention where her experience echoed Nina McCall’s testimony so many years before: “In addition to the many strip searches by hand that police and nurses made into my vagina and anus, I was brutalized by two male doctors who gave me an internal examination, the first one I had ever had. They pretty much tore me up inside with a steel speculum and had themselves a fine time verbally tormenting me as well . . . . I began to bleed right after”. Stern notes that Dworkin “would continue to bleed for days after. When her family doctor examined her, the doctor burst into tears”.
These books are impossible to read without a confused sense of both hindsight and dreadful foreboding. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that “the danger . . . is that today, with populations and homelessness everywhere on the increase, masses of people are continuously rendered superfluous if we continue to think of our world in utilitarian terms”. That superfluity renders people disposable, mere things – “creating creatures who are alive in fact, but dead in law”, as the essayist Colin Dayan has described it. The weight of what no one wants, the extinction of those never given voice, is quietly buried in what Arendt thought of as “holes of oblivion”.
We Americans live in the present tense after all – everything is sui generis, everything popped up overnight by virtue of individual choice and choice alone. But there are echoes of the American Plan everywhere. The Sentencing Project, a public-interest research body, notes that the numbers of imprisoned women rose 646 per cent between 1980 and 2010 – 1.5 times the rate of men’s incarceration during the same period. Fixing the Poor ends with a warning that “child welfare and criminal justice systems have emerged as leading instruments of eugenics control in the twenty-first century in part because they are easily reconciled with religious qualms about abortion, sterilization and reprogenic technologies”. Now as a century ago, we encourage “affluent Americans to have children, while deterring childbearing and childrearing by low-income women and single mothers, especially women with disabilities, drug addicts, and poor women of color”. The Trials of Nina McCall also ends on a haunting note: “Each of the laws that enabled the American Plan – those laws passed at general federal behest in 1917, 1918 and 1919 – remains on the books, in some form, to this day. Not one of them has ever been struck down by an appeals court”.