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Better Babies, Fitter Families, and Toddlers and Tiaras: Eugenics in American History

Mothers and babies participating in a Better Baby Contest, 1941

Once upon a time (about two months ago) a group of academics/activists got together to start Nursing Clio, a collaborative blog project that aimed to engage with historical scholarship as a means to contextualize present-day political, social, and cultural issues surrounding gender and medicine. To be honest with you dear readers (all 5 of you), in the planning stages I sometimes doubted whether we would have enough present-day material to continue the blog past the first month. What if we ran out of material? What if we said everything we needed to say? I made sure to make a list of emergency blog post ideas just in case we got desperate.

As it turns out, we have never once had to break into the emergency blog post survival kit. Between the North Carolina preacher who invoked the Holocaust in an anti-gay sermon, to the continuing War on Women, to the new movie Hysteriaour gender, medicine, and history cup runneth over, my friends.

This week proves no exception and, once again, North Carolina is back in the spotlight. The New York Times is reporting that a proposed bill to make reparation payments to victims of its state-sponsored eugenics program has been shelved for the time being. According to the Times: “Despite backing from Gov. Bev Perdue and the State House of Representatives, a compensation package that would have given victims up to $50,000 each was not included in the Senate’s budget.” Officials cite budget constraints in the Senate’s decision to omit the funding. Indeed, if all surviving victims came forward to collect, North Carolina could be liable for about $90 million in compensation. But, according to the Times, the actual cost would probably be far less: “So far, only 146 living victims have been verified, and an additional 200 requests were pending.”

Beginning in 1929, North Carolina sterilized men and women who were deemed by the state as too poor, mentally disabled, or unfit to have children. By the time the program ended in the 1970s, over 7,600 people had been sterilized, a majority of them women and minorities. North Carolina, however, was hardly alone in its embrace of mandatory sterilization policies. In total, 30 U.S. states had various sterilization laws on the books and many other states had unofficial policies for the institutionalized. Between 1907 and 1963, over 64,000 American citizens were forcibly sterilized under various state laws across the country. North Carolina became the last state to outlaw the practice in 1977, which gives it the dubious honor of having an unusually high number of surviving victims.

Exactly who were these people targeted for mandatory sterilization? Sometimes doctors received authorization to use the procedure on criminals, the poor, and the physically disabled, but often people with a diagnosis of “feeblemindedness” became targets of the state. When I first came across the term, ‘feebleminded” as an undergrad, I envisioned people with severe mental and physical disabilities, but the truth is much more complicated and nebulous. Many courts, hospitals, and institutions had very different definitions for the term and sometimes women were labeled “feebleminded” if they were too sexually promiscuous, stubborn, or unruly. According to the popular eugenic ideology of the time, women (and men) who could not conform to sexual or behavioral norms would most certainly pass along these negative traits to their children and perpetuate the cycle of poverty, deviancy, and lawlessness.

Sterilization was not the only type of eugenic legislation passed in the early-twentieth century. Many other states like Wisconsin made it illegal for the epileptic, feeble-minded, and insane to marry.  These states often required couples to produce medical certificates when applying for marriage licenses. Some states (again, Wisconsin) took the drastic measure of making it a misdemeanor for certain people to engage in sexual intercourse. All of these policies became known as “negative eugenics” – the idea that by restricting the unfit from breeding, humanity could eventually weed out criminals, the insane, and the abnormal from the population. It is important to note that many people viewed negative eugenics as a legitimate medical pursuit, rather than some crackpot idea embraced by extremists only. In fact, a diverse group of people believed in negative eugenics as a solution to the world’s problems – branches of feminism, socialism, capitalism, conservatives and leftists alike, often advocated these practices.

Although not everyone embraced the idea of negative eugenics, “positive eugenics,” on the contrary, became part an important part of American popular culture throughout the twentieth century. Positive eugenics promoted the idea that we could improve the human stock by encouraging people with the best genetic material to breed. Many state and local governments, as well as private organizations, endorsed better breeding in a variety of interesting ways. For example, in the 1920s “Fitter Family” and “Better Baby” contests became quite a popular fad within American culture. These contests were often held at state fairs and participants were often judged alongside agricultural produce competitions. Contests sponsored by the American Eugenics Society often included signage like the one below, which mixed messages of positive and negative eugenic ideology.

After the smoke cleared from World War II, and the atrocities of the Holocaust became evident to the world, eugenics, especially negative eugenics, began to fall out of favor. States slowly began to outlaw sterilization practices and many states repealed or weakened their eugenic marriage laws. Some states, like North Carolina, continued to quietly sterilize the “unfit” well into the latter-half of the twentieth century until activists called attention to the barbaric practice. We’ve never really rid ourselves of eugenics, however, as traces of it can still be found in popular culture. Every time I see a show like Toddlers and Tiaras, I can’t help think about how modern-day children’s beauty pageants have their roots in Better Baby Contests of the eugenic age. This thought adds a disturbing element to reality TV (As if it needed any more disturbing elements).

Negative eugenics, sadly, are still with us as well. Time Magazine ran an article awhile back on an organization called Project Prevention, which offers to pay drug users $300 to undergo a sterilization procedure. Established in 1997 (and ironically, based in North Carolina), Project Prevention has, as of 2010, worked with 3,371 addicts across the country Of those, 1,253 have opted for sterilization, while the rest chose long-term birth control. While this is a far cry from forced sterilization, the group’s tactics raise all sorts of troubling questions – Are drug addicts capable of making informed decisions about their reproductive future — especially when coerced with money? Why does the organization mainly target women in poor and minority communities? Would our money be better spent with sex education and drug treatment programs?

Between North Carolina, Toddlers and Tiaras, and The War on Women, I am more confident than ever that Nursing Clio will be around for quite awhile. I have a feeling that there will always be something for us to talk about. For now, I will put the emergency blog kit back in the medicine cabinet.

Further Reading:

Kline, Wendy. Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Lombardo, Paul A. A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press, 2011.

Pernick, Martin S. The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Stern, Alexandra. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Emily Gilkey Palmer #

    I just really want to know what it takes to be a high grade person. I mean it seems like “the ability to do creative work” and being “fit for leadership” would both have been male characteristics at the time. So are women every high grade people? I wish I could take a magazine quiz to find out what quality of person I am.

    June 22, 2012
    • Emily Gilkey Palmer #

      *ever*. I don’t proofread so clearly I’m not all that high grade.

      June 22, 2012
  2. Emily,
    Funny enough, you could probably dig up some old issues of Ladies’ Home Journal, which was co-founded by a guy named Paul Popenoe. He called himself Dr. Poponoe even though he only had an honorary degree and he was instrumental in California’s eugenics program of sterilization. Anyway, in the LHJ, he often ran articles and quizes about marriage fitness and whether one was eugenically fit for marriage. You can read more about this gem of a guy in the Stern book I mentioned above…or you could just find some old copies of LHJ at a garage sale and take a test to see if you are “high grade” :)

    June 22, 2012
  3. Dominique Millette #

    It’s interesting (and sad) how few people realize that the Nazis got their inspiration from American social Darwinism.

    June 24, 2012
  4. I find it interesting that NC got such a late start (1929). With 3 R’s in North Carolina until the 80’s being Reading, Writing, and The Road To Richmond, perhaps Buck V Bell (1927) was NC’s inspiration. As for the Nazi’s inspiration, it was Virginia specifically and Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act that Germany patterned their programs after. Herr Walter A. Plecker (as he is referred to in post WWII archives found at the Library of Virginia) had a long history of eugenics and the clerical genocide of the Virginia Indians and wished aloud he had more latitude as the Germans did. And lest we make the mistake of just focusing on the South, look to Cold Spring Harbor. Beyond today’s trash telly, eugenics was entrenched, and still has remnants, in American medicine.

    July 20, 2012

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