Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Progressive Era America: Eugenics

Progressive Era America: Eugenics

What Do You Mean I Can't Marry Him?

        Elsa stared silently towards Juliette in shock. Can’t marry her? “Why would you forbid our union when you have welcomed me into your home and your family?”
Juliette answered, “If there were some other way I would not hesitate to support my son in his decision. I want you as my daughter. I already love you as if you were my own.”
“Then why take this from him?”
“It’s not me, Elsa. Ohio Law forbids any person who has epilepsy, is a drunkard, an imbecile, or insane from obtaining a marriage license or marrying.”
“But Franklin is none of those.”
“It doesn’t matter, Elsa. When he applies for the marriage license the county clerk will ask him, under oath, to testify he does not suffer from epilepsy, is not a drunkard, imbecile, or insane. He can’t lie to the courts about that.”

Today's topic of discussion is a touchy one and it might disturb some of my readers to know that before Nazi Germany practiced Eugenics it had long been established in the United States as the norm. What is Eugenics? Webster's Dictionary defines eugenics as "a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed." The term was first used in 1883 but the science had been in practiced long before that. 

Progressive Era Americans did not view eugenics as a science but instead viewed it as a means to preserving the dominant group. The American Eugenics Movement originated with noted English scientist Sir Francis Galton. After reading Charles Darwin's theory of evolution Sir Galton concluded human could direct their own evolutionary development through selective breeding. In 1883, Sir Galton named his theory Eugenics. The Eugenic Movement quickly spread throughout the world. 

Early followers of the Eugenic Movement believed Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon peoples were the superior race. They supported anti-miscegenation laws and strict immigration laws.

The Eugenics Movement was well established in the United States by the time Nazi Germany had
A Nazi propaganda poster showing the United Staes as their ally. 
established their own Eugenic laws. In fact, they were inspired by the American Eugenic Movement. During the 1930's California had created literature to promote eugenics and sterilization. They sent the material overseas to German medical doctors. The Rockfeller Foundation aided Germany in developing their eugenic programs, including the one Josef Mengele established before he was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

In 1934, California eugenics leader C. M. Goethe; after returning from German, where more than 5,000 people per month were being forcibly sterilized; bragged to a colleague "You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought . . . I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people."

Anti-Miscegenation Laws

 Anti-miscegenation laws are laws that criminalize interracial marriages. Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Wisconsin are the only states that have never had an anti-miscegenation law. The following eleven states repealed their anti-miscegenation laws before 1887: Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington. Anti - miscegenation laws were overturned in 1967 with Loving vs Virginia. You can learn more about Anti-miscegenation laws here. http://www.tn.gov/tsla/exhibits/blackhistory/pdfs/Miscegenation%20laws.pdf

Sterilization Laws
Another set of Eugenic laws that were common in the United States were the sterilization laws. A Sterilization law forces a certain population to become sterile for face imprisonment. In the United States these populations included the disabled,"immoral", and poor. The first serious attempt in the United States to pass a sterilization law was proposed by Gordon Lincecum, a famed Texas biologist and physician in 1849. He proposed a bill in Wisconsin that would forcibly sterilize the mentally ill and other less desirables. The bill never came to a vote. A little over fifty years later, Michigan passed a sterilization law but it was vetoed by the governor.

The first state sterilization law was passed in 1907 by Indiana. Although the law was passed it wasn't a new practice for Indiana. Indiana wardens had been practicing sterilization on male inmates since 1899. Hundreds of male prisoners had been given a vasectomy from 1899 to 1907. Indiana's 1907 sterilization law focused on forcibly sterilizing rapists, confirmed criminals, and the mentally handicapped housed within state facilities. In 1909, Governor Thomas R. Marshall, halted the law when he threatened to pull funding to any institution who enacted the law. The law was repealed in 1921 when the Indiana Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional because of due process. Six years later, Indiana passed a new sterilization law. This time the law only targeted the mentally ill that were housed in the state facilities. Indiana's sterilization law was repealed in 1974. Approximately 2, 500 people were in state custody were sterilized.

Eugenic Laws

Laws throughout the United States were passed to enforce the eugenic beliefs. Although Ohio did pass a law forbidding epileptics, drunks and mentally handicapped people from marriage it never passed a sterilization law. The state had hoped by separating the feeble groups from the main population it would make Ohio families stronger.

An American Eugenics poster from the early 20th century
Eugenics were widely accepted by Americans and the academic community. Population groups targeted by the Eugenic Laws included the mentally disabled; alcoholics; epileptics; people who were blind, deaf or disabled; poor people on welfare; criminals; women deemed promiscuous; and child of rape victims. Thirty-three states practiced eugenics. Most of their victims came from the mental institutions and prisons. At first the eugenics only targeted the mentally ill but as the years passed their list grew to include the other sub groups. It was not uncommon for a poor African American woman to give birth in the hospital only to be sterilized soon after. The doctor would tell her that her appendix needed to be removed and they would have to operate. She would consent to that only to wake up to find she could no longer bear children. 

It is estimated 65,000 Americans were victims of the forced sterilization. ABC News reported in 2011, of the 33 states who had sterilization programs only seven have issued a public apology to the victims or acknowledgement of the program. The suggested compensation for each sterilization crime has been established to be between $20,000 to $50,000 per living victim. Most of these victims have died but their families still face the agony and grief that was done to their family member by their state government.

Eugenics are alive and well. There is a current movement in the United States to enact sterilization laws against pedophiles and rapists. 


  1. Whoa. Super interesting! I teach culture studies, and most of my students are not aware of any of this.
    On an unrelated note: Welcome to A to Z! If you plan on having a theme, hop on over an sign up for the
    A to Z theme reveal blogfest!
    #TeamDamyanti minion

    1. Thank you! Cultural studies is one of my favorite subjects. I have a background in cultural anthropology, archaeology and history.
      Will do.