By Joy L. Rankin
During the Progressive Era, when massive immigration, urbanization, and industrialization transformed the nation and left many of the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP) middle-to-upper class reeling, eugenics promised a path to fitter families, so-called racial purity, and renewed national strength. Eugenicists sought to curtail the expansion of American democracy embodied by the enfranchisement of former slaves, women, and new citizens from eastern and southern Europe, Asia, and Mexico. They deployed their science for politically anti-democratic and authoritarian ends.
In both the United States and Great Britain, Eugenics flourished as a science alongside the growth of classical genetics during the opening decades of the 20th century. Indeed, many of the scientists now credited with putting genetics on modern footing embraced eugenics as part of their research programs. Francis Galton, a British scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin’s, developed the term to mean “well born” or even “better breeding.” Around 1900, renewed attention to the research of Gregor Mendel added steam to the eugenic cause. Mendel’s theories of heredity, in which dominant and recessive traits passed along from generation to generation, offered eugenicists and geneticists (many scientists were both) the scientific framework to advocate for the “improvement” of the human species. They aimed to increase “desirable” traits in the population and to decrease “undesirable” traits.
Scientists who studied both genetics and eugenics included Charles Davenport and his Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, Raymond Pearl and Herbert Jennings of Johns Hopkins, Clarence C. Little, then the president of the University of Michigan, and Edward East and William Castle at Harvard. Many American universities offered eugenics courses, or genetics courses with significant coverage of eugenics. The cereal titan John Harvey Kellogg established the sizable Race Betterment Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1906. Nearly a decade later, advocates for race betterment from across the country gathered at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
The American Eugenics Society erected displays at state fairs and national celebrations, such as the national Sesquicentennial Celebration in Philadelphia in 1926, using representations of Mendelian inheritance to promote better breeding and fitter families. One eugenics poster declared, “Unfit Human Traits Such As Feeblemindedness, Epilepsy, Criminality, Insanity, Alcoholism, Pauperism and Many Others, Run In Families And Are Inherited In Exactly The Same Way As Color In Guinea-Pigs. If All Marriages Were Eugenic We Could Breed Out Most Of This Unfitness In Three Generations.” The American Eugenics Society exhibit at the 1929 Kansas State Fair presented the ubiquitous “Color Inheritance in Guinea Pigs,” a not-so-subtle nod to the social construction and elevation of whiteness in the United States. The “Eugenic and Health Exhibit” also differentiated between “positive” eugenics (encouraging individuals who were deemed fit and desirable to breed more) and “negative” eugenics (encouraging individuals who were deemed unfit to breed less, or not at all). These public spectacles brokered the marriage of eugenic science with American civic authority. State fairs and sesquicentennial exhibitions performed American federalism and nationalism, and eugenic goals—fundamentally aimed to curtail participation in American democracy—were embedded in these communal celebrations.
Not surprisingly, one of the main thrusts of the eugenics movement was immigration reform, leading to the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act. The 1924 Act greatly curtailed immigration from southern and eastern European nations, whose immigrants were viewed in the United States as non-white. The Act yielded increased policing along the Mexican-American border. Immigration from Asia had already been greatly restricted, with similar nativist impulse, prior to 1910.
Policing gender and sexuality were at the heart of eugenics, advancing the authoritarian impulse over individual freedom. Historians including Alexandra Minna Stern, Wendy Kline, and Johanna Schoen have convincingly argued that attention to gender and sexuality recasts eugenic segregation, sterilization, and family counseling as circumscribing the boundaries of heteronormative white womanhood. Eugenics placed the responsibility for racial and family fitness firmly on women, predominantly affluent, married WASP women. They were encouraged to reproduce and provide a nurturing home and family environment, and working women (white or nonwhite) were discouraged from childbearing at all. The former were the “mothers of tomorrow,” while the latter, labeled “morons,” “symbolized the danger of female sexuality unleashed”
In Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom, Wendy Kline analyzes the history of the Sonoma California State Home for the Feebleminded in California to trace the eugenic-inspired shift from segregating “morons” to sterilizing them. She explains, “Initially, eugenicists believed that quarantining the female ‘high-grade moron’ would prevent sexually promiscuous women from infecting the race. But by the 1910s, promiscuous sexual behavior had spread into the middle classes…sterilization gained popularity as an efficient way to prevent the spread of mental and moral deficiency to future generations.” Ultimately, the state of California performed 20,000 sterilizations, one-third of the 60,000 performed in the nation during the 20th century. (Indiana had passed the first sterilization law in 1907, and many other states rushed to jump on the eugenics bandwagon.)
The preferences of the privileged intersected with a powerful state sterilization program in Virginia in the case Buck v. Bell, decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1927. The Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s compulsory sterilization laws. The state of Virginia wanted to sterilize Carrie Buck on its declared evidence that she was feeble-minded, and that feeble-mindedness was hereditary in the Buck line. Carrie Buck birthed a child (Vivian) out of wedlock because she was raped by a member of her foster family, and the state falsely claimed that Carrie’s mother had also birthed Carrie as a single mother. The state labeled Carrie feeble-minded and socially immoral, and sought to sterilize her to further limit the spread of her “undesirable” traits. In his decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes conveyed that individual rights had to be sacrificed for the greater public good. He 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 are enough.
Holmes invoked a common good that was a patriarchal, paternalistic, racist and sexist privilege. In other words, eugenics elevated the authority of a select few, who were WASP men, over individual rights.
And herein lies perhaps one of the great ironies of the eugenics movement and its legacy. As the historian Daniel J. Kevles articulates, “An unabashed distrust, even contempt, for democracy characterized a part of eugenic thinking in both Britain and America.” The priests and proselytizers of eugenics distrusted the democracy that had been slowly expanding to include former slaves, women voters and working women, and immigrants. In their zeal for better breeding, the eugenicists turned their science into a tool of domination. And ultimately, for a time, they turned liberalism to hateful, exclusionary ends.
Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics, paperback ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
Wendy Kline, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom, paperback ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
Johanna Schoen, Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, paperback ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).