Seducing the 'Feeble-Minded'

By Adam R. Shapiro

In 1915, Boston school leaders were not happy about George W. Hunter’s Civic Biology, Presented in Problems, a biology textbook submitted for their consideration. Word came to the American Book Company’s editorial rooms that there was an objection to their textbook’s discussion of eugenics, which made use of a recent study of the “Kallikak” family. The textbook traced the Kallikak family to the War of the Revolution, “when a young soldier named Martin Kallikak seduced a feeble-minded girl.” It further described the Kallikak family as a “terrible line of immorality and feeble-mindedness” that spanned several generations of degenerate offspring, at a great (and preventable!) expense to society. Hunter’s depiction of Kallikak, and the backlash his textbook prompted, illustrates how American eugenics co-opted state power to reinforce gendered views of sexual agency and moral responsibility.

American eugenics took many forms in the early 20th century, from state-imposed sterilization laws to Fitter Family contests to laws restricting immigrants based on race or nationality. In the US, eugenic applications of heredity were often paired with theories of scientific racism to justify appalling treatment of minorities, especially African-Americans and Native Americans. Much of the language of American white supremacy today renews use of these state and social efforts to control the genetic makeup of the country. In some cases, eugenics obscured explicit racist or fascistic applications by giving a veneer of scientific respectability to racist views that were already fully developed. Not all eugenic policy was race-based, but racist and ableist applications of American eugenics were tied to a presumption of state power over the bodies of its citizens.

There are many reasons one could find a discussion of eugenics in a high school textbook objectionable: the dehumanizing advocacy of sexual sterilization and confinement in asylums, the stigmatization of mental disability through terms like “feeble-minded,” the discriminatory application of eugenics laws to target people from disadvantaged backgrounds, the unfeeling utilitarianism and threat to individual rights. But what really upset Boston’s school masters was the word “seduced.” They claimed it was too sexually explicit for high school students. They would not adopt the book unless it was changed.

When confronted by his publisher, George Hunter resisted vociferously, calling his critic “a fanatic on the matter of sex.” But the editors urged Hunter to avoid offense, and they pressured Hunter into accepting changes. A revised version of the textbook made reference instead to “the union of Martin Kallikak, a young soldier of the War of the Revolution, with a feeble-minded girl.”

Changes to individual words make a huge difference in textbooks. After the Scopes trial, Hunter’s editors removed the word “evolution” from the revised version of the Civic Biology over his fierce objections, and the editors successfully got the updated book adopted in Tennessee. Controversies over textbook content have been a recurring part of American educational history, in some cases going back to 19th century debates over portrayals of the Civil War. The political and economic importance of textbook adoptions often results in sacrificing educational context to avoid any possibility of controversy, as historian Diane Ravitch shows in her 2003 book The Language Police. Just over a year ago, publisher McGraw-Hill was strongly criticized for a geography textbook that referred to enslaved Africans forcibly brought to America as “workers.”

Word choice also makes a tremendous difference in the politics of sexual agency. Whether it’s the much-maligned idea of “legitimate rape” from the lips of an American Congressman, or the language of slut-shaming and other rhetorical devices to police women’s bodies, silence their words, or imply their own culpability in abuse, the terms used to describe sex and sexuality connote issues of power, ethics, and responsibility.  

A recent article in Teen Vogue illustrated the insidious politics behind calling enslaved women the “mistresses” of their putative owners. In that case, Lincoln Blades notes that calling Sally Hemmings the “mistress” of Thomas Jefferson” denotes a relationship predicated on mutual choice, autonomy, and affirmative consent—things slaves do not have.” Likewise, to say that Martin Kallikak “seduced” this “feeble-minded girl” is to assert something that was too often true and too rarely said of women and girls judged in this era to be feeble-minded: They were victims of sexual abuses rather than perpetrators of immoral sexual behavior.

In compelling this change to the Civic Biology, Boston's school leaders made a similar decision to erase an act of sexual violence against a woman. The publishers saw the school leaders’ objection as a (Catholic-led) effort to cut out eugenics. But this particular erasure actually restored a eugenic narrative established when the world was first introduced to the Kallikak family.

“Martin Kallikak” was the pseudonym assigned by psychologist Henry Goddard when he first published The Kallikak Family (1912.) For him, Martin was not a seducer, but rather a “natural experiment of remarkable value to the sociologist and student of heredity.” Martin’s unique value to science arose because “on leaving the Revolutionary Army, [he] straightened up and married a respectable girl of good family, and through that union has come another line of descendants of radically different character ... All of them are normal people.” To Goddard, this was proof enough that the fault for generations of “degenerate offspring” lay not with the upstanding soldier, but with the feeble-minded woman. Martin was not only absolved of genetic responsibility for his offspring, he was depicted as morally blameless as well.

In Goddard’s book, Martin Kallikak came from a “good family” but lost his father at 15. Goddard invokes militaristic nationalism to engender more sympathy for fatherless Martin, writing, “Just before attaining his majority, the young man joined one of the numerous military companies that were formed to protect the country at the beginning of the Revolution.” The patriotic orphan soldier was understandably unable to resist the combined temptations of sex and alcohol: “At one of the taverns frequented by the militia he met a feeble-minded girl by whom he became the father of a feeble-minded son.” Kallikak is absolved of any agency; the militia brought him to the tavern.

Just by meeting the “feeble-minded girl,” the passive act of becoming a father naturally follows. Writing at the height of the American temperance movement, Goddard excused Martin’s “appetite for strong drink” because it “was cultivated at a time when such practices were common everywhere.” And the most adverse consequence of Martin’s drinking was not his own immoral behavior, but that appetite for alcohol led the soldier boy into the tavern where a dangerous feeble-minded girl awaited. To the extent that Goddard shows any disapproval of Martin, it’s for his irresponsibility to the state in siring a line of costly “defectives,” not in his sexual treatment of an unnamed girl.

It’s not as if Goddard couldn’t imagine “sexual immorality.” The first Kallikak family member Goddard met, “Deborah,” was “the kind of girl or woman that fills our reformatories. They are wayward, they get into all sorts of trouble and difficulties, sexually and otherwise.” Even though Martin’s behavior was excused by the loss of his father, Deborah “born in an almshouse” to a mother who married the “prospective father of another child” was dismissed as hereditarily incapable of “straightening up” the way, Martin, her great-great-great grandfather did. “The teacher clings to the hope, indeed insists, that such a girl will come out all right. Our work with Deborah convinces us that such hopes are delusions.” The “feeble-minded girl” is capable of being a sexual agent—indeed, in Goddard’s view, “sexual immorality” was evidence of feeble-mindedness.

Goddard also described the “feeble-minded” Deborah as having the mental age of a 9 year-old. That a girl of 9, or someone intellectually or emotionally equivalent to one, could be seen as the instigator in events leading to bearing a child is appalling. Goddard admits that the state would not hold Deborah responsible for her actions, but asserts that without the asylum, she would “lead a life that would be vicious, immoral and criminal.” That these Kallikaks could be judged “sexually immoral” begs entirely the question of whether a woman like Deborah—or her thrice-great grandmother—could act in a knowing and consensual manner.

Sometimes censorship takes the form of direct state control over text. In a fascist society, the needs of the state are often internalized by its citizens, which makes possible the indirect censorship by using economic threats and fear of public reprisal. This isn’t political correctness; it's the dictation of a cultural agenda. In this context, naming Kallikak’s actions as seduction (while still a euphemism itself) is a radical subversion of gender politics, challenging the idea that “feeble-minded” women were somehow agents of sexual immorality rather than victims of it. Removing this word isn’t simply a gesture to linguistic decency; it’s imposing a state-sanctioned, socially reinforced view of gender and sex that treats sexual immorality as primarily female, and justifies state control over women’s bodies legitimated by appealing to their alleged immoral choice-making.

Roni Dean-Burren, the school parent who brought to public attention the problems with McGraw-Hill’s geography textbook, commented that in repackaging the realities of abduction and slavery, “This is what erasure looks like, folks.” The politics of erasure were also at work in American eugenics. This matters because the debate over eugenics’ legacy is also a debate over sexual and reproductive agency. And American society still equates female sexual agency with immorality, and uses the erasure of male sexual immorality to legitimate political authority.

Adam is a NSF Research Fellow at the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Philadelphia. He's the author of Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools, and he is currently working on a new project at the intersections of religions and science in America with disability and immigration studies.