The eugenics movement was about more than physical health. Eugenicists were concerned with what was good for society, so they took more than just physical condition into consideration when determining who ought to be sterilized. For instance, some were sterilized for the possession of traits like pauperism, criminality, or sexual immorality: traits that did not promote the social good. As gender concerns the socially expected roles that come with being a male or a female, it should come as no surprise that individuals were often treated in markedly different ways based on their gender, with women being more likely than men to be sterilized for behaviours that stood in violation of society’s dominant and conservative moral order.
The “Mother” and the “Moron” In her book, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom, Wendy Kline notes that the American eugenics movement used two very different models of femininity. On one hand, there was the “Mother of Tomorrow,” a woman who embodied the eugenic vision of racial progress: by focusing her energies on her domestic duties and her role as a mother and homemaker, this woman would help to restore society’s moral order and reinforce male dominance in the public sphere. She reaffirmed the “cult of true womanhood,” which, positioned women as arbiters of morality within the home and dissuaded them from asserting too much social, or sexual, independence. The “Mother of Tomorrow” was a symbol of positive eugenics, and her purpose was to encourage middle class white women—considered to be the most mentally and physically sound, and therefore the most able to lead the advancement of civilization—to bear children and raise them with a particular set of conservative values, promoting the gendered status quo.
The other model used by American eugenicists was that of the “Moron Girl,” a high grade feebleminded woman with a mental age of between eight to twelve years. According to Henry Goddard, what set morons apart from so-called “normal” people—who had a mental age of thirteen or more years—was the ability to master morality: the feebleminded did not have the mental capacity necessary to master their primitive impulses, and this inability stemmed from a genetic flaw. In the case of the “Moron Girl”, the flaw was expressed through her “lax sexual etiquette,” as well as her desire to work outside the domestic sphere and demand social privileges typically only accorded to men. She was everything that the “Mother of Tomorrow” was not, and she would lead to the downfall of society unless eugenicists stepped in to solve the problem by preventing her from reproducing, thus eliminating this kind of “high grade feeblemindedness” and lack of moral control in future generations.
Gendered Eugenics in Alberta The same trend can be observed in the Alberta eugenics movement. Jana Grekul has examined the link between eugenics and gender in Alberta, and in a 2004 paper showed that more women than men were presented to the Alberta Eugenics Board for sterilization: a figure which is not the result of there simply being more women in the province’s mental health institutions. Women living in these institutions were twice as likely as men to be brought before the Board, and women amounted to 58 percent of the total 2,834 individuals sterilized in the province.
These numbers, however, only tell half the story. In another, more focused, paper, Grekul (2008) examined the files of patients who were brought before the Board for sterilization, and made several interesting observations with respect to the files of women who were sterilized. The relevant section of the file was the “family history,” where mental health professionals compiled information on the conditions that plagued the families of those individuals presented for sterilization. According to Grekul, of all the cases presented to the Eugenics Board, a suspicious or problematic family history was documented in only 38 percent of these. The remaining 62 percent of cases were ones in which there was either no history given, a history of alcoholism or other character defects, and those in which there was no adverse family history at all.
Following Kline, Grekul notes a shift in eugenic policy from negative to positive in the post World War II era, and a shift in focus from strictly genetic or health related problems to so-called “environmental disorders.” Problems of the latter sort had to do with the inability to participate “correctly” in society, and the expectations to which individuals were subject depended on what was expected of members of their gender. Men were expected to be protectors and providers, which led to the tendency to sterilize male criminals, homosexuals, rapists, and paupers. In the case of women promiscuity appeared to be of a particular concern: according to Grekul, a mention of promiscuous behaviour was made in 8 percent of female family histories in the 1930s, compared to the same being mentioned in the history of only 0.8 percent of men. Eugenicists were also concerned with other behaviours that were deemed “unsuitable” in women, such as depression after childbirth, and those that would have failed to provide the best environment for raising future children, for example, a woman raising a number of children in the absence of a husband. It was not necessary for the patients themselves to exhibit any of these behaviours, and was enough for them to have been raised by a single, promiscuous, or hysterical mother.
There was also a marked difference in the content of the sexual history section of these files. This is another area where a majority of female sexual histories contain some mention of promiscuity or the inability to exhibit sexual restraint. Male sexual histories also contain mention of promiscuous behaviour but the nature of that behaviour differs: for men, the issue is sex with prostitutes, while the problem for women is having multiple sexual partners outside of marriage. Further, in the case of women, eugenicists showed concern for their potential to be promiscuous, and in several cases there had been no actual promiscuous behaviour, there being only the concern that the women in question would respond “positively and rather easily” to sexual advances made by the opposite gender. And, again, the problem was not that men would make advances on women: the problem was that women would be receptive to those advances.
One thing that these histories indicate is that some of the women sterilized under the Alberta Eugenics Act may have been otherwise “normal” by psychiatric standards and were only “deviant” insofar as their sexual behaviour (or the sexual behaviour of their mothers) did not conform to social expectations. This data, along with Kline’s observations about the “Mother” and the “Moron,” offer support for the idea that eugenics was about more than healthy populations: it was about protecting or promoting a particular way of life and particular set of conservative family values and gendered expectations.
Gendered “Newgenics” Differential treatment on the basis of gender can even be observed in certain “newgenic” practices. Consider first the practice of female selective abortion (FSA), which involves the selective termination of foetuses revealed as female. This practice has been best documented in China where, according to Cecilia Lai-wan Chan, the preference for a son grows out of deeply rooted Daoist and Confucian belief systems that identify distinct roles for sons and daughters. Sons are exclusively able to perform certain religious rites, and they are permanent members of their family of birth: they carry on the family name, and provide economic support to their parents when they are old, disabled, or ill. Daughters, on the other hand, are seen as merely temporary members of their family of birth: upon marriage they will assume their husband’s name and join his family, and will thus help him to support his parents in their old age. These very different gender roles, coupled with China’s “one child policy,” has led to the selective termination of (estimated) many millions of female foetuses, which has in turn resulted in a sex ratio at birth in China of more than 116 boys to 100 girls.
The sterilization of women and girls has also continued beyond the end of the “official” eugenics movement. In 2013, it was reported that the state of California sterilized nearly 150 female inmates, without the required state approvals, between 2006 and 2010. According to reports, the women in question were targeted when they were pregnant, and were selected for sterilization because they were deemed likely to return to prison in the future. The sterilization of the intellectually disabled has also continued, notably in Australia where, until 1992, girls and young women with intellectual disabilities did not have equal legal protection. Since 1992, applications for sterilization have required approval from Australia’s Family Court, though research suggests that there is noncompliance regarding this law. Writing about the cases which did receive approval through Family Court between 1992 and 2001, Susan Brady shows that those sterilizations were not about medical problems, but were instead about social values, notions of worth, and assumptions about the nature of young women with disabilities: these women were sterilized because they were deemed unable to deal with menstruation or use alternative forms of contraception, and because their behaviour could easily be misinterpreted by men, making them vulnerable to sexual abuse. As was the case in Alberta and the United States in the height of eugenics, these are cases of women being sterilized because they fail to adhere to traditional gender norms governing femininity and motherhood.
Brady, Susan M. (2001). Sterilization of girls and women with intellectual disabilities: Past and present justifications. Violence Against Women , 7, 432-461.
Carey, Allison C. (1998). Gender and compulsory sterilization programs in America: 1907-1950. Journal of Historical Sociology, 11, 74-105.
Chan, C.L., Blyth, E., & Chan C.H. (2006). Attitudes to and practices regarding sex selection in China. Prenatal Diagnosis , 26, 610-613.
Grekul, Jana. (2008). Sterilization in Alberta, 1928 to 1972: Gender matters. Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue canadienne de sociologie, 45(3), 247-266.
Johnson, Corey. (2013). Female inmates sterilized in California prisons without approval. The Center for Investigative Reporting. Retrieved from http://cironline.org/reports/female-inmates-sterilized-california-prisons-without-approval-4917
Kline, Wendy. (2001). Building a better race: gender, sexuality, and eugenics from the turn of the century to the baby boom. Berkeley: University of California Press.