Motherhood has always been central to eugenics, for women are primarily responsible for the bearing and rearing of children, and eugenics aims to improve the quality of the human population through “better” breeding and reproduction. Since the late nineteenth century, white women who were affluent, educated, and respectable have been encouraged to have children, while those who were poor, uneducated, exhibited unconventional sexual behaviour, had a mental or physical disability, or came from the “wrong” racial or ethnic background have been disparaged as unfit. The most hurtful eugenics policies, such as child removal and coerced sterilization, were reserved for persons considered unfit.
“Mothers of the Race”?
“Eugenic” ideas have shaped pregnancy and parenting in almost every society. Most parents wish for a “normal, healthy” baby, and the notion that responsible or intelligent people make the best parents is commonplace. In the twentieth century, however, new developments in science and medical technology, along with the organized eugenics movement and the growing power of the state, transformed these vague sensibilities about health and normality into far-reaching, coercive social policies.
Four broad ideas shaped the eugenics approach to motherhood in the early twentieth century, a turbulent era shaped by industrialization and mass immigration: (1) the idealization of motherhood; (2) the fear of “race suicide;” (3) a growing faith in science; and (4) the conviction that social problems could be prevented through purposeful government action.
Idealization of motherhood:
Eugenic thinking about the family was influenced by the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity, which defined middle-class women primarily as mothers and romanticized their separate sphere in the home. Since women, by their very nature, were thought to be nurturing, selfless, passionless, and domestic, the woman who did not exhibit these characteristics --because of race, class, disability, or behaviour -- was condemned as unnatural and unfit.
Fear of “Race Suicide”:
The eugenics movement developed during a period of mass immigration (1880-1920), when many old-stock North Americans worried that the declining birth rate among English Protestants would lead to “race suicide.” Political leaders, such as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, urged upper-class women to fulfill their womanly duty to have children and denounced the individual who deliberately avoided motherhood as a “criminal against the race.” Although the term “race suicide” fell out of fashion after the First World War, the eugenics-based fear that a multitude of inferior “others” is overly fertile persists. Concern about the impact of a differential birth rate can still be seen in complaints that immigrants and poor women are having children they cannot afford and in apocalyptic warnings about the “birth dearth” in the developed world.
Faith in Science:
Eugenics was closely associated with the ideal of “scientific motherhood,” which held that mothers needed scientific knowledge and expert assistance to raise healthy children; mother-love alone was not sufficient. Since few child health experts drew a sharp line between nature and nurture, mothers were taught that if they followed the experts’ advice about temperance, hygiene, and the need for better homes, they could take credit for “race betterment.” Conversely, poor housekeeping and inappropriate behaviour, such as drinking while pregnant, could damage the next generation and lead to racial decline. Whether she was cast as fit or unfit, the mother was held responsible for the health of her children – and, by extension, the “race.”
Optimism for Government Action:
Unlike an earlier generation of Social Darwinists who took a “laissez-faire” approach and viewed disease as a natural way to weed out the unfit, eugenicists in the twentieth century emphasized the importance of state action. They worried that reform efforts to improve the environment and establish child health and welfare programs mostly benefited the unfit and would therefore weaken the race, and so they looked to government to prevent the reproduction of the so-called unfit through marriage restrictions, sexual segregation, and sterilization laws.
“More children from the fit, less from the unfit”: Motherhood and Eugenics
Eugenics had two complementary aims, expressed in the above slogan falsely attributed to the American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Positive eugenics aimed to increase the proportion of the population that was considered superior. Negative eugenics aimed to reduce the population considered unfit. Positive and negative eugenics policies targeted different populations, but they were two sides of the same coin.
Positive eugenics, which encouraged motherhood among the “fit,” can be achieved through law and public policy, such as the baby bonus, tax policies favouring married couples with children, and legal restrictions on birth control or abortion. However, the most effective positive eugenics measures aimed to persuade rather than compel: marriage counseling, fitter family contests, TV shows promoting suburban domesticity during the 1950s baby boom, and shrill warnings about professional women’s “biological clock.” Positive eugenics can also be seen in today’s consumerist quest for a “perfect baby.” Sperm banks, egg donors, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and other reproductive technologies allow affluent parents to screen for personality, intelligence, and physique; they also add to the pressure on mothers to produce a “better” baby. At the same time, reproductive technologies can also be used for eugenic resistance: individuals traditionally prohibited from reproduction—because they were single, older, gay, lesbian, transgendered, or had a disability – can use reproductive technologies to become parents.
Negative eugenics achieved far more legislative-policy success than positive eugenics in both Canada and the U.S. Thirty-two U.S. states and two Canadian provinces passed eugenic sterilization laws, leading to the sterilization of more than 60,000 individuals, but child removal was even more common. Families in which one or more member was “unfit” were often broken apart. Children and adults with physical or mental disabilities were sent to public institutions, such as the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives (later the Michener Centre) in Red Deer, Alberta. Canada’s policy of removing Indigenous children from their homes and sending them to residential schools also correlates with eugenics.
Women with disabilities and poor women of colour have been particularly vulnerable to reproductive coercion. Stereotyped as drug-addicted, alcoholic, incompetent, or abusive, they are often blamed for the poverty and supposed defects of their children. Many have their reproductive rights denied and their children taken away. In Canada, more Indigenous children are in foster care today than attended residential schools at their height. In the U.S., the War on Drugs and punitive welfare-to-work programs led to a dramatic increase in the prison population and an astonishingly high rate of foster care. In 2013, media reports of female inmates illegally sterilized in California prisons and a government inquiry into the forced sterilization of women with disabilities in Australia brought public attention to the awful durability of eugenics.
How Have Mothers Responded to Eugenics?
Mothers have played a central role in both the eugenics and anti-eugenics movements. In the first half of the twentieth century, many women’s organizations, including the United Farm Women of Alberta and the National Council of Women of Canada, embraced eugenics, broadly defined. They used the language of motherhood to lobby for child health and welfare programs they said would improve the human “race.” Feminists and sex radicals claimed that the legalization of birth control would result in superior offspring and racial betterment. In the name of protecting children, some women’s organizations supported the sterilization of potential parents they considered unfit.
Women have also been eugenics resisters. When white women insisted on remaining “child-free” or fought to win acceptance and services for their mixed-race children and children with disabilities, they defied eugenics pressures. So too did unmarried mothers, welfare mothers, mothers with disabilities, and LGBT parents who asserted their right to have and raise their own children. Although most resistance took place at an individual level, a few women’s organizations resisted eugenics. Beginning in the 1940s, mothers (and fathers) of children with intellectual disabilities lobbied for educational programs and community services for people with disabilities, paving the way for the disability rights movement. Feminist groups, such as the Committee for Abortion Rights and Sterilization Abuse (CARASA), fought coercive sterilization in the 1970s. Today, disability rights organizations challenge future mothers to think about prenatal testing as a form of eugenics, and the U.S.-based National Advocates for Pregnant Women works to secure the civil and human rights of pregnant women who have been labeled unfit. More than a century after the eugenics movement began, eugenic ideas about fit and unfit motherhood continue to shape cultural attitudes, social policy, and mothers’ everyday experience.
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