Caldwell on Ladd-Taylor, 'Fixing the Poor: Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century'

Molly Ladd-Taylor. Fixing the Poor: Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. 304 pp. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-2372-2.

Reviewed by Holly Caldwell (Chestnut Hill College)
Published on H-Disability (June, 2018)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version:

Until the late nineteenth century, persistent poverty was viewed as a moral failing or retribution for sin. With the introduction of pseudo-scientific classifications (and later eugenics) in the 1870s, poverty came to be viewed as an innate flaw that could be understood through science and reversed with the adoption of a proper living environment. This neo-Lamarckian set of beliefs maintained that undesirable traits were inherited and would be passed down to future generations, potentially placing undue economic and social burdens on the nation.

Fixing the Poor: Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century is a social history of one US state's sterilization program and the ways in which its eugenicist policies affected individuals labeled as feeble-minded on local and, to some degree, national levels. Drawing on Minnesota as a case study, historian Molly Ladd-Taylor examines how Minnesota's state-sponsored eugenic sterilization laws were part of a larger social welfare program to reform its poor, "feeble-minded" population. Unlike other states, such as Indiana, California, and North Carolina, which adopted aggressive policies and often race-oriented forced sterilization campaigns, Minnesota might not immediately come to mind when one thinks of the history of eugenics and sterilization in the United States. Yet Ladd-Taylor convincingly shows that this localized history broadens our understanding of the nation's sterilization programs. As she puts it, Minnesota's sterilization program was quite unremarkable when compared to more aggressive campaigns, which "helps us understand the operation of an ‘ordinary' sterilization program" (p. 120).

This book is equally appropriate for audiences who specialize in the histories of eugenics, social welfare, and disability as well as readers with little to no knowledge of these fields of study. A concise introduction situates the case of Minnesota within the broader context of the nation's eugenics movement. Through six chronological chapters, Ladd-Taylor traces the late nineteenth-century origins of Minnesota's eugenics movement, when charity reformers were concerned that "too-generous assistance was weakening the character of the recipient," through its official end in the late twentieth century (p. 27).

Drawing on institutional and medical records, Ladd-Taylor offers a ground-level analysis of feeble-minded individuals who found themselves subject to examination, compulsory institutionalization, and at times, sterilization. The adoption of the 1917 Children's Code, a set of laws that modernized Minnesota's child welfare system, also inspired Minnesota officials to legalize the compulsory institutionalization of individuals who embodied such characteristics as dependency, delinquency, or defectiveness, comprehensively known as the "Three Ds" (p. 30). According to Ladd-Taylor, the Children's Code later paved the way for comprehensive legislation permitting sterilization. Created in 1925, the sterilization bureau operated from the state children's bureau and targeted young women who were deemed feeble-minded. While the legislation was technically gender-neutral, these policies overwhelmingly targeted women and likely resulted in the "intense medicalization" of women's bodies (p. 126). Such targeted sterilization practices and policies were used to "establish the boundaries of 'normal' feminine behavior" (p. 122). Ladd-Taylor concludes that while the Children's Code "confronted the stigma of illegitimacy, modernized adoption principles, and hastened the shift away from orphanages and institutional care for poor children and toward community services and the chance to live at home," it also prescribed (often unrealistic) behavioral norms and economic standards on the poor (p. 56).

These economic standards were shaped in large part by the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601. This set of laws categorized the poor into two distinct groups—the deserving and the undeserving. In short, the deserving poor were those whose poverty was through no fault of their own. The undeserving poor, on the other hand, were poor because of personal vices, such as laziness, promiscuity, or other character flaws. Although individuals who were categorized as feeble-minded fell into the former category, three major developments of the early twentieth century—prohibition, the fight against venereal disease, and the army intelligence tests—collided with growing concern over the economic and social impact of illegitimacy and thus intensified eugenicist concerns about "mental degeneration and the menace of the feebleminded" (p. 59).

The post-World War I era ushered in the simultaneous expansion of child welfare and state intervention in private lives. Such shifts allowed for Minnesota courts to make feeble-minded commitments and bring "many individuals under state control who would not have been considered feebleminded a decade earlier” (p. 59). There were many gradations of what determined feeble-mindedness. In some cases, it was used as a generic term to categorize individuals on the basis of race, criminality, or (perceived) promiscuity. In other cases, the term was applied to those who exhibited abnormal behavior or characteristics (which could be as simple as regional differences), wayward tendencies, or other vaguely defined mental deficiencies. In addition, any behaviors that seemed atypical, out of place or potentially “offensive to the sensibilities of progressive reformers” might cause one to be labeled as feeble-minded (p. 84). In Ladd-Taylor's telling, the opaque and ever-shifting definition of feeble-mindedness allowed for increased state-sponsored control of Minnesota's poor.

Interestingly, sterilization became a vital part of Minnesota's public welfare system during the 1930s, a period during which preexisting views of who might have been considered feeble-minded were overturned. The Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by the wartime economy boom of the 1940s, provided factory-based job opportunities to individuals who might have been considered incapable or indolent in earlier decades. This wartime economic growth translated into a shift in discourse over how the poor were viewed as the war drew "boundaries between the ‘good' feebleminded persons who deserved a chance at a normal life and the ‘bad' ones who had to remain institutionalized" (p. 174). While some individuals gleaned new opportunities as a result of this shift, others were relegated to continued confinement under the increasingly dismal conditions of state mental institutions.

Although Minnesota did not adopt forced sterilization laws, the practice was part of a state surveillance tool that often overwhelmingly targeted young women who were labeled feeble-minded and deemed unfit to raise or bear children because they could not adhere to the unattainable ideals of motherhood set forth by policymakers. Such labels often reinforced the cycle of poverty, an economic reality that undoubtedly led to their having been diagnosed defective or feeble-minded in the first place. While Fixing the Poor highlights the shifts in Minnesota's eugenics policies from the late nineteenth century through the 1970s, the book's conclusion presents a grim, though not entirely surprising, take on the continuity of thinly veiled eugenics policies in the United States. Instruments of control now take the shape of child welfare and criminal justice systems, which often brand welfare-dependent individuals as lazy, undeserving, and in some cases, unfit for parenthood. Fixing the Poor should appeal to historians of eugenics, social welfare, and disability and women's studies, but also readers who are interested in how local, "ordinary" histories can complicate and broaden our understanding of national and global trends.

Citation: Holly Caldwell. Review of Ladd-Taylor, Molly, Fixing the Poor: Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018.

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