Dissertation Blog #1: Writing Gender into Eugenics

Amy Carney's picture


Writing Gender into Eugenics

Wendy Kline


I find it hard to believe that it was nearly thirty years ago. I was seated in the reading room of the California state library in downtown Sacramento, a first-year graduate student in history at UC Davis. It was a moment I won’t ever forget, and one that I regularly share with my students. I do it to remind them that doing research into the past is always an adventure, and frequently one that you don’t control. The documents, the stories, draw you in, providing more questions than answers, encouraging you to explore.


I was in search of a first-year M.A. research project, under the direction of Professor Karen Haltunnen. Broadly speaking, I was interested in women’s history, reproductive health, and mental health issues in the Progressive Era. I had read Richard W. Fox’s book, So Far Disordered in Mind: Insanity in California, 1870-1930, and discovered some intriguing footnotes that led me to materials in the California State Library. The first document to land in my lap was a 1925 report on a “survey of Sonoma State Home Waiting List,” published by the State Board of Charities and Corrections. The official title of the institution was the “Sonoma State Home for the Feebleminded.” A waiting list to enter a home for the “feebleminded”? What was this about? A typical Progressive-era style pie chart detailed the status of over 1,000 “applicants” who could not reside at Sonoma due to overcrowding. It was followed by a sample list of twenty-two cases, describing an individual’s condition and why they needed to be institutionalized. Two things immediately stood out to me: first, the fact that, according to the pie chart, hundreds of these applicants had “urgent” cases requiring “sterilization.” And the second thing that caught my eye was that the majority of the cases – twenty-one of the twenty-two – were female, all between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one. In all of these twenty-one cases, their sexual behavior was targeted as an indicator of their alleged deficiency.


Because I had never even heard of eugenics, the next step was to steep myself in the literature. Several histories of eugenics existed – the two main ones being Mark Haller’s Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought (Rutgers University Press, 1963) and Daniel Kevles’ In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (University of California Press, 1985). But none of the scholarly works I encountered had anything at all to say about gender. This inspired me to keep digging, and I spent the next several months conducting research on the history of the Sonoma State Home.


My first-year graduate research paper provided a detailed analysis of this institution. I argued that the story of the Sonoma Home – its patients, practitioners, methods, and policies – dramatized the sweeping transformation of mental deficiency from a treatable disease to a sexually loaded, gender-specific, permanent condition requiring either life-long institutionalization or sexual sterilization. Founded in 1884, the Home was originally an institution for the education and training of mentally disabled children, “to fit them, as far as possible, for future usefulness.” [1] But after the emergence of eugenics in Progressive-era America, Sonoma changed radically. Between 1910 and 1920, the inmate population increased by over fifty percent (making it the fastest-growing public institution in the state), and the largest new “type” targeted for incarceration was the female “high-grade moron.” [2] This dramatic institutional growth and the emphasis on female sexuality underscored the conflation of race and gender anxieties in eugenic ideology, explaining why female moral offenders would be housed in an institution for the “feebleminded.”


With the encouragement and skill of my first-rate advisor, Karen Halttunen, I continued working on this project for the next five years, turning it from a chapter into a dissertation and finally into a book, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (University of California Press, 2001). The final project ventured far beyond the history of one institution and well past the Progressive era. I discovered that Paul Popenoe, one of the main eugenic leaders of the early twentieth century, went on to initiate the marriage counseling boom in the mid-twentieth century, and for nearly twenty years had a popular advice column in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Drawing on archival materials, I was able to argue that the pronatalist culture of the 1950s had its roots in the eugenics campaign that had begun decades earlier. (I wrote a blog about this aspect of eugenics for PBS.)


It has been nearly twenty years since the publication of Building a Better Race, and I’ve been delighted to see the ways in which the field has expanded since then. There is no longer any question as to whether gender is relevant to our understanding of eugenics, a relief after trying to convince higher-ups that it mattered back when I was a graduate student and young scholar. I was particularly thrilled to see my work, along with others such as Alexandra Minna Stern’s, featured in the PBS documentary, The Eugenics Crusade, which first aired in fall 2018.


After finishing this project, I found myself needing to research more uplifting projects, and moved on to books on women’s health activism, midwifery, and now psychedelic psychiatry. But nothing can replace the delightful curiosity of that first journey as a graduate student into the archives, that stimulated a burning desire to understand and write about such an important aspect of our nation’s past.


[1] California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children, Circular of Information, (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1887), 10.


[2] State Board of Charities and Corrections, Biennial Report (Sacramento: State Printing Office, 1922), 49.



Wendy Kline is the Dema G. Seelye Chair in the History of Medicine at Purdue University. Her publications have primarily focused on controversies surrounding women’s reproductive health. Her first book, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (University of California Press, 2001), emphasizes the American eugenic movement’s interaction with popular notions of gender and morality during the first half of the twentieth century. Her second book, Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave (University of Chicago Press, 2010) reveals the ways in which women challenged, expanded, and reinvented constructions of the female body and particular reproductive health in the late twentieth century. Her third book, Coming Home: How Midwives Changed Birth (Oxford University Press, 2019) analyzes the ideas, values, and experiences that led to a quiet revolution in birthing practices in the 20th century U.S. and its long-term consequences for our understanding of birth, medicine, and culture.