Teaching Eugenics and Sterilization in U.S. Women’s History
Although I published a book on sterilization in 2009, I did not learn about eugenics until the end of my first year in graduate school. Eugenics never appeared in the 20th century US history class I took as an undergrad or any of the other classes I took to fulfill the requirements of my history major. It was not included in the US history proseminar or in any required classes I took during my graduate coursework. I stumbled upon eugenics in the spring of 1999 when I enrolled in an undergraduate course offered by Professor Elizabeth Watkins called “Sex, Population and Birth Control.” The course fit my interests and my schedule; I needed an elective and could take the course for graduate credit. I’d written about RU-486 (the abortion pill) in a history and policy seminar the previous semester and had been involved in abortion rights activism as an undergraduate. Liz’s class presented the opportunity to situate my political interests in historical context. It covered the history of contraception, abortion, population control and eugenics in America and opened up a world of scholarship that I hadn’t known existed. Liz’s class led me to my dissertation topic: voluntary and involuntary sterilization in post-World War II America. She quickly became one of my advisors, and she remains a mentor.
I taught American women’s history in graduate school twice, but fearful of leaning too hard on my own research interests, I covered eugenics and sterilization in a cursory manner. After earning my PhD in 2004, I scored a tenure-track job in US women’s history at CSU Sacramento where I was expected to teach classes in my areas of expertise and the second half of the US survey. More confident after earning my degree, I knew it was time to incorporate my research interests into my upper division US women’s history course. I began the process sixteen years ago and have been revising the course ever since in an effort to keep up with the flourishing literature produced by my colleagues studying eugenics, sterilization, and reproductive justice.
Just a few years before I earned my doctorate, Wendy Kline’s Building a Better Race brought a much needed gendered analysis to the study of eugenics and centered women in the story. Kline’s book also shifted historians’ focus from the East Coast to California. Given that I was teaching in California, just a fifteen minute drive from the archives Kline used and an hour away from the infamous Sonoma State Home featured in her book, Kline’s study offered a path for students to connect their contemporary world to the past. Building A Better Race became, and remains, the basis for my teaching of eugenics in the first half of the twentieth century. This is true in my women’s history course as well as my larger US survey.
I begin my lecture on eugenics with Carrie Buck’s story and the landmark case that bears her name. Paul Lombardo’s Three Generations, No Imbeciles provides wonderful details of Buck’s case and life that help students understand the complexities of her experience. I often use stories like Buck’s to frame new issues as they not only draw students into topics, but they also remind students of the humanity of historical subjects. I have students read portions of Buck v Bell, analyze intakes forms from Virginia and California institutions (see figure 1), and together we explore how and why eugenics took hold in the US at the turn of the twentieth century and what eugenic sterilization meant for American women across race, ethnicity, class and ability. Then I explain the shifting demographics of forced sterilization during the Depression when female sterilization overtook that of male sterilization as institutional superintendents found surgery to be a quick and inexpensive “solution” to the “girl problem.” Allison Carey astutely tracks this in her 1999 article, “Gender and Compulsory Sterilization Programs” in the Journal of Historical Sociology. Carey’s On the Margins of Citizenship has been instrumental in helping me include the voices of women with disabilities and their advocates in this lecture in particular and throughout the course in general. I end this lecture with a case study of eugenic sterilization in North Carolina that relies on Johanna Schoen’s Choice and Coercion, which shows, among other things, that the state targeted poor Black women for tubal ligation using existing eugenic laws.
I touch on eugenics briefly in a lecture on the Baby Boom in which I ask students to evaluate Kline’s argument that the demographic explosion constituted the culmination of positive eugenics in America. I return to sterilization in a lecture on Civil Rights (one of three) that profiles Fannie Lou Hamer who underwent a “Mississippi appendectomy” in 1961. The civil rights leader was the first to call out the pernicious practice on a national level in 1964 at a conference on racism. She framed sterilization abuse as a civil rights issue and pushed the movement to take direct action to end it. Hamer was one of many Black feminists who addressed reproductive injustices and called out racism and abuse within American healthcare. They were at the forefront of what has become the reproductive justice movement, which I introduce to students in a subsequent lecture on women’s movements in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In this lecture, we use sterilization and abortion to examine fissures within the women’s movement. I have students read primary sources from Toni Cade Bambara, Shirley Chisholm, Dr. Helen Rodrìguez-Trìas, Loretta Ross, and Women of All Red Nations (WARN) and ask them to explain why white women spoke about abortion and contraception as singular issues while women of color viewed reproductive abuses from an intersectional perspective and as part of other social movements for racial and ethnic equality. Primary sources like Figure 2 offer additional insight into efforts to end forced sterilization via lawsuits and federal guidelines. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice (South End Press, 2004) by Jael Sillman, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta Ross and Elena Gutiérrez has especially guided my teaching here. Jennifer Nelson’s Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement and More Than Medicine: A History of the Women’s Health Movement are also wonderful resources.
I follow this lecture with the groundbreaking film No Más Bebes, which astutely highlights the central role that forced sterilization played in Chicana organizing in the 1960s and the 1970s and makes audible the voices of women forcibly sterilization in Los Angeles. My students usually leave class outraged and heartbroken for the women profiled, deeply concerned that such an abuse could happen in the state in which they live just decades ago and angry that they never learned about it until college. I know exactly how they feel.
Rebecca Kluchin is professor of History at California State University, Sacramento. She is the author of Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980 (Rutgers University Press, 2009), which won the Francis Richardson Keller-Sierra Award for best monograph from the Western Association of Women’s Historians. She has published articles on sterilization, abortion, and disability in American history and is currently working on a monograph about efforts to establish fetal rights titled Birth Rights: A History of Personhood and Reproductive Justice.