Eugenic Feminism: Mental Hygiene, the Women's Movement, and the Campaign for Eugenic Legal Reform, 1900-1935
32 Pages Posted: 21 Jul 2010 Last revised: 25 Jul 2010
Date Written: 2008
In the first four decades of the twentieth century, the eugenics movement assembled a powerful coalition of hereditarian theorists, social workers, scientists, judges, legislators, and feminist reformers to advocate an agenda of eugenic legal reform. This agenda centered on the belief that many undesirable traits are hereditary and that the law should be designed to remove those traits from the racial stock. Far from deferring to the formulation of eugenics prescribed by the coalition, feminists redefined the science to create a unique “eugenic feminism.”
Despite this important contribution to the eugenics movement, however, historical accounts have failed to recognize the unique perspectives of feminist reformers and their influence on eugenic theory. Leading studies contend that the involvement of feminist reformers in the eugenics movement was consistent with their support for a class-based program of social control. Other contemporary works suggest that some feminist reformers gradually abandoned their interests in promoting the social or economic status of women and instead promoted purely eugenic reforms.
These accounts all suggest that there was nothing contradictory or distinctive about feminist support for eugenics. These accounts, however, fail to explain why feminist articulations of eugenics were significantly different from the explanations of eugenic law and science offered by eugenicists themselves. In fact, the writings of feminists involved in the eugenics reform movement show that they did not defer to traditional eugenic science, but redefined it. In doing so, these feminists created a unique theory that this article will call “eugenic feminism.”
Several different visions of eugenic feminism were articulated between 1890 and 1930, but each found commonality in the argument that the eugenic decline of the race could be prevented only if women were granted greater political, social, sexual, and economic equality. This argument correlated gender equality with racial improvement: eugenic science and law had to guarantee some form of substantive gender equality in order to improve the race.
Thus, in the years between 1915 and 1935, eugenic feminism existed distinct from, and in increasing tension with, mainstream eugenic science and policy. Ultimately, leading eugenic feminists could neither change the minds of a majority of the eugenic coalition nor resolve the contradictions inherent in their own eugenic theories. While they often argued that their reforms should be supported primarily as means to achieve a eugenic end, each leader held on to the very kinds of rights and equality-based arguments that mainstream eugenicists rejected. This contradiction contributed significantly to the decline and disappearance of eugenic feminism in the early and mid-1930s.
Keywords: Legal History, Gender, Sexuality and Law, Eugenics, Reproductive Health Law, Feminism, Margaret Sanger
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