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Fixing the Poor

Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century

Molly Ladd-Taylor

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How state welfare politics—not just concerns with "race improvement"—led to eugenic sterilization practices.

Honorable Mention of the Disability History Association Book Award by the Disability History Association, Shortlisted for the Wallace K. Ferguson Prize by the Canadian Historical Association

Between 1907 and 1937, thirty-two states legalized the sterilization of more than 63,000 Americans. In Fixing the Poor, Molly Ladd-Taylor tells the story of these state-run eugenic sterilization programs. She focuses on one such program in Minnesota, where surgical sterilization was legally voluntary…

How state welfare politics—not just concerns with "race improvement"—led to eugenic sterilization practices.

Honorable Mention of the Disability History Association Book Award by the Disability History Association, Shortlisted for the Wallace K. Ferguson Prize by the Canadian Historical Association

Between 1907 and 1937, thirty-two states legalized the sterilization of more than 63,000 Americans. In Fixing the Poor, Molly Ladd-Taylor tells the story of these state-run eugenic sterilization programs. She focuses on one such program in Minnesota, where surgical sterilization was legally voluntary and administered within a progressive child welfare system.

Tracing Minnesota's eugenics program from its conceptual origins in the 1880s to its official end in the 1970s, Ladd-Taylor argues that state sterilization policies reflected a wider variety of worldviews and political agendas than previously understood. She describes how, after 1920, people endorsed sterilization and its alternative, institutionalization, as the best way to aid dependent children without helping the "undeserving" poor. She also sheds new light on how the policy gained acceptance and why coerced sterilizations persisted long after eugenics lost its prestige. In Ladd-Taylor's provocative study, eugenic sterilization appears less like a deliberate effort to improve the gene pool than a complicated but sadly familiar tale of troubled families, fiscal and administrative politics, and deep-felt cultural attitudes about disability, dependency, sexuality, and gender.

Drawing on institutional and medical records, court cases, newspapers, and professional journals, Ladd-Taylor reconstructs the tragic stories of the welfare-dependent, sexually delinquent, and disabled people who were labeled "feebleminded" and targeted for sterilization. She chronicles the routine operation of Minnesota's three-step policy of eugenic commitment, institutionalization, and sterilization in the 1920s and 1930s and shows how surgery became the "price of freedom" from a state institution. Combining innovative political analysis with a compelling social history of those caught up in Minnesota's welfare system, Fixing the Poor is a powerful reinterpretation of eugenic sterilization.

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Fixing the Poor

Molly Ladd-Taylor

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Reviews

Despite its broad title, the book focuses solely on Minnesota and draws from information housed in the Minnesota State Archives. Ladd-Taylor, a professor of history at York University, sees this troubling past as part of Minnesota's efforts to reduce social welfare support for many vulnerable populations.

Studies the impact of efforts to 'contain' and distinguish the variously and often incoherently defined problems of 'delinquency', 'immorality', 'imbecility', 'waywardness' and 'feeblemindedness'. Poor people, particularly women and girls, were suspected disproportionately of being the source of such conditions. Ideologically, 'treatment' was framed as an issue of public health, but Ladd-Taylor shows that an even greater concern was sparing the public purse.

This is a book that deserves to be read widely, and not only by historians of eugenics. Not only is it informative about a less-studied chapter in the history of sterilization in the USA but it also sets high standards of scholarship and establishes a point of reference for any future discussion of sterilization in the USA and elsewhere.

Ladd-Taylor's well-written book offers an excellent argument for Minnesota's sterilization history as showing the value of widening our sets of case-studies on eugenics practices. Her careful research makes Fixing the Poor essential reading for anyone interested in developing a more nuanced, thorough exploration of eugenics.

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Book Details

Publication Date
Status
Available
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
304
ISBN
9781421437996
Illustration Description
10 halftones, 2 maps, 1 graph
Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Note on Terminology and Names
Introduction
1. The Feebleminded Menace and the Innocent Child
2. Two Roads to Sterilization
3. Who Was Feebleminded?
4. The Price of Freedom
5. Sterilization

Acknowledgments
Note on Terminology and Names
Introduction
1. The Feebleminded Menace and the Innocent Child
2. Two Roads to Sterilization
3. Who Was Feebleminded?
4. The Price of Freedom
5. Sterilization and Welfare in Depression and War
6. From Fixing the Poor to Fixing the System?
Conclusion
Appendix
Notes
Index

Author Bio
Featured Contributor

Molly Ladd-Taylor

Molly Ladd-Taylor is a professor of history at York University. She is the author of Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890–1930 and the coeditor of "Bad" Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America.