The Tragedy of Eugenic Sterilization with Molly Ladd-Taylor

Fixing the Poor: Molly Ladd-Taylor’s new take on eugenic sterilization  


Even in these polarized times, everyone can agree that the sterilization of more than 63,000 Americans under state eugenics laws was wrong.  Most Americans recoil from the idea of improving human society by limiting the reproduction of the “unfit.”  The 1927 Supreme Court decision allowing the sterilization of Carrie Buck, a white “feebleminded” unwed mother, is now seen as one of the Court’s worst mistakes. Yet the national consensus against eugenics does little to explain how state sterilization policies developed or how to prevent them from developing again.

Eugenics laws are typically blamed on scientific hubris and the arrogance of elites.  My research, however, shows that state sterilization policies reflected many worldviews and political agendas.  Eugenic sterilization was driven as much by state and county welfare politics as by crude theories of genetic improvement.  

Thirty-two states passed sterilization laws between 1907 and 1937, but who was targeted and the number of people sterilized varied. Fixing the Poor explores one state’s policy, focusing on how it was implemented and how it affected ordinary people. Instead of examining a state with the worst eugenics abuses, I looked at a best-case scenario: Minnesota. Its 1925 sterilization law was legally voluntary, applied only to people already under court-ordered guardianship as “feebleminded” or “insane,” and was administered within a progressive child welfare system. Yet Minnesota sterilized at least 2,350 people. Nearly 80 percent of them were women.


While delving into the state archives, I realized that Minnesota’s three-step program of eugenic commitment, institutionalization, and sterilization was a welfare policy intended to limit the state’s financial responsibility for the poor. Although the Minnesota Eugenics Society waged an energetic crusade to sterilize all the “unfit,” the officials who wrote and administered Minnesota’s sterilization law saw it as a child welfare measure that would “protect” the dependent, delinquent, and disabled poor from the burdens of childrearing--and facilitate their transition from welfare to work.  Minnesotans from across the political spectrum believed eugenics policies would help “feebleminded” women and families become self-supporting. Most expressed little concern about “race improvement” or preventing future generations of unfit.

My research also uncovered the terrible arbitrariness of sterilization and of the determination of feeblemindedness that justified the operation. Historians describe feeblemindedness as a catchall term for blacks, immigrants, poor whites, paupers, criminals, the mentally ill, and disabled who could not, or would not, adhere to white middle-class norms. But “feebleminded person” was also a legal category, a designation that in Minnesota a probate judge made.

Judgments about who was feebleminded were remarkably inconsistent. Still, the personal stories in my book reveal a litany of hardship and abuse. Eighteen-year old Edna Collins began acting out – the main symptom of her feeblemindedness – after a fifty-year old man molested her when she was nine or ten years old. Nineteen-year old Lucille Johnson had two illegitimate children by her father and brother. Thirty-four year old Pearl Morgan was a poor housekeeper with five children and an unemployed, hard-drinking husband. Twenty-one year old Peter Knowles spent much of his youth in the state institutions. Everyone sterilized under Minnesota’s eugenics law was poor, but many also came from troubled families, were victims of trauma or abuse, or had physical or mental disabilities that left them vulnerable to exploitation; that is how they came to the state’s attention.   

The callous treatment of people classified as feebleminded was not only something that eugenics experts and the “state” imposed. Judges and police used eugenics laws to control perceived troublemakers. Psychologists and social workers identified the feebleminded to enhance their professional standing.  Taxpayers clamored for lower welfare spending. Parents ashamed by the stigma of illegitimacy consented to sterilize their daughters. Married women let themselves be designated feebleminded so they could obtain a legal sterilization when contraception was out of reach.

I found considerable resistance to sterilization in the interwar years, but not until after World War II did the combined effects of social welfare entitlements, a prosperous economy, and public revulsion over Nazi crimes, end routine sterilizations in Minnesota’s public institutions. Yet sterilization programs continued in other parts of the country, especially the south. Nationwide, nearly 30 percent of eugenic sterilizations were performed after 1945.

As Fixing the Poor suggests, the history of eugenic sterilization in America is not just a matter of bad ideas and the surgeon’s knife.  It is also a sadly familiar story of poverty and prejudice, punitive welfare policies and troubled families, and a cultural wariness about disability, dependency, sexuality, and gender. As Americans begin a long-overdue national conversation about the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, we should take another look at the history of child welfare and eugenics policies. The tragedy of eugenic sterilization may appear in a new light. 


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. She is author of Johns Hopkins University Press book Fixing the Poor: Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century 

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