Deviant Women, Toxic Bodies: Eugenics and Public Health in the United States, 1900-1950

Tina Kibbe State University of New York at Buffalo My dissertation examines the connections between the eugenics and public health movements in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. There is a great complexity to the relationship between the two movements, as they often overlapped in goals, methods, programs, and personnel, as well as sharing much of the same rhetoric and remedies with regard to the “diseased” and “defective” elements they viewed as harmful to American society. Both the eugenics and public health movements often utilized a discourse of fear—fear of “racial degeneration” and fear of disease—as a means to impose and regulate notions of appropriate behavior. I specifically want to examine the implications of these policies and practices regarding women. This is significant because by creating and manipulating representations of women’s bodies and using labels such as “defective,” “diseased,” and “degenerate,” eugenicists and public health authorities used gender to underscore a pathological urgency to establish distinct boundaries between “healthy” and “sick,” which translated into value-laden categories of good and bad. As American society struggled to renegotiate gender relations, women were often portrayed as either reproducers of a healthy, fit society or as the embodiment of its destruction. The family and future generations were at risk of being contaminated—a concern shared by eugenicists, public health authorities, and many members of the elite and middle-classes. Thus, representations of women and women’s bodies became significant in the discourse of what constituted acceptable societal norms, as well as what constituted deviant, unacceptable behavior. The overall goal of my project is to find to what extent and how eugenic policies and practices were carried forth in the public health movement and, in particular, to discover how gendered language and imagery were used by both movements to establish and regulate notions of appropriate behavior. On the path to answering this question, I want to uncover whose interests were served, implicitly or explicitly, by establishing and enforcing these normative standards of hygiene and behavior. Another set of questions addresses how women figured into these issues—as targets of eugenic and public health remedies, as well as, the women social workers and field workers involved in carrying out eugenic and public health projects. And finally, I want to uncover how eugenic ideology came to be embedded in public health policies—was it a seamless flow of ideas or did it require renegotiations of both movements? Thanks to a generous PACHS Dissertation Writing Fellowship in spring 2009, I was able to further my research at two member institutions, the American Philosophical Society and the College of Physicians. At the College of Physicians, I was able to look through public health reports and manuscripts which indicated that public health authorities and physicians used much of the same language employed by eugenicists, especially with issues such as marriage regulation, immigration, venereal disease, and tuberculosis. Many of the works written on these issues draw distinctive boundaries regarding who should be allowed entry into the United States, as well as who should be encouraged to have children and who should be discouraged from propagating. There were also physicians working in public health who were concerned with the conservation of resources—resources which included the physical, mental, and moral health of its citizens in an effort to achieve their vision of a superior nation. There was also a concern for conserving and improving the germ plasm of the race to prevent the degeneration of society. Many physicians and eugenicists encouraged the breeding of what they considered “better stocks” to enhance the health of the race. The information I obtained from these archives will provide a great foundation for expanding my research on public health. At the American Philosophical Society, I looked through the Eugenic Records Office and the American Eugenics Society collections and found valuable information on women who worked as field workers in the eugenics movement. Many women actively and eagerly pursued work at the Eugenic Records Office and they produced voluminous work for the organization. Women were also often the target of eugenic policies and practices. Also, through the Eugenical News, the official publication of the American Eugenics Society, I was able to see how the eugenics movement renegotiated its public image to seem more palatable to the general public during the 1930s and 1940s. Not only did eugenicists attempt to take a more scientific approach in their publications, probably in an effort to prove the legitimacy of eugenics as a science, but there was also an increased emphasis by eugenicists on positive eugenics which included the importance of education, mate selection, and family planning. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity provided by the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science which enabled me to conduct this research on my project at these institutions. The information I gathered from the APS and College of Physicians will be integral toward the completion of my dissertation. I would especially like to thank Babak Ashrafi and Bonnie Clause for their valuable suggestions about potential sources for my project. Also, I am indebted to the wonderful archivists and staff at both the APS and the College of Physicians.