Sunday, December 31, 2017

Molly Ladd-Taylor's "Fixing the Poor"

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.

Ladd-Taylor applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Fixing the Poor: Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century, and reported the following:
Between 1907 and the 1960s, more than 63,000 Americans were sterilized under state eugenics laws. Sixty percent were women. More than one-half were diagnosed as “mentally deficient” or “feebleminded.”

Page 99 of Fixing the Poor asks “who was feebleminded” and targeted for sterilization. To many readers, the answer might seem obvious: anyone who was black, immigrant, poor, unchaste, criminal, disabled, or mentally ill. But that explanation is obviously incomplete: most people from these groups were never sterilized. My book offers a different perspective by moving beyond the usual emphasis on eugenic ideas and analyzing the everyday administration of sterilization policy. My focus is Minnesota, where 2,350 citizens—eighty percent of them designated “feebleminded”--were sterilized under a eugenics law enacted in 1925.

The story of eugenics is often told as a cautionary tale about elite arrogance and the failure of expertise. In Minnesota, however, the determination of feeblemindedness was made by local probate judges, elected officials not required to have any medical or legal training. Most judges knew little about eugenic theories of human heredity, but they understood the usefulness of eugenics legislation as a means for coping with local problems of delinquency, illegitimacy, and welfare dependency. Most people adjudged feebleminded and eventually sterilized in Minnesota were either “sex delinquents" (often unmarried mothers) or poor mothers with large families dependent on relief. A judicial finding of feeblemindedness was the first step toward obtaining the institutionalization or sterilization of indigent county residents perceived as a burden on the public purse. But judgments varied from court to court. There were no consistent criteria for determining who was “feebleminded.”

As Page 99 of Fixing the Poor suggests, eugenic sterilization practices were shaped as much by state and local welfare politics as by concerns with biological degeneracy and “race improvement.”
Learn more about Fixing the Poor at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue