Eugenic feminism

Nellie McClung, a suffragette and MLA in the Canadian province of Alberta, advocated eugenic feminist policies.[1]

Eugenic feminism was a component of the women's suffrage movement which overlapped with eugenics.[2] Originally coined by the eugenicist Caleb Saleeby,[3][4][5] the term has since been applied to summarize views held by some prominent feminists of the United States. Some early suffragettes in Canada, particularly a group known as The Famous Five, also pushed for eugenic policies, chiefly in Alberta and British Columbia.

Eugenic feminism began to be articulated in the late 1800s and faded in the 1930s, along with decreasing support for eugenics itself.[6][7] Generally, feminists argued that if women were provided with more rights and equality, the deteriorating characteristics of a race could be avoided. Feminists desired gender equality, and pushed for eugenic law and science to compromise and meet their views in order to breed a superior race.

History[edit]

When Francis Galton originally formulated eugenics, he saw women functioning as a mere conduit to pass desirable traits from father to son. Later eugenicists saw women in a more active role, placing an increasing emphasis on women as “mothers of the race”. In particular new research in the science of heredity and the studies of procreation, child rearing and human reproduction led to changes in eugenic thought, which began to recognize the importance of women in those parts of the human life cycle. This change in emphasis led eventually to eugenicist Caleb Saleeby coining the term eugenic feminism in his book Woman and Womanhood: A Search for Principles (1911).[3][4] Saleeby wrote,

The mark of the following pages is that they assume the principle of what we may call Eugenic Feminism, and that they endeavour to formulate its working-out. It is my business to acquaint myself with the literature of both eugenics and feminism, and I know that hitherto the eugenists have inclined to oppose the claims of feminism [...]

Devereux characterizes Saleeby's coining of eugenic feminism as "at least partly a deceptive rhetorical strategy" whose goal was to "draw middle-class women's rights activists back to home and duty".[1]

In the 1930s eugenic feminism began to decline as eugenic feminists began to fall out with mainstream eugenicists, and had largely failed to sway the public opinion.[8]

In Canada[edit]

In Canada, all members of the suffragist group known as the "Famous Five" were known to support eugenics,[9] including Emily Murphy and Nellie McClung, the latter notably supporting the 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta and the 1933 Sexual Sterilization Act of British Columbia.[2]

In the United Kingdom[edit]

British eugenicists such as Caleb Saleeby, Karl Pearson, and Havelock Ellis, held that women were essentially reproductive agents.[...] Proponents of mainstream eugenics and some early advocates of women’s rights found common ground. Not all early feminists supported eugenic practices, but the notion of social advancement as intricately tied to reproduction was central to both eugenicists and early feminists.[...] Some suffragists advocated for staunch immigration policies and eugenic practices such as mental hygiene and the social segregation and sexual sterilization of the “feeble-minded.”[2]

In the United States[edit]

Victoria Woodhull[edit]

Victoria Woodhull, 1860

Victoria Woodhull was a prominent advocate of eugenics. Woodhull also had a husband that was abusive, alcoholic, and disloyal, which she thought that might have contributed to the mental disability of her son, Byron.[7] With her newly sparked interest in eugenics, Woodhull promoted her views by giving addresses and publishing various books. A significant address was made on September 1871 and was titled Children: Their Rights and Privileges in which she claimed that “a perfect humanity must come of perfect children.”[10]

Moreover, she mentioned the importance of having “the best seed” to be able to have children that can grow into functional adults, the nurturing of parents to children, and the wickedness of abortion. With the effort of promoting eugenics by Woodhull, a portion of feminists also started to advocate for eugenics as well. These women thought that there were too many children and supported families that had fewer. In an 1876 speech in New Jersey, Woodhull placed a great importance on eugenics, more than the importance of obtaining the rights for women to vote, mentioning that women's suffrage was unimportant compared to creating a more superior human race.[10]

Woodhull's version of eugenics, which held that adherence to then-prevalent sexual norms led to degenerate offspring, was sharply divergent from the mainstream eugenics of the 1890s. Her views shifted over time, never fully aligning with the eugenicist mainstream, particularly on birth control.[6]

Charlotte Perkins Gilman[edit]

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 3 July 1860

As a leading feminist author of her time, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published various feminist literary works, including poems, articles on eugenics for The Forerunner, and novels such as: Women and Economics, Herland, With Her in Ourland and His Religion and Hers.[7][11][12] In Herland, Gilman champions eugenic feminism by imagining an all-female utopian society made up of women who somehow were able to reproduce asexually. They all descended from a single mother, therefore miscegenation was not a problem in her imagined society, neither, it seems, was inheriting undesirable genes, as those who were deemed unfit to reproduce were discouraged from doing so.[11] Gilman’s arguments essentially promoted feminism by “representing eugenic ideology as the source” of help.[12] She advocated equal sexual rights for men and women and advocated legalizing birth control for women.[7]

Decline[edit]

In the 1940s, eugenic feminism began to decline. There were irreconcilable differences between feminism and eugenics that could not accommodate each other. Feminists abandoned their eugenic ideas and opinions when it became harder to gather support and more difficult to combine the two movements. Additionally, support for the eugenics movement as a whole began to wane as the public compared American sterilization practices to the sterilization laws of Nazi Germany which were deemed "totalitarian."[7]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Devereux, Cecily (2006). Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 9780773573048. OCLC 243600906.
  2. ^ a b c Rosario, Esther (2013-09-13). "Feminism". The Eugenics Archives. Retrieved 27 October 2018.
  3. ^ a b Saleeby, C. W. (Caleb Williams) (1911). "First Principles" (PDF). Woman and Womanhood A Search for Principles (1 ed.). East 24th Street, New Yourk,NY,USA: J. J. Little & Ives Co. MITCHELL KENNERLEY. p. 7. Retrieved 31 October 2018. The mark of the following pages is that they assume the principle of what we may call Eugenic Feminism
  4. ^ a b "Woman suffrage, eugenics, and eugenic feminism in Canada « Women Suffrage and Beyond". womensuffrage.org. Archived from the original on 2017-04-28. Retrieved 27 October 2018..
  5. ^ Gibbons, S. "Women's suffrage". The Eugenics Archives. Retrieved 31 October 2018. Dr. Caleb Saleeby, an obstetrician and active member of the British Eugenics Education Society, opposed his contemporaries – such Sir Francis Galton – who took strong anti-feminist stances in their eugenic philosophies. Perceiving the feminist movement as potentially “ruinous to the race” if it continued to ignore the eugenics movement, he coined the term “eugenic feminism” in his 1911 text Woman and Womanhood: A Search for Principles
  6. ^ a b Ziegler, Mary (2008). "Eugenic Feminism: Mental Hygiene, the Women's Movement, and the Campaign for Eugenic Legal Reform, 1900-1935". Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. 31: 211. SSRN 1646393. 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.
  7. ^ a b c d e Ziegler, Mary (2008). "Eugenic Feminism: Mental Hygiene, the Women's Movement, and the Campaign for Eugenic Legal Reform". Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. 31: 213.
  8. ^ Ziegler, Mary (2008). "Eugenic Feminism: Mental Hygiene, the Women's Movement, and the Campaign for Eugenic Legal Reform, 1900-1935". Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. 31: 211. SSRN 1646393. 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.
  9. ^ "Feminism". The Eugenics Archives. Retrieved 31 October 2018. All of the Famous Five were also involved in the race hygiene movement and supported the passage of the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta
  10. ^ a b Woodhull, Victoria; Perry, Michael W. (2005). Lady Eugenist: Feminist Eugenics in the Speeches and Writings of Victoria Woodhull. Inkling Books. p. 331. ISBN 978-1587420429.
  11. ^ a b Nadkarni, Asha (Spring 2006). "Eugenic Feminism: Asian Reproduction in the U.S. National Imagery". NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. 39 (2): 221–226. doi:10.1215/ddnov.039020221. JSTOR 40267654.
  12. ^ a b Seitler, Dana (March 2003). "Unnatural Selection: Mothers, Eugenic Feminism, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Regeneration Narratives". American Quarterly. 55 (1): 63–66. JSTOR 30041957.

Further reading[edit]

  • Allen, Ann Taylor. “Feminism and Eugenics in Germany and Britain, 1900-1940: A Comparative Perspective.” German Studies Review, vol. 23, no. 3, 2000
  • Devereux, Cecily. "Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism." Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 2005.
  • Erika Dyck, “Sterilization and Birth Control in the Shadow of Eugenics: Married, Middle-Class Women in Alberta, 1930-1960s”, CBMH/BCHM 31, No. 1, 2014
  • Soloway, Richard A. “The ‘Perfect Contraceptive’: Eugenics and Birth Control Research in Britain and America in the Interwar Years.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 30, no. 4, 1995
  • "Sterilization: Eugenics and the Women’s Movement in 20th Century Alberta.” Canadian Psychology 54.2 (2013): 105-14.