Michael Rembis' Defining Deviance reveals itself as a thorough examination into the lives of girls who were labeled "feebleminded" and institutionalized in the name of social order—order defined by white, middle-class values—in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rembis describes his text as "contribut[ing] to an emerging critical disability history by problematizing and historicizing the very notion of 'mental defect'" (7). For Rembis, the imposition of "mental defect" and "feebleminded" on these girls defined them as disabled within a specific social and historical context, something that must be, and is, accounted for in his study. Defining Deviance focuses on Illinois as a major player in the movement to label girls as "mentally defective" in ways that resulted in confinement, perhaps indefinitely. This book is a chronological look at how scientific discourse and its development over time determined the fate of "deviant" girls.

As Rembis notes in his introduction, gender and class play important roles in the movement to segregate and institutionalize the "deviant." Girls were deemed "feebleminded" more often than boys and were placed in institutions in larger numbers than boys. Middle-class, white women imposed their standards on these girls and worked together in support of laws like House Bill 655 that lead to "indefinite segregation" of girls behaving outside of social norms. Rembis refers to these women as practicing "maternalist medicine" and did not see "eugenic commitment" as "punishment" (15-16). Eugenics plays a major role in Rembis' history, and he explores the ways in which eugenics was a moral reform movement in the late 1800s designed to save the white, middle-class from immorality and protect the race (20). He recognizes that even as eugenic science fell out of favor in the 1950s, the pathologizing of deviant behavior remained; girls were still segregated from society although not under the guise of eugenics (120). Psychology and psychiatry took control of theorizing behavior in the 1940s and 1950s but continued an ideology that girls' behavior was a "defect" found within, rather than created out of their environments or other external factors.

Specific cases of individual girls are presented at the beginning of each chapter. The author tells a girl's story and relates it to the larger picture of how legal, medical, and reform authorities worked to conclude that the girl was "feebleminded" or "mentally defective" and needed to be segregated from society. These stories are compiled from case records of institutions in Illinois. Girls are quoted within the records; however, it is their words through the lens of another, most often someone with power over these girls' lives, such as psychologists and an institution's staff. Examples of such quotes include those of Della and Evelyn, inmates at Geneva, one of the primary institutions of Rembis' study, commenting, "'I ain't had much schooling'" and "'Something is wrong with my brain'" (84). These are not, however, direct quotes, but those of examiners found in case files. It seems as though examiners may have acted like ventriloquists putting words into the mouths of the girls they interviewed. Indeed, these girls were at the mercy of a system bent on controlling them, their actions, and their words. At the same time, Rembis makes clear that even within this highly-constrained environment, girls were finding ways of pushing against their labels and their confinement. While such resistance rarely resulted in release or revocation of the label "feebleminded," it did give girls a stronger sense of self. There were two sides, and Rembis offers both to his readers.

It is through the individual cases that readers come to know the girls as people and, perhaps, understand the realities of their worlds. Where superintendents saw girls' self-mutilation as a way of getting attention, Rembis and the modern reader acknowledge the emotional cry behind this behavior (107). In fact, Rembis states, "Although Stone and the rest of her colleagues acknowledged their subjects' troubled pasts, they rarely considered them in any meaningful way when classifying the 'mental ability' of the young women they studied" (107). Dr. Elizabeth H. Stone studied these women and ignored sexual and physical abuse as factors in their lives in addition to poverty and cultural barriers. Again, one comes to know that "feeblemindedness" was constructed out of class norms such that at the close of the 1800s, "poverty and social deviance had been intimately and inextricably linked to mental defect" (22). Young, poor and working-class women who broke the law, became pregnant when unmarried, and behaved in other unacceptable ways were assumed to have inherited their "mental defect" and were at risk of passing it on to children if their sexuality and abnormal behaviors were not controlled. In his Epilogue, Rembis brings his history of deviant girls and the pathologizing of their behavior into modern life. He shares that "girls in trouble with the law in the late twentieth century have many things in common with their early twentieth-century counterparts" (143). Rembis asserts that the modern "delinquent" girl most often lives in the city, lives with abuse and neglect, and often has experienced rape and/or incest (143). One can see from Rembis' study that, in fact, there has been little change over the course of time. He urges those in disability studies to take up the call to "document and trace the genealogy of modern definitions of mental deviance, all the while remaining sensitive to the specific social and historical contexts from which modern-day 'mental delinquents' emerge" (147). Rembis has done this with his study of the earlier history of how American society classified young women as "feebleminded" and has laid the groundwork for necessary further work in this area.

While standing as an important text in the field, Defining Deviance raises a few issues that warrant further investigation. I was interested in the brief discussion of girls' sexuality while living in these institutions, as Rembis describes girls developing sexual relationships with peers, which were punished but not considered homosexual, as it was "love notes, messages, and trinkets" that were exchanged (103). I was interested in hearing more about these relationships and how they were treated as abnormal and/or why they were ignored. Relatedly, Rembis makes mention of "troubling" relationships that young, white women had with African-American girls. At Geneva, inmates were segregated by race, and Rembis observes that these young, African-American women "rarely attracted the attention of resident experts" (103), though it was not clear why this was the case. It seems that Rembis' focus on young, white women again ignores the segregated population. More broadly, his only look at non-whites relies on how black girls had intimate relationships with white girls. Other scholars might further explore how race matters in determining and treating feeblemindedness during the historical period Rembis explores.

Defining Deviance serves as a successful look into an overlooked past of American history and disability studies. Rembis offers his reader a strong piece of research full of insight into how disability is socially and historically constructed. Gender and class are at the forefront of his study, which illustrates the ways these identities affect definitions of "normalcy" and abhorrent behavior. Defining Deviance works as a way into discussions about how we define disability, its constructs, and its "treatments."

Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2014 Madaline Walter

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Maureen Walsh.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)