The eugenics era was marked by a very pejorative view of persons with disabilities, especially what was labeled as "high functioning" feeble-mindedness or moronity. This perception can be seen by the frequent use of denigrating metaphors in eugenic descriptions of those who supposedly fell into these and related, though vaguely defined, categories. This article analyzes the use of the "object metaphor" in eugenic writings, in which persons with disabilities were described as passive, unsightly, and valueless objects. While the use of the object metaphor has obviously changed over time, it remains one of the most frequently employed pejorative metaphors in relation to persons with disabilities.

The chemical laboratory and the scientific chemist have made from the by-products of coal and petroleum, once thrown away, illuminating gas and aniline dyes of all the hues of the rainbow, benzene, gasoline and all the paraffins. … It would be still better for the country to make [something] out of life's dregs and by-products, out of lives now wasted and worse than wasted.

(Helen MacMurchy, cited in Murdoch, 1909, p. 66)

Disability scholars and advocates are well aware of the importance of rhetoric in supporting devalued images of persons with disabilities (Wilson & Lewiecki-Wilson, 2001). Pejorative rhetorical themes are frequently invoked for the purpose (or at least with the result) of patronizing or dehumanizing those with disabilities, or even to support the belief that they pose a threat to the "wider community" (Shakespeare, 1994). An assortment of metaphor themes are apt to be employed for differing purposes or in response to varying social circumstances or times or places. Moreover, the particular disability or group of disabilities that serves as the "target" of such writing may also inform which theme(s) (e.g., person as animal, object, parasite, or virus) are represented.

This paper analyzes the employment of the object metaphor within the context of a particularly important period of dehumanization, the eugenic alarm era. As most readers of Disability Studies Quarterly are aware, the eugenic era (1900-1930) in the United States was arguably the most hostile toward persons with disabilities of any period in the history of our nation (Rafter, 1988; Trent, 1994). Eugenicists contended that human breeding should be as planned and carefully controlled as animal or plant breeding is, and that only the "best" specimens of the species should be encouraged to have children. Those who were on the other end of the perceived continuum of worth were subject to involuntary institutionalization and/or sterilization, as well as other aversive social policies.

The eugenic alarm period was supported in part by the discovery of Mendel's laws of heredity, which fostered the belief in the importance of hereditary transmission, and which many eugenicists falsely believed gave them a preliminary "blueprint" of the mechanism of human genetics. Additionally, the development and widespread use, especially in the United States, of intelligence tests, allowed eugenic supporters to supposedly identify which individuals fell into the "feeble-minded" category, which would become the central focus group of eugenicists. Eugenicists argued that persons who had been diagnosed with feeble-mindedness and other "dysgenic" conditions were procreating much more extensively than the remainder of the population, and would eventually overrun the nation if their ability to reproduce was not limited. Family studies such as Henry Goddard's infamous Kallikak study seemed to provide convincing evidence of the claims of eugenicists that undesirable qualities were largely hereditary and that large "degenerate" families like the Kallikaks were threatening the welfare of the nation (Gould, 1981; Smith, 1985). These large-scale family studies seemed to prove to many that "unfit" characteristics were hereditary, and they centralized feeble-mindedness as the major focus of eugenic control.

Eugenicists primarily targeted persons with cognitive disabilities, labeled as "morons" or persons with feeble-mindedness. Secondary eugenic targets included persons with various forms of mental illness and those with physical disabilities, especially if these conditions were a) thought to have a genetic etiology, and b) limited the productive capacity of such persons (O'Brien & Bundy, 2009). Eugenic supporters in the country frequently infused dehumanizing or threat-based rhetoric into their writings in an effort to gain support for their cause and denigrate those who were said to be "dragging down" the nation (O'Brien, 1999; 2003).

Following a brief description of the object metaphor, this paper details the various sub-themes related to this metaphor that served as a vehicle for dehumanizing persons with intellectual disabilities during the alarm period. The vast majority of the examples employed here are taken from primary source writings. Moreover, these primary source examples are representative of the large body of eugenic writings that were supported by medical and other professional communities of the time. These were not the ramblings of a small number of "fringe radicals" but are found with stunning frequency in the relevant publications of the day. Importantly, these metaphors, based in respected professional books, journals, and other publications, paved the way for a more widespread dispersion of object metaphors to represent persons with disabilities in the mass media, novels and other public forums.

Introduction to the Object Metaphor

This introductory section begins with a brief overview of the object metaphor, and a description of both linguistic and conceptual metaphors, since both are discussed in the analysis section. Following this, I delineate the major consequences of the widespread use of the object metaphor: 1) to dehumanize marginalized populations in support of social control measures, and 2) to reinforce "other-identification" of such persons. This identification by others serves to foster disempowerment of the group, and also sets the stage for a social environment conducive to the development of aversive social control policies.

Numerous authors have described the importance of linguistic metaphors in denigrating marginalized populations (Brennan, 1995; Lakoff, 1996; Noël, 1994; O'Brien, 2009; Wolfensberger, 1972). When selected metaphor themes or phrases are repeatedly employed to frame a particular aspect of the group or the social problem(s) that they presumably cause, this mode of perception can come to be accepted or even embraced by a large portion of the population. Importantly, metaphor scholars (Allbritton, 1995; Lakoff, 1996) have also discussed the importance of conceptual metaphors, whereby linkage between a "source" and "target" domain are supported, but not necessarily (or only) through the use of linguistic metaphors. For example, currently in the United States, efforts by certain groups and individuals who believe that Muslims (target domain) are criminalistic (source domain) are reinforced in many ways, which don't really need to be enumerated here. It should be noted that while some of the sections described below largely include linguistic metaphors (e.g., person as plant or tree, anchor, waste product, industrial product) to demonstrate objectification, some sections (e.g., incentivizing normalcy, objectification of women) primarily focus on broader conceptual metaphors, whereby the objectification of persons, particularly those labeled feeble-minded, was reinforced in ways that were largely non-linguistic.

A principle means of diminishing the status of marginalized individuals is by objectifying them—including referring to them as, comparing them to, or treating them as devalued inanimate objects. Another method of objectification is the development within the culture of a "value hierarchy," wherein humans are differentially valued based on their presumptive abilities, assets, or characteristics. As with the animalization of "lower" humans on racial and animal hierarchies, the farther down one falls in a hierarchy based on perceived valuation, the higher the probability that the person will be both objectified and subject to aversive social policies (Brennan, 1995; O'Brien, 2003).

Those belonging to marginalized groups will often be depersonalized by being viewed not as individuals in their own right but as simply a member of the group (Shakespeare, 1994). A frequent topic of discussion in disability-related scholarship obviously relates to the interplay between disability status and self- or other-identification, as well as the role of persons and institutions with power in fostering such identification. As Lise Noël (1994) wrote, "[t]he 'dominant ideology' … possesses the first of all powers, the one that conditions all the others, the power of definition" (p. 52). She later writes that "[b]efore being stripped of their property or rights, the oppressed are robbed of their identity. The dominator defines this identity in their stead, reducing it to a difference that is then labeled inferior" (p. 79). William Brennan (1995) adds that "[i]n this process of objectification people are reduced to the level of insignificant matter that can be used, moved, manipulated, and disposed of with impunity" (p. 13). They become, in other words, the property or pawns of those who direct the labeling process.

Certainly, a primary reason for the focus on person-first language is to diminish the tendency persons may have for assuming that another's disability constitutes a "master status." A primary rationale for the focus in disability studies and other "minority studies" areas on narrative approaches and self-identification is obviously to move beyond identification by others, primarily professionals, and counter the objectification this often supports. Since the ability to exert control and even ownership are both closely related to the sanction given to identify, label, or diagnose the other, the desire to break away from this "identification by others" has been a primary factor in virtually all human rights movements, including the disability rights movement (Friere, 1970).

A core concern related to objectification is that the categorization of target group members becomes especially difficult when considering characteristics that don't have clear demarcation lines, such as race, political affiliation, and, as alluded to above, vague disability classifications such as feeble-mindedness or insanity. Therefore, an important goal of social control movements1 is the attempt to find an effective means of categorization, and to support the establishment of a cottage industry of diagnosticians and diagnostic-related businesses that are directed toward this goal.

The Object Metaphor in Eugenic Writing

A rather large number of object themes were employed to give meaning to the targets of eugenic control, as well as to describe the significance of eugenic policies. The remainder of this paper delineates the major objectivist themes that were used by eugenicists; these include a) horticulture metaphors, b) anchor or brake metaphors, c) waste product and objects of production metaphors, d) metaphors related to streamlining, and e) metaphors related to comparative value. The final sections explore metaphor themes that pertain more to broader conceptual metaphors—including the incentivizing of "normalcy" and the objectification of women by eugenicists.

The Horticulture Metaphor

Just as animal breeding was instrumental in explaining human eugenics to the lay public, plant breeding was employed in the same way. Thus, children were often characterized as the "most valuable crop" the community could cultivate (Powlison, 1932, p. 5). "The human harvest," Michael Guyer (1913) noted, "like the grain harvest is based fundamentally on heritage, and to get a better crop of boys and girls we must, as with other crops, weed out bad strains" (p. 34). Within this context, of course, persons who were deemed undesirable breeders were objectified as the "human weeds" (Hardt, 1912, p. 180) who threatened to choke out—primarily through their rapid growth—the good crops (Huntington & Whitney, 1927). In the human garden, undesirable persons were characterized as "social flower[s] of no prospective bloom," and, "[j]ust as thorns and thistles are the direct result of imperfect vegetable development, so are fools and lunatics an instance of degeneration and imperfection in human development" (Keene, 1904, p. 409).

Perhaps the most important writer to compare human and plant breeding was the famous horticulturist Luther Burbank. In his book The Training of the Human Plant (1907), Burbank wrote that he had long been aware of the similarity between the development of both plants and humans, and he analogized child-raising to growing plants (p. 3). Most of his suggestions are environmental in nature (e.g., providing sunshine, fresh air, and proper nutrition). However, Burbank supported restrictive marriage laws for "unfit" persons, noting that when two poisonous plants are merged, the resulting offspring is often more virulent than either parent strain (p. 58). He did caution, however, that we not be too hasty about our response to the seemingly "abnormal," saying that proper environment and care could improve "weak" children just as they could strengthen feeble plants (p. 53).

The horticulture metaphor also was important within the context of eugenic family studies, which described family "trees" with diseased "branches." Elizabeth Yukins (2003), describing Goddard's work with the Kallikak family, wrote,

Goddard embellishes upon the arboreal metaphor when he describes Martin Kallikak as a 'scion' who warps the family tree by engendering this 'degenerate offshoot.' The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term 'scion' as a descendent or an heir, and as 'a shoot or twig.' According to Goddard's description, Martin Kallikak is a renegade scion whose actions cause the Kallikak family tree to develop a perverted outgrowth … due to illegitimate mixing. (p. 179)

A central eugenic belief, however, was that the disease was not superficial but contained within the genetic structure of the persons, or, to carry the analogy further, the roots of the tree. A superficial trimming of the diseased portion of the tree would do little long-term good, both because the disease could spread to healthy trees and because its essential nature, like the degenerate person, could not be changed, regardless of the care and attention provided to it.

Anchor and Brake Metaphors

In addition to plants, the targets of eugenics were compared to a large number of inanimate objects. To eugenicists, anchors, weights, and brakes served as useful metaphors for describing the impact of dysgenic persons on their communities and the nation. As others attempted to move forward and progress, and as the nation tried to gain a competitive advantage on other countries, these individuals were weighing down the rest, making progress difficult, acting as "dragnets or sheet anchors on the progress of the ship of state" ("Birth Control,"1932, p. 16). "The strong and competent and moral, the free in body and in spirit," Haven Emerson (1939) wrote, "are shackled to those whose disablements so wring our hearts that our spirits cannot push on to the higher levels of achievement" (p. 554), and Karl Schwartz (1908-1909) added that the feeble-minded acted as "a drag to the car of human progress." He said that just as it was necessary to let off the brakes in order to "increase the speed and efficiency of a train of cars," to "make satisfactory social progress it is no less necessary to relieve society of its drag than it is to give it added impetus" (pp. 74-76).

Waste Products and Objects of Production Metaphors

The low esteem that eugenicists held for persons who were perceived to be "unfit" was never clearer than in their depiction of such persons as "an ever increasing flood of social wastage" (Guyer, 1913, p. 34) or "refuse pieces of humanity, hardly fit to be called human beings" (cited in "Discussion on Provision …", 1888, p. 402). Of the "feeble-minded, the epileptic and the insane," George Keene (1904) said that it was here that "we appreciate, if ever, the existence of waste material" (p. 413). This "dead weight of human waste," Margaret Sanger (1922) added, was an enormous burden to society (p. 112).

The MacMurchy quote at the beginning of this paper holds out some hope that beneficial use can be made of "life's dregs and by-products." The following quote expresses a similar desire:

Coldly speaking, it becomes a question with us, what to do with these waste materials. Now the modern doctrine of efficiency in economics and other divisions of practical service is to make use of all such waste materials. I am told that we make car wheels from the refuse of cheese factories and that all the great firms are putting research men to work on the disposal of their by-products. Let us, then, look upon the feeble-minded as in some sense by-products of society. (Southard, 1915, p. 316)

If a person labeled as being feeble-minded (as well as other eugenic targets) held any value for his/her productivity and occupational usefulness to society, it was in his/her role as a "drudge" who would perform the low-wage menial labor that others then did not have to concern themselves with. Eugenicists discussed whether society required such persons for this purpose, and whether they therefore might play some role in the efficient running of the country. A 1916 Literary Digest article, for example, asked "[w]hy not employ the feeble-minded upon public works in unskilled labor? Many mental weaklings are physically able, and manual labor would be both more healthful and more agreeable than enforced idleness" in institutions ("Service from Imbeciles," 1916, p. 554). Amazingly, this article also suggested that devalued persons could be used on the front lines during a war, since their lives were of little value (pp. 554-555). A Pennsylvania state official expressed his concern that large-scale institutionalization of persons labeled as feeble-minded was unwise because we would "also be shutting off the supply of workers to do the drudgery of the world." "Who," he wondered, would then "scrub our floors and dig our ditches?" (as cited in Sanville, 1915, p. 670).

The journal Eugenics contributed to this discussion in 1929 with a series of brief commentaries on the topic. "In this new and complex civilization of ours," one commentator stated, "there is no menial or necessary service which can not be done by citizens whose intelligence quotient is greater than that of the moron. In fact the so-called drudgery is being done today by machines whose operation requires skill and intelligence. More Morons? No!" ("Does the World," 1929, p. 20). Others agreed with this position, contending that more intelligent persons could perform these tasks "more safely and efficiently," and that occupational advances made low-wage industrial workers less necessary than in the past (Huntington & Whitney, 1927). Speaking of the "low-grade" feeble-minded, Barr (1902) wrote that one way such "waste products" could be made useful was to place them in asylums and have them do the unskilled labor that was required to run the facility (p. 165). Such a plan would not only remove such persons from society, but also save taxpayers money by reducing labor costs (Trent, 1994).

Streamlining and Person as Product Metaphors

In many ways the eugenic goal of "perfecting man" ran parallel to product development trends of the time. Christina Cogdell, in her 2004 book Eugenic Design, wrote that in both human and product engineering, issues such as streamlining and efficiency were invoked to support the movement to ensure that "form followed function" when it came to both mechanical and human bodies. Both "industrial designers and eugenicists," she contended,

considered themselves primary agents of evolutionary progress. Assuming a role heretofore reserved to plant and animal breeders, both groups of designers rationally selected between desirable and undesirable traits to reform "primitive," "criminal," and "degenerate" products and bodies into functional, "fit" forms suitable for mass (re)production. (p. 50; also see pp. 80-81)

Just as product streamlining removed anything that produced drag and detracted from the efficiency of a vehicle or product, a large-scale eugenics program would lead to the streamlining of the species, producing humans who presumably would move through the world with as little physical, psychological, or social friction as possible (p. 52). Additionally, Cogdell wrote, the "ability of some eugenicists to consider humans as products reveals the conceptual shift on their part to an industrial way of thinking about humanity, one that ultimately permitted the devaluation of those humans deemed less desirable by those in control" (p. 82).

To designers and engineers of the time, Cogdell noted, product streamlining was not simply a matter of making superficial changes in the product, but took into account the entire design and production process, just as the efficient design of humans needed to consider all aspects of the individual, down to and including one's genetic structure. With both products and human beings, she added, true beauty was seen as inherent, and was closely connected to the efficiency of the machine or body. Just as physical attractiveness and "fitness" was related in the minds of eugenicists, engineers believed that the aesthetic appeal of a streamlined product was an obvious outgrowth of its efficient design (p. 53).

The "conservation" of the species was viewed by eugenicists as similar to efficiency and streamlining. Just as the latter two terms were employed to describe mechanistic metaphors and the development of a better human "product," the former term carried the theme of natural conservation to the human realm. "Is there a demand for conservation of human resources," one eugenicist asked, "while we are exercising our souls about timber, water-power, coal, and natural gas?" ("Husbanding the Nation's Manhood," 1910, p. 13470). Similarly, in his 1914 address at the First National Conference on Race Betterment, Leon Cole (1914) remarked that:

[W]e are saying that the material benefits of our forests, our minerals, and our water power must be conserved for the benefit of all the people, and not reaped now to enrich a few individuals and to be passed on only to their families. Shall we have less foresight in the heritage of defectives and cripples that we pass on to the next and future generations? (p. 504)

Eugenicists argued that if the members of undesirable groups were a form of societal "pollution," or if their mingling with persons of "good" germ plasm infected and thus depleted this important resource, the community had as much right to pass social policies designed to bring this under control as any other deleterious or toxic by-product of manufacturing. Within the context of conservation, it was the immortal germ plasm that was the object of focus. Eugenic rhetoric objectified individuals by portraying them as vehicles or vessels that carried and transmitted "good" or "bad" germ plasm. If "a sound mind in a sound body [was] the most priceless of human possessions," then it followed that the most important human "commodity" was the germ plasm that created them (as cited in Hasian, 1996, p. 44).

Conservation of preferred germ plasm and the perception of persons labeled as feeble-minded as a source of pollution came together in the "stream" metaphor that ran throughout most eugenic writing. Eugenicists contended that defective individuals threatened the integrity of the water supply that is the life source of the species, the germ plasm. As Cogdell (2004) noted, a number of them employed this metaphor, comparing their program to water conservation. Many of the sermons that preachers entered into the eugenic competition, she wrote, included the image of the "unpolluted blood stream" contrasted with those streams that were becoming stagnant from the "putrefaction of criminal strains" and the "currents and eddies of diseased mind or enfeebled intellect" (pp. 55-56).

Water metaphors pertained not only to the eugenic framing of those who were labeled as "feeble-minded," but also calls for immigration restriction. During the first decades of the century, both immigration restrictionists and eugenicists argued that dramatically increasing numbers of "low-grade" immigrants were entering the nation, and the country needed to do more to control the entrance of such persons or it would be inundated by the flood of "feeble-minded" foreigners. Keeping these persons out of the "general population" was presented as little different from protecting the water supply and similar public health measures. As one immigration restrictionist argued, "[t]he theoretically perfect control of immigration is much the same in principle as that exercised over community water supply. To see that it is plentiful, that it is of the best quality, free from possible pollution at the source, and that it is properly distributed, is the duty of a popular Government" (Whelpley, 1914, pp. 71-72).

The Comparative Value of the Targets of Eugenic Control

In these images of the devalued individual as a weed choking beautiful flowers, a brake slowing the train of progress, a worthless by-product of human evolution, an unessential menial laborer, or a defective and inefficient product of manufacture, the message was clear: persons labeled as feeble-minded and other targets of eugenicists were of no appreciable value to the community. They were "without value to themselves or to the rest of the world" (Jennings, 1930, p. 226). If, as Galton (1904) said, "the parents of noteworthy children" were "the contributors of …valuable assets to the national wealth," the parents of defective and dependent children were liabilities for which everyone paid a heavy cost (p. 5).

In the American eugenic literature there is much discussion of various groups as assets or liabilities to the nation. Edward East (1927), for example, wrote that some children "are not worth 5,000 brass farthings — they are liabilities, not assets; others are worth golden millions. If prosperity is to be promoted, the assets should be increased and the liabilities reduced" (p. 251). Lothrop Stoddard (1923), drawing on the conservationist argument, wrote,

In the same way that some scientists survey our natural resources and map out our material wealth in ore deposits, oil fields and agricultural soils, other scientists are examining our human resources and are analyzing our human wealth .… it is safe to say that the time is not far distant when we shall be able to draw up some sort of rough balance sheet of our human assets and liabilities. (p. 23)

Speaking of the eugenically "fit," he added that the "rich stores of human treasure," could be perceived as "assets to offset our unfortunately numerous human liabilities" (p. 150). One particular family of "defectives," another article proclaimed, would be looked upon by a future society as "an unnecessary luxury" that it could ill afford to maintain ("The Jukes in 1915," 1916, p. 473).

The lives of those deemed "unfit" and the lives of soldiers were often described alongside each other for the purpose of comparing what were typically viewed as the most valueless and valuable lives. During the First World War, an American writer decried the fact that "[w]hile the perfect specimens of our manhood are off at the front, getting maimed or killed, the feebleminded are at home living on the efforts of other people and procreating ever-increasing numbers of their own kind" (Thompson, 1917, p. 362; also see Davenport, 1934, p. 21). Oliver Wendell Holmes supported North Carolina's sterilization of Carrie Buck in part by noting that the nation called upon soldiers to make an important sacrifice for the nation. Why shouldn't less valuable citizens, he opined, be asked to make a much less significant sacrifice? (Dudziak, 1986, p. 861).

The perception that persons who were labeled as feeble-minded were a drain on the nation's fiscal resources often went hand-in-hand with arguments of race suicide and differential population growth. Eugenicists generally assumed that welfare expenditures would naturally increase in conjunction with the growth in the feeble-minded population (Evans, 1930, p. 391; Kempton, 1934, p. 418; Whitney, 1929, p. 12). Many eugenicists felt that even those who refused to endorse their proposals due to ethical or religious concerns would eventually turn to them because of fiscal necessity. Some proposed increasing the amount that was spent on research and on measures of primary prevention as opposed to warehousing and treatment (Jordan, 1911, p. 81), while others praised measures such as sterilization as money saving public investments (Robie, 1934, pp. 207-208). Even if taxes weren't reduced through eugenic programs, eugenicists noted, the money could at least be spent more wisely than to support "burdensome" lives. This presumption again relates to the efficiency argument. Margaret Sanger (1922) wrote that much better things could be done with tax money if it wasn't used for the "care and segregation of men, women, and children who should never have been born." This money, she continued, "should be available for human development, [and] for scientific, artistic and philosophic research, …" (p. 100). C.C. Little (1928), the President of the University of Michigan and President of the Third Race Betterment Conference, suggested that if certain philanthropists or groups insisted that the government not restrict the reproduction rights of "unfit" persons, these parties should be willing to support "the total expense of the care of the permanent defectives" that would result from such a hands-off policy (p. 13).

Incentivizing "Normalcy"

Eugenic financial incentive proposals were closely related to the perception of various groups as assets or liabilities within society. These proposals sought to restructure differential fecundity trends by offering financial rewards to "fit" parents in order to encourage them to increase the number of children they had, or offer feeble-minded persons and other "unfit" members of the community financial or other incentives when they agreed to become sterilized (McDougall, 1923, p. 62; Stoddard, 1923, p. 256). In his 1937 article "Utopia by Sterilization," H.L. Mencken suggested that the government pay $1,000 to all Americans who were not desirable parents upon their voluntary sterilization (p. 406). Even better, he noted, philanthropists could offer up the money, relieving the taxpayer of the cost. "Ten or fifteen million dollars," he contended, "would be enough to rescue the whole of Arkansas" from degeneracy (p. 408). The cost was cheap, he added, "immensely cheaper than supporting an ever-increasing herd of morons for all eternity" (p. 408).

Leon Whitney (1934) believed that money wasn't even necessary. If they were given the opportunity to choose between purchasing luxury items and spending money to raise children, he wrote that those targeted for eugenic control would agree to voluntary sterilization. "Mr. Moron," he said,

here you see a squalling baby who will get you up nights, and here you see nice long evenings in the poolroom — which will you choose? A Sears-Roebuck catalogue offers a thousand choices between a baby and something else that looks pretty tempting. Which will the morons choose? If you think they will choose more than one or two babies, then you don't know morons. (pp. 275-276)

Incentivization schemes have outlived the eugenic era, and it's not unusual even today to hear recommendations that certain groups be either incentivized or financially punished in relation to their child-bearing decisions. Contemporary proposals most often pertain to "welfare" recipients, although both in the eugenic era and today there tends to be a great deal of overlap (conceptually, at least) between those living in poverty and persons labeled as intellectually disabled. Incentivization schemes were especially in vogue in the 1990s, as many states proposed policies that would tie welfare provision to the implantation of Norplant, a long-acting contraceptive (Arthur, 1992; Board of Trustees, 1992).

Eugenics and the Objectification of Women

For many eugenicists, the value of women especially was directly related to both their willingness to bear children and their eugenic "fitness." Females who were labelled as feeble-minded or as otherwise hereditarily defective were generally identified as sexually immoral and incapable of controlling their base desires. Conversely, for a woman with "valuable traits which she has inherited and which she can pass on to offspring, the disposition to evade this obligation" was counted as a "manifest racial delinquency" ("Birth Control," 1932, p. 16). As Elizabeth Yukins (2003) wrote, to many eugenicists, women's bodies were objectified as they "promised either the continuing progression of genealogical, and thus national, development, or the insidious threat of moral pathology and biological determination" (p. 164).

Some eugenicists held a conservative view that supported traditional gender roles, and derided women for desiring to attend college or to seek a career as well as for waiting to marry and have children, thus contributing to race suicide (Kline, 2001, pp. 148-150; Robie, 1934, p. 207). Advocates of positive eugenics who considered themselves liberals, progressives, or reformers, however, needed to reconcile their support for the "new woman" with the eugenic demand that "eugenically fit" unmarried women focus on marriage, and that married women direct their energies to child-bearing. Theodore Roosevelt (1914) said that women could have their cake and eat it too. He suggested they begin their family when still young, have many children, and then they could work or engage in philanthropic activities when the children grew. A career, he felt, was fine so long as it was a supplement to rather than a substitute for the woman's natural role as mother (p. 311).

Many eugenicists felt that women would voluntarily choose motherhood if it was accorded the importance it deserved. According to Wendy Kline (2001), the "mother of tomorrow" was, as envisioned by many eugenicists, an empowered figure who "controlled the racial makeup of future generations" (p. 8). If indeed child-bearing was viewed as a form of efficient production, women's maternal instinct could possibly—if properly framed—be considered a form of industrial activity where women themselves would have a great deal of importance in developing the most proficient means of bearing and caring for a child.


In speaking of the eugenic family studies such as Goddard's Kallikak study, Nicole Rafter (1988) wrote that "[t]he root of many of the methodological and evidentiary problems [of the studies] lay in the family studies' relentless objectification of their subjects—their insistence on turning people into things" (p. 24). She added that "the family study authors turned 'the real thing'—the subjects they studied—into a set of signs. By carefully selecting descriptions, using bumpkin pseudonyms, and sending covert signals to readers, the authors constructed a symbolic world" (p. 26).

A principle goal of eugenic writing in the United States was to dehumanize the targets of eugenic policies through the various modes of objectification described above. Within the context of these writings, "feeble-minded" persons and other eugenic targets became faceless stereotypes, no more deserving of individual attention than any other highly denigrated minority group. Whether they were culpable for their perceived detrimental impact on society or not, they remained, eugenicists assured their readers, a threat to the nation.

While it was not the primary focus of this work, objectification obviously was an important aspect of Nazi eugenics. As Kühl (1994) and others have noted, while the eugenic era in the U.S. didn't necessarily "cause" Nazi eugenic policies such as sterilization, restrictive marriage laws, and euthanasia, they did pave the way for such policies, and were also used after the war to excuse some of those who were involved in these programs. In many ways, the objectification of devalued persons in Nazi Germany paralleled what had occurred within the context of the American eugenics program. The perception that such persons were a heavy burden that weighed down the German Volk was not only described in words but also in posters that showed middle-class Germans struggling under the weight of dysgenic persons (Proctor, 1988, p. 183). Friedlander (2004) notes that the objectification of those who were diagnosed as being mentally retarded or mentally ill, as well as other persons with disabilities, was characterized by the mechanistic operation of the T-4 killing centers that were part of the major formal German euthanasia program, as well as by the extreme depersonalization that was part and parcel of this system.

Tom Shakespeare (1994) wrote that when "disabled people are 'objectified' by cultural representations" they are presented as "passive [and] akin to animals" (p. 287). Certainly, there is a great deal of overlap between the object and animals metaphors, and over the course of the past decades a good deal of writing in the disability field has described and analyzed these overlapping metaphor themes. The object metaphor obviously has pertinence for disability studies beyond the eugenic era, and continues as a major theme in framing a stereotypical view of persons with disabilities (Garland Thomson, 2001). Moreover, persons with cognitive or intellectual disabilities may be particularly apt to be subject to widespread object metaphors, in part because cognitive functioning is often put forth as the principle characteristic that humanizes people and places them on a plane "above" animals (or objects). As noted above, hierarchically-based metaphors and rhetorics frequently coexist with the employment of both animal and object metaphors, and support all manner of paternalistic treatment.

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  1. I define such social control movements as those whereby concerted efforts are made to restrict the rights of identified minority groups.

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