Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

'It Is For The Mother': Feminists' Rhetorics of Disability During the
American Eugenics Period

Sharon Lamp
University of Illinois-Chicago
E-mail: slamp1@uic.edu


Since the inception of the current U.S. disability rights movement, there has been tension between mainstream American feminists and disability rights activists over disabled women's right to control our bodies. While many nondisabled women now take such freedom for granted, disabled women continue to have decisions about our bodies determined by others who are part of the dominant culture. Why have mainstream feminists, who base their ideology upon the fallacy of a social construct of "inferiority," been unable to generalize their analysis to include disabled women?

This essay contributes to women's and disability studies scholarship, exploring eugenic-period feminists' ideologies about disabled people to better understand the roots of the friction between these two movements. I compare the lives and work of two of the period's influential feminists: Charlotte Perkins-Gilman and Margaret Sanger, examining their use of eugenic language and ideology through close readings of papers, diaries and autobiographies in order to understand the formation of a movement to liberate non-disabled women at the expense of disabled people.

Keywords: Disability, Eugenics, Feminists, Charlotte Perkins-Gilman, Margaret Sanger

Note: Throughout this essay I use "disability" to describe a socially constructed category of people whose members have physical and mental impairments or differences deemed undesirable by 'normative' standards. I refer to members of this class in both modern vernacular; disabled people or people with disabilities, and that of the eugenics period, such as "unfit", "feeble-minded", "defective", etc. I italicize eugenic-period labels in order to keep the rhetoric intact while highlighting language now understood as disability slander.

'It Is For The Mother': Feminists' Rhetorics of Disability During the
American Eugenics Period

In 2005, Terri Schindler-Schiavo, a 41 year old disabled woman, galvanized the nation's attention, as her husband fought for the right to terminate her life. Ultimately, her husband won the right to remove Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, starving and dehydrating her until she died 13 days later. The following year in Illinois, a disabled woman speculated aloud on the possibility of a maternal role in the distant future. Her legal guardian reacted by initiating legal action to have her sterilized against her wishes. While Disability Rights groups protested for these women's right to control their own bodies, there has been no similar outcry from mainstream feminist organizations. Mainstream feminists, with arguments based on the fallacy of a social construct of "inferiority," have yet to generalize their analysis to include disabled people.

As 19th century scientific and social reformers sought to control defective bodies by separating, institutionalizing, and eliminating "idiots, imbeciles and morons," American women fought for control of their own bodies and fates. By examining the oft-overlooked intersection between feminists and disabled people during the American eugenics period (1850-1950), I seek to illuminate the historical role of feminists in the eugenics movement in order to gain a better understanding of the current tension between disability rights activists and feminists. In this analysis I compare the lives and work of two of the period's influential feminists: Charlotte Perkins-Gilman (1860-1935) and Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), examining their use of eugenic language and ideology which placed their feminist agenda in the eugenic mainstream, exploiting people with disabilities.

When Charles Darwin declared "Man is more powerful in body and mind than woman..." (Darwin: 1874: 619), he echoed the sentiments of his 19th century contemporaries as well as his predecessors. Women had always, (in Western culture) been stereotyped as biologically inferior to men (Golden: 1992). Portrayed as weak and feeble-minded, with no legal rights, pre-suffrage women were vulnerable to being "legally kidnapped," and involuntarily institutionalized by husbands or family members who wanted to be rid of them, particularly when they strayed too far from a socially acceptable "norm" (Geller and Harris: 1994). Dominant cultural belief was that women who exerted mental energy, stepped outside of the domestic sphere, or protested women's oppression were, by those activities, manifesting deviance; a sign of defect.

In 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, women produced a feminist bill of rights: the Declaration of Sentiments, in which they asserted women's equality, including the right to participate in formulating laws to which women must submit. Reacting to characterizations of being weak or inferior as slander, feminists deflected such portrayals by distancing themselves from these categories, and denied association of feminine gender with disability. Using an ableist line of thinking still in place today, 19th century women agreed that there was a category of hopelessly, inherently dependent defectives that should be subjected to social control, but they argued against women being included in this defective class simply by virtue of their sex. Without recognizing the oppressive treatment of the country's defective population as a important political issue, feminist Lucy Stone protested married women ranking with "insane people and idiots" in legal rights (Buhle: 1978: 67). The move by feminists to separate themselves from the devalued group of defectives without challenging the hierarchical value-system that produced it served to make disability central to feminism as a negative marker.

Gilman wrote that the 19th century was "distinguished not only by its large achievements in practical science and mechanical invention, but by swift strides in psychic progress...The development of the theory of Evolution was enough to give glory to this age: practically the entire range of the Women's Movement was within it." (Gilman: 1935: 234) Women were anxious to join the public debate and establish their place as a social and political force in eugenic discourse. Feminist historian Linda Gordon found that, "concern with eugenics was characteristic of nearly all feminists of the late nineteenth century" (Gordon: 1994: 28). Feminist involvement in eugenics continued well into the 20th century. Historian Edward Larson points out that during public hearings that preceded the passage of Alabama's sterilization bill in 1945, those supporting the bill were "well-flanked by ladies organizations" including the state federation of women's clubs, Planned Parenthood, and the American Association of University Women (Larson: 1995: 150).

In keeping with the era's rhetoric of biological determinism, women often used essentializing beliefs about female maternal instincts, morality, and "humane-ness" to capitalize upon eugenic notions of fitness. Feminists both reacted to and reinforced eugenic dogma as they argued against the inclusion of women in a category of people to be oppressed, but failed to protest the legitimacy of such categories or the existence of oppression. When eugenicists fretted that the nation was facing a rising tide of crime, physical and mental deterioration, and disease, feminists asserted female 'fitness' and pointed to social oppression as the cause of perceived female inferiority. When Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared in the now infamous Buck v Bell (1927) decision, "Society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes..." (Trent: 1994: 199), feminists supported the sterilization of such "prolific moron girls" (Kline: 2001: 30). When eugenicists debated methods of improving human stock, women capitalized on their biological role as both bearers and nurturers of that stock. The assertion has been made "it is for the mother, by the use of appropriate means to produce a poet, a thinker, an artist, an inventor, a philanthropist, or any other type of manhood or womanhood, desirable or undesirable, as she will," wrote Dr. Mary Melendy, in Modern Eugenics for Men and Women (Melendy and Frank: 1922: 118).

The Personal and the Political

Gilman and Sanger were raised in poor families and both experienced acquired and "hereditary" impairments and illnesses that might well have resulted in classification as defective or disabled in 20th or 21st century America. However, Gilman and Sanger became significant social actors in the feminist and eugenics movements and thereby circumvented public classification as useless or nonproductive.

Gilman valued her independence and her work and despised weakness, "I am meant to be useful and strong, to help many and do my share in the world's work..." (Hill: 1985: 63). When her impairment interfered with her ability to work, she sought out and attacked the presumed source of her defect -- women's subjugation. During her career, Charlotte Perkins-Gilman wrote six full-length nonfiction books, several novels, and hundreds of articles, poems, and lectures. In addition, she wrote every article for a monthly magazine, The Forerunner, which she edited and published for seven years. Yet Gilman was unsatisfied with her achievements and estimated she had lost 27 years of productivity due to her "nervous malady" which she described as "a constant dragging weariness miles below zero. Absolute incapacity. Absolute misery. To the spirit it is as if one were an armless, legless, eyeless, voiceless cripple." (Gilman: 1935: 91) Employing popular eugenic terminology, Gilman described herself as "weak, dark, and feeble-minded, limited of all usefulness." (Gilman: 1935: 110).

Working to cure socially induced female weakness and defect through women's liberation, Gilman addressed a painful aspect of her life, "...the interminable handicap under which I live" (Gilman: 1935: 210). To Gilman, a defective person was one who could not work or be productive. She abstracted herself from this category, struggling to pass as "normal." Gilman explains, "Since my public activities do not show weakness, nor my writings, and since brain and nervous disorder is not visible, short of lunacy or literal 'prostration,' this lifetime of limitation and wretchedness, when I mention it, is flatly disbelieved...What confuses them is the visible work I have been able to accomplish. They see activity, achievement; they do not see blank months of idleness..." (Gilman: 1935: 98). Because Gilman was deemed normal by the dominant culture she did not see herself as a 'real' defective. In an article for Socialist Psychology, Gilman wrote: "As for the unable, the real defectives, observed and measured from infancy, they should be sterilized at an early age to limit the supply...we can reduce the number of the wholly unfit..." (Gilman: 1935: 69).

Like Gilman, Margaret Sanger was no stranger to illness and impairment. Sanger was the sixth of 11 children born live to poor Irish-American parents. Throughout her childhood, Sanger witnessed her mother, who had tuberculosis, become progressively weaker. When her mother died at age 49, Sanger attributed her death to the strain of 18 pregnancies. Sanger's only daughter died of pneumonia at age five, two years after contracting polio (Sanger: 1938: 54), and Sanger herself experienced a host of impairments including tuberculosis, depression, a nervous disorder, a heart condition, alcohol and drug dependency and leukemia (Reed: 2003: 136).

Contrary to the prevailing eugenic belief that defectives produced more defectives, Sanger writes that her siblings were born healthy and without impairments: "Mother's eleven children were all ten-pounders or more, and both she and father had a eugenic pride of race. I used to hear her say that not one of hers had a mark or blemish, although she had the utmost compassion for those who might have cleft palates, crossed eyes, or be 'born sick'" (Sanger: 1938: 29). Not only did Sanger consider her bloodline eugenically fit, she did not see herself as being at the bottom of the class hierarchy. Raised in a shanty in the woods, Sanger envied the rich households on the hill with their small, clean, and healthy families and disdained the rest of the working poor as dirty and sickly. Sanger was grateful that she was not "like the poor children in the flats" (Sanger: 1938: 17).

The link between poverty, large families, maternal impairment and death that Sanger observed as a child resurfaced during her first career as a nurse in the impoverished immigrant neighborhoods of lower east-side Manhattan where she treated poor women suffering and dying from health problems related to numerous pregnancies as well as botched self-abortions. When anti-pornography laws prevented Sanger from sharing birth control information with her patients, she renounced her nursing career, resolving instead to "seek out the root of the evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were as vast as the sky" (Sanger: 1938: 92). Promising to rid women of unwanted pregnancies, Sanger was also attempting to rid the world of a source of personal grief: witnessing the death and disability of poor women. Sanger began her campaign promoting birth control to reduce poor women's suffering; to protect them from a cycle of poverty and defect. Sanger connected reproductive rights and responsibilities with eugenic goals and came to be recognized as "the leading propagandist for the artificial control of human reproduction" (Kennedy: 1970: 3)

Both Gilman and Sanger were diagnosed with "nervous prostration" (popularly called "hysteria"). Gilman's physician, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the foremost neurologist of his time (Golden: 1992) as well as an ardent eugenicist, prescribed a "rest-cure" treatment in the anti-feminist tradition, "Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time...Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, pencil or brush as long as you live". Mitchell reminded Gilman, "I've had two women of your blood here already" (Gilman: 1935: 95-96). Indeed, both of Gilman's great aunts, Harriett Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher, were intellectuals and both had experienced nervous disorders. The prevalent hereditarian attitudes of the day might lead us to expect Gilman to have blamed her genetic makeup for her disability. Yet Gilman, who sank into a deep depression after marrying reluctantly and giving birth to her only child a year later, attributed her malady to the unequal status of women and the gender-based discrimination of the times. In other words, it was the social oppression of being trapped in the unwanted institution of marriage and motherhood that caused her impairment rather than an inherent weakness in Gilman or in women generally. In addition, her male-prescribed treatment of enforced inactivity and domestic confinement for "hysteria" was injurious instead of healing, leading to greater impairment. Gilman believed that she never fully recovered from the harm done to her by the rest-cure treatment, and the experience later served as the inspiration for one of her most renowned works, The Yellow Wallpaper.

Like Gilman some 20 years earlier, Sanger's "nervous prostration" was treated with the "rest-cure". "Always I had to rest and rest and rest," Sanger wrote, "At end of the 8 months I was worse instead of better, and had no interest in living...to every suggestion I was negative, I was not even interested in my baby" (Sanger: 1938: 60). "Once free from the horrors of invalidism" she began to regain an interest in life, although she would suffer periodically from what she described as a "nervous malady," which was exacerbated when she was confined in the domestic sphere (Gray: 1979: 40). Not only do Gilman's and Sanger's experiences show that this particular gendered treatment didn't work, their testimony supports that of 21st century disabled people: that enforced confinement and circumscribed intellectual and physical activity contribute to poor health, exacerbating rather than mitigating impairment.

Unlike Gilman, Sanger does not appear to have pondered the origins of her impairments. Gilman wrote about and came to understand the source of her disablement as socially constructed. Yet Gilman also took personal responsibility for her status. She blamed herself for not resisting the social pressure to marry and then for not having the willpower to overcome her impairment, "You did it to yourself! You did it to yourself! You had health and strength and hope and glorious work before you -- and you threw it all away. Everything. You were called to serve humanity, and you cannot serve yourself. No good as a wife, no good as a mother, no good at anything. And you did it to yourself! The baby? I would hold her close-that lovely child-and instead of love and happiness, feel only pain. The tears ran down on my breast...even motherhood brought no joy" (Gilman: 1935: 91-92). Gilman's attempts to explore and "out" her mental illness were thwarted by her friends' denial of her impairment. Gilman wrote of her humiliation and frustration when her efforts to talk about her illness were met with "amiable laughter and flat disbelief." "What is the psychology of it?" she wrote, "Do these friends think it is more polite to doubt my word than to admit any discredit to my brain? Do they think I have been under some delusion as to all those years of weakness and suffering, or that I am pretending something in order to elicit undeserved commiseration? Or do they not think at all?" (Gilman: 1935: 104). Having no avenue for dialogue, Gilman writes that these years were spent in shame, discouragement and misery.

Despite recognizing oppression directed towards her as a woman as a cause of her suffering, Gilman did not come to a similar appreciation of the social oppression of people labeled unfit. Perhaps if her impairments had been more obvious, making it more difficult for her to pass as "normal" or if she had the basis for a more sophisticated understanding of her friends' reaction to her disablement, or even if she had support from other disabled people, she might have founded a Disability Rights movement as well as modern feminism. Instead, Gilman, unable to cultivate an identity that validated herself as a disabled woman, succumbed to the ideology that she otherwise decried, and history shows her as someone who used the popular fear and horror of defect to raise the status of women while reinforcing and re-inscribing the oppression of disabled people.

Like Gilman, Sanger's self-perception as outside of the category of unfit allowed her to appropriate eugenic tenets to feminist ideology. But just how was Sanger able to separate herself from the really poor, the truly unfit? Sanger escaped the ranks of the poor at age 19 when she married William Sanger, a budding architect and artist. Her membership in the upper classes was cemented by her second marriage to millionaire Noah Slee in 1922. Unlike her mother, Sanger would have only three planned pregnancies. While her mother's medical treatment consisted of doses of whisky administered by her father, Sanger's adult life took place in settings where health care and accommodations were readily available. During her nursing training, Sanger was afforded a disability accommodation when her work day was shortened several hours so that she could take walks in fresh air; then the treatment for tuberculosis. Access to quality health care and rehabilitation services allowed Sanger to pursue a career in the public spotlight. Sanger rose from the ranks of the poor, to become internationally acclaimed and welcomed by world leaders and thinkers.

Though Sanger promoted eugenic goals and used negative stereotypes of disability in her call for the elimination of defectives, she was not threatened by the eugenic beliefs that she perpetuated, or the associated methods of social control: "I am rich, I have brains, I shall do as I please" (Sanger: 1938: 121). Likewise, Gilman did not seem to explore the obvious implication that she could be considered defective. A few years before her death, a New Jersey physician's testimony at the Third International Eugenics conference (1932) endorsed the sterilization of even "feeble-minded" who do not fall into that hereditary group." Gilman's self-descriptions place her within this group for whom mandatory sterilization had become medically and socially acceptable.

Sanger lived the last five years of her life in a nursing home and ultimately succumbed to leukemia at age eighty-seven. Gilman declared herself "useless" at age 75 after being diagnosed with inoperable (but non-symptomatic) cancer and ended her life by inhaling chloroform. In a final act of "social-consciousness," Gilman claimed that her death was in support of euthanasia (Gilman: 1935). While Sanger does not appear to have been actively concerned with social reforms at the end of her life, Gilman may have seen her suicide as a way of redeeming herself in a world that had come to see useless people as toxic to the nation's health. Her suicide can also be seen as a failure to find disability pride and emerge as a strong, proud, disabled woman.

Constructing Eugenic Motherhood

Neither Gilman nor Sanger had a comprehensive understanding of either eugenic theories, or the evolutionary theory grounding eugenics. Historians--feminist or otherwise-- do not portray them as eugenically sophisticated. Still, both women participated in the popular scientific discourse of the time and their works mimic the common social transpositions of scientific vocabulary and topics. Using eugenic rhetoric to challenge the social construction of women and motherhood, they argued for reproductive and domestic freedom in order to improve the lives of women. Gilman and Sanger saw women's liberation from involuntary domestic and maternal roles as key to equality and progress.

While Darwin believed that evolutionary variation could move a species in any direction, Gilman and Sanger applied the term "evolution" in a popularized sense, synonymously with "progress" and "improvement." Linking women's progress to the progress of the race, they promised women's cooperation in regenerating the gene pool, theorizing that emancipated women would realize their full evolutionary potential and develop superior maternal abilities which would include the role of eugenic enforcers. At a time when women were viewed as the inferior sex, Gilman and Sanger used maternalist rhetoric to highlight women's superior biological and social value as bearers and nurturers of the nation's offspring (Gordon: 1994: 55).

Distancing themselves from the defective category, Gilman and Sanger joined in the eugenic discourse and advanced the position of pre-suffrage feminists in claiming female primacy in the regeneration of the human race. As early as 1886, Black feminist, educator and author of "Voice from the South," Anna Julia Cooper argued in Womanhood: A Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race, "There is material in them [Black women of the South] well worth your while, the hope in germ of a staunch, helpful, regenerating womanhood on which, primarily, rests the foundation stones of our future as a race" (Lemert: 1998: 61). Gilman echoes this sentiment, "If our human method of reproduction is defective, let the mother answer. She is the main factor in reproduction" (Gilman: 1898: 92). In the 20th century, Margaret Sanger reiterates, "there are weighty authorities who assert that through the female alone come those modifications of form, capacity and ability which constitute evolutionary progress" (Sanger: 1922: 238).

Not only do Gilman and Sanger demand that women reject the misprisions of patriarchal culture, they also assign to women full, and a seemingly unrealistic, responsibility for producing superior offspring. Gilman declared, "Nothing the man has ever done or can do removes from motherhood its primal responsibility. Suppose the female...should mate with mangy, toothless cripples-and so produce weak, malformed young, and help exterminate her race. Should she then blame him for the result?" (Gilman: 1898: 100). A most imperious eugenic enforcer, Gilman sets high standards for good motherhood which, "like every other natural process is to be measured by results. It is good or evil as it serves its purpose. Human motherhood must be judged as it serves its purpose to the human race. Primarily, its purpose is to reproduce the race by reproducing the individual; secondarily, to improve the race by improving the individual" (Gilman: 1898: 88).

Sanger's writing in her most influential books, Woman and the New Race and Pivot of Civilization, demonstrates that her feminist ideology was grounded in negative eugenics; the prevention of defect. Referencing research done by the Francis Galton Laboratory in National Eugenics and the First International Eugenics Congress (1913), Sanger claimed that "the less mentally and physically equipped individuals had larger families" (Sanger: 1920: 165) and that larger families had a higher infant mortality rate. Tying birth control to eugenic ideology, Sanger describes birth control as "nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit or preventing the birth of defectives or those who become defective" (Sanger: 1920: 74). Predating the Nazi use of negative eugenics leading up to and continuing through WWII, which claimed more than 270,000 disabled lives (Mitchell and Snyder: 2003), Sanger viewed the lives of disabled infants as not worth living. Describing eugenic goals as a feminist act of compassion, "it is her heart that the sight of the deformed, the subnormal, the undernourished, the overworked child smites first and hardest" (Sanger: 1920: 122), Sanger concludes, "the most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it" (Sanger: 1920: 88).

In contrast to the negative eugenics vein prominent in Sanger's campaign, Gilman's rhetoric highlighted positive eugenics; the promotion of "superior" births. Gilman deflected eugenics' patriarchal arguments that changes in gender roles would be disastrous to the race by claiming that emancipated women would become "cooperative," superior, mothers who would produce superior offspring. Employing both feminist and eugenics rhetorics, Gilman argued that sex discrimination prevented women's evolutionary progress and was the source of a plethora of social evils ranging from mental myopia to the ruin of the race. By exploring the themes in two of her best known works, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, an analytical socio-political text, and Herland; a utopian romance novel, I show how Gilman merged women's rights and eugenic discourses, directing these seemingly disparate ideologies toward a common goal: improvement of the human race.

Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution.

One of the principles grounding eugenics in popular discourse was the economic argument and both Gilman and Sanger portray the economic independence of women as the key to their socio-political as well as biological advancement. Gilman gained international acclaim when she wrote and published Women and Economics in 1898. In this work, Gilman points to women's worth by declaring women the moral superiors of men and asserting the liberated woman's potential economic value as regenerator of the human race. Gilman traces the historical development of gender roles and then calls for their radical revision as she shows readers that women's oppression is the result of arbitrary conditions and that, "by removing these conditions, we may remove the evil resultant" (viii). She hoped "to reach thinking women and urge upon them a sense of their racial importance as the makers of men" while promoting her maxim "to leave the world a creature better than its parent: this is the purpose of right motherhood" (Gilman: 1898: 89).

Gilman explains the crucial role of economic relations in evolution and argues, "all the varied activities of economic production and distribution...should be common to both sexes" (Gilman: 1898: 27). Gilman contends that because women's economic dependence on men caused weakness in women, they became defective mothers contributing to the degeneration of the race. Gilman complains that American men "have bred a race of women weak enough to be handed about like invalids..." (Golden: 1992: 93) and elaborates: "...because of the economic dependence of the human female on her mate, she is modified to sex to an excessive degree. This excessive modification she transmits to her children; so steadily implanted in the human constitution is the morbid tendency to excess in this relation, which has acted so universally upon us in all ages..." (Gilman: 1898: 20).

Both feminists and eugenicists wanted liberation; feminists from the "tyranny of male oppression" and eugenicists from the "tyranny of the weak." Gilman commiserates with eugenicists over the 'burden' of defectives, "... always lurking in the back of your mind, the dreadful consciousness of other people's poverty, of the ghastly mill grinding out its product of incapables, defectives, degenerates, its swelling stream of disease and crime..." (Gilman: 1935: 112). Gilman theorized that female oppression fed the 'ghastly mill' by producing defective women and mothers "on whom the future of the race depends" (Gilman: 1898: 45). Mingling popular economic theories with eugenic and feminist tenets around issues of race improvement, motherhood, and domestic spheres, Gilman expands pangenesis (heritability of environmental conditions) to include social factors. According to Gilman, bad economic and sex relations cause disease and "makes us the sickly race we are" (Gilman: 1898: 13).

Liberating women from unpaid domestic roles was a key element of Gilman's program. Arguing that work was the first right of every human being Gilman claimed that in order for women to achieve full eugenic fitness, they must have a choice in determining their line of work. Gilman sought to transform domestic work into a wage-earning specialization. Gilman pointed out that to deny women pay for housekeeping and the right to work outside of the home constituted "excessive sex-distinction" which she warned, "are carried to such a degree as to be disadvantageous to our progress as individuals and as a race" (Gilman: 1898: 17). Depicting families in which women were confined to the domestic sphere and denied the stimulation of life outside the home as "primitive homes," Gilman links domestic confinement to a "mad farmer's wife" phenomenon. Pointing to data showing that asylums housed "a greater proportion of insane women among farmers' wives than in any other class," Gilman reasoned, "in the cities where there is less home life, people seem to stand it better" (Gilman: 1898: 132). However, in homes based on the economic dependence of women, Gilman explained, "with its smothering drag on individual development—women today, confined absolutely to this strangling cradle of the race, go mad by scores and hundreds" (Gilman: 1898: 132).

Gilman traces the trajectory of the social oppression of women from their unequal economic status and forced dependency on men, to women's weakened bodies and ultimately to the demise of the human race. Gilman carefully lays out the problem and solution. Not only does she explain why women should be released from the domestic sphere, she shows the feasibility of such a change. Her plans, like a modern Kibbutz, include rearranging domestic life in order to free women from the constraint of the home by a system of social motherhood in which domestic services such as laundry, childcare, and cooking are professionalized public services provided by specialists. Gilman argues that emancipation of women would make women physically and mentally stronger and thus more capable of producing eugenically fit offspring to regenerate the race, "The duty of the mother," Gilman explains, "is first to produce children as good as or better than herself...to make better people, then to educate the young so that each generation would show a finer, fuller growth, both physically and mentally than the preceding" (Gilman: 1898: 93).


In Herland (1915), Gilman examines social ills in a fictive tale of race improvement brought about by female separatism and primacy. Gilman adapts evolutionary thinking exposing the social construct of female inferiority. She imagines an all-female society in which women have evolved "physically and mentally" into a self-sustaining "progressive" civilization devoted to motherhood and race improvement. Linking women's liberation with a perfected society utterly lacking disability and defect, Gilman creates poster girls for the norm, who "made it our business to train out, to breed out, whenever possible, the lowest types" (Gilman: 1915: 83).

Herland posits women's emancipation and its "positive" implication: race regeneration and attendant ouster of disability. Gilman describes a well-ordered state in which women, free from gender oppression, create an advanced civilization of healthy, intelligent females who, by practicing eugenics were able to reach their full potential. Herlanders claimed that they had bred out "sex instinct" and women who manifested "sex-feelings;" were considered "atavistic exceptions" and "were often by that very fact denied motherhood" which "was entrusted only to the most fit" (Gilman: 1915: 93). The practice of sex-distinction that had set women and the race back was written out of Herland. The women of Herland dressed in practical clothing, wore short hair and engaged in intellectual pursuits. Devoid of 19th century 'feminine' mannerisms, Herlanders had no use for males as they reproduced parthenogenetically ("virgin birth").

Gilman's tale begins as three 19th century American male explorers are taken into custody by the female inhabitants of a strange and remote Amazonian land that they call Herland. In a subversion of 19th century Western social customs, the men are subjected to maternal authority as they are guarded and tended to throughout their stay, during which the Herlanders and the explorers exchange information regarding their respective histories and cultures. Eugenics permeates the text as the explorers take in the crime-free, self-sufficient, physically and intellectually 'advanced' Herlanders and compare them to their own society where disease, crime, poverty, "abnormals," and overcrowding were common. One explorer, threatened by the female-dominated society, declares the Herlanders "morbid one-sided cripples." The Herlanders in turn, see him as an incorrigible male chauvinist who is therefore regressive and dangerous. He is guarded by a woman described as "grave and strong, as sadly patient as the mother of a degenerate child..." (Gilman: 1915: 132).

Gilman employs eugenic rhetoric in Herland to invoke images of noble, "fit" people being overrun by masses of degenerates. Gilman's fictive explorers portray Western society as "an everlasting writhing mass of underbred people trying to get ahead of one another -- some few on top, temporarily, many constantly crushed out underneath, a hopeless substratum of paupers and degenerates and no serenity or peace for anyone -- no possibilities for really noble qualities among the people at large." (Gilman: 1915: 69) Overpopulation and economic concerns manifested in Herland's history. In the story, the land had become overcrowded. The Herlanders describe "a period of negative eugenics" during which the women "had to forgo motherhood for their country" (this was done by willpower). Meeting in council to determine "how to make the best kind of people" the Herlanders calculated their country's maximum population and agreed that "with our best endeavors this country will support about so many people with the standard of peace, comfort, health, beauty, and progress we demand" (Gilman: 1915: 61). "Very well. That is all the people we will make," the women concluded (Gilman: 1915: 69).

Initially the Herlanders' hope for their children "was merely the hope of bearing better ones." They soon recognized that "however the children differed at birth, the real growth lay later-through education" (Gilman: 1915: 61). "Soft inheritance" or the theory that alterations in behavior can trigger changes in form is believed to have been "folk wisdom" long before Jean-Baptiste Lamarck articulated his principle of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. (Gould: 2002). This component of Lamarck's evolutionary theory was widely discredited in later scientific circles and by eugenicists who shared Galton's view that ability was strictly inherited. Gilman's male characters mirror this view when they explain to the Herlanders, "But acquired traits are not transmissible...Weisman has proved that" (Gilman: 1915: 79).

The explorers admired the homogenous Herlanders of whom they observed, "physically they were more alike than we, as they lacked all morbid and excessive types" (Gilman: 1915: 78). Darwin might have been amused at the transformation of evolutionary concepts such as a variation in reproductive systems in 20th century fictive narrative. However, it is likely that he would have cautioned against the lack of genetic variation and the idealization of cultures whose entire population fell in the middle of every bell curve. Had Herland been real, its population's lack of genetic variation would have rendered them vulnerable to catastrophic extinction from bacteria and viruses to which they had no genetic or acquired immunity; a deadly defect that seems to have escaped the author's attention.

"Of course we have our faults," the Herlanders admitted, "but it is —yes, quite six hundred years since we have had what you call a 'criminal'" (Gilman: 1915: 83). "Do you really think it is to our credit that we have muddled along with all our poverty and disease and the like?" one explorer mused, "They have peace and plenty, wealth and beauty, goodness and intellect. Pretty good people, I think!" (Gilman: 1915: 81). In the end, when it is time for the explorers to return home, one would stay behind with his Herlander bride, explaining "Why should I want to go back to all our noise and dirt, our vice and crime, our disease and degeneracy?" (Gilman: 1915: 133).

From Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Responsibilities

Despite the prevalence of eugenic ideology, Sanger's writings during her early activist years (1912 — 1916) do not reference eugenics. Instead they reflect Marxist themes and were published in The Woman Rebel, a feminist journal Sanger edited. Portraying birth control as a tool by which working class women would liberate and protect themselves from the burden of poor health and mortality caused by unwanted pregnancies, Sanger implored women to control their reproductive abilities: "working women should not produce children who will become slaves to feed, fight and toil for the enemy-capitalism" (Kennedy: 1970: 110). In October of 1914, shortly after Sanger began publishing The Woman Rebel, she was charged with violating anti-obscenity laws. Seeking to delay her trial, Sanger fled to England where Havelock Ellis, known for his work on sexual abnormality, introduced her to eugenics (Reed: 2003). During this and later European visits, Sanger established relationships with eugenic-minded colleagues including H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw and attended secret meetings of neo-Malthusianists, who supported approaches such as sterilization, contraception, and abortion to reduce the population of the lower classes.

In her early years Sanger did not enjoy the support of mainstream feminist leaders such as Charlotte Perkins-Gilman, who was uncomfortable with Sanger's openness about sex. Gilman's feminist ideology de-emphasized sexuality, while Sanger's feminist agenda supported free (equal) expression of sexuality. In her autobiography Sanger complains: "it seemed unbelievable that they could be serious in occupying themselves with what I regarded as trivialities when mothers within a stone's throw of their meetings were dying shocking deaths. Who cared whether a woman kept her Christian name-Mary Smith instead of Mrs. John Jones? Who cared whether she wore her wedding ring? Who cared about her demand for the right to work?" (Sanger: 1935: 108-109).

After Sanger returned to the United States in 1915 her campaign changed from radical to conservative, from an anarchist demand to free the poor from exploitation to a demand for social control of the poor. Historian Daniel Kevles found that eugenic supporters "were largely middle to upper middle class, White, Anglo-Saxon, predominantly Protestant, and educated" (Kevles: 1985: 64). Now well established in upper class society, Sanger's case for birth control had changed emphasis from protecting poor people from becoming unfit to including poor people per se in the unfit category; from birth control to prevent maternal impairment and mortality among poor women to birth control as a solution to a host of eugenically defined social problems: female oppression, poverty, disease, crime, war, feeble-mindedness and hereditary afflictions (Kennedy: 1970).

Sanger's campaign for birth control reached its height of influence during the "heyday" of eugenics (1920-1945), when full-blown nativist concerns over the supposed declining birth rate of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants, combined with economic concerns over the "burden" of the unfit and eugenical concerns over the fecundity of the unfit. Two of her most widely read publications; Woman and the New Race (later re-named The New Motherhood) and Pivot of Civilization were published after her full indoctrination into eugenics, in 1920 and 1922, respectively. In them Sanger compiles "every conceivable argument, emotional, rational, and polemical, in support of birth control" (Kennedy: 1970: 89). Sanger's teachings situated poor women as unfit to contribute to the gene pool, establishing her arguments for birth control in the popular eugenic discourse. Sanger exploits the fear of human degeneration in order to launch arguments for "voluntary motherhood" (birth control) as a way of remedying this as well as a myriad of other social problems.

Woman and the New Race (1920) and Pivot of Civilization (1922)

Gilman's eugenical attention was directed primarily towards people labeled defective and feeble-minded while Sanger expanded the class of eugenically unfit to include the poor. Sanger in Woman and the New Race, places birth control within a feminist discourse of female sovereignty and reproductive rights and responsibilities. Medical teachings and social rhetoric of the time promoted the belief that overpopulation and poverty led to heritable impairments and defects (Melendy and Frank: 1922). Overriding her early lived experience that might have demonstrated little to no connection between large, poor families and defective offspring, Sanger connects with "scientific" thinking to continue her attack on the poor, "Everywhere we see poverty and large families going hand in hand. The least fit to carry on the race are increasing most rapidly. Many of the children thus begotten are diseased or feeble-minded; many become criminals" (Sanger: 1920: 279). Calling upon feminist rights, Sanger's premise was that birth control would set mothers free and thereby accomplish eugenical goals, "Motherhood, when free to chose the father, free to chose the time and number of children who shall result from the union, automatically works in wondrous ways. It refuses to bring forth weaklings, it refuses to bring forth slaves...it withholds the unfit, brings forth the fit." (Sanger: 1920: 45)

In her autobiography, Sanger credits Havelock Ellis with her indoctrination into eugenics. Not only did Ellis advise Sanger as she wrote Woman and the New Race, his preface to her book serves as the thesis for the arguments she laid out as he explains "the secret:" "Woman, by virtue of motherhood is regulator of the birth rate, the sacred dispenser of human production. It is the deliberate strength and measurement of human production that the fundamental problems of the family, the nation, the whole brotherhood of mankind find their solution" (Sanger: 1920: viii). Sanger advances Ellis' teachings, positing that women had allowed men to force childbearing on them and by not resisting founded and perpetuated the tyrannies of the earth, "unknowingly creating the slums, filling asylums with the insane and institutions with other defectives" (Sanger: 1920: 4). Thus, women owe a debt to humanity that can only be repaid by practicing birth control and raising awareness as to women's historic role in the degeneration of the human race, as Sanger says, "until she knows the evil her subjection has wrought to herself, to her progeny and to the world at large she cannot wipe out that evil" (Sanger: 1920: 7).

Sanger seeks to repay her portion of woman's debt by educating early 20th century American women on just how much evil subjugated women have caused humanity. Sanger's Woman and the New Race is an exhausting compilation of "evils" for which she holds mothers not practicing birth control responsible yet it is dedicated to her mother "who bore eleven live babies." A primary theme in Woman and the New Race as well as in eugenic ideology is the belief in the hyper-fertility of the unfit, "the feebleminded are notoriously prolific in reproduction" (Sanger: 1920: 41). Sanger agreed with eugenicists that unfit families were likely to produce "another crop of human weaklings, who in turn become victims" (Sanger: 1920: 43). Expanding on public alarm over the fecundity of the unfit, Sanger joins these concerns to a host of other fears of the time, "Unwanted children, poverty, ill health, misery, death-these are links in the chain" (Sanger: 1920: 75). Sanger blames mothers for the "misery" of innocent offspring, "for the overpopulation of children who would become child laborers, physically and mentally weakened, only to produce human beings whose deficiencies are more than their own. From these same elements come the feebleminded and other defectives" (Sanger: 1920: 40). Linking poverty and overpopulation to the degeneration of the race, Sanger presumes that poor women can break the chain by willfully taking control of their reproductive abilities. Capitalizing on the hegemony of eugenics, Sanger assures women of widespread support for birth control, "Social workers, physicians and reformers cry out to stop the breeding of these, who must exist in want until they become permanent members of the ranks of the unfit" (Sanger: 1920: 2).

Sanger connects maternal defect to unwanted pregnancies to ill-health and deficient parenting, "The mother of too many children, in a crowded home, where want, ill health and antagonism are perpetually created is deprived of this —she can give nothing to her child of herself...instead a mother is tired, nervous, irritated and ill-tempered: a determent often instead of a help to her children. Motherhood becomes a disaster and childhood a tragedy" (Sanger: 1920: 53). Sanger points out, "Eugenicists correctly contend that the parents should be in good mental and physical health, when the child is conceived. They do well to insist that it is the first material right of the child to be 'well-born'" (Sanger: 1920: 65).

If the evils wrought upon the family by uncontrolled pregnancies were not enough to convince "thinking women" to support her cause, Sanger expands her analysis to the neighborhood, and the world. She portrays unwanted pregnancy as socially and economically threatening, "a burden of invalidism...exciting a serious effect on the well-being of the community" (Sanger: 1920: 71). Sanger uses Social Darwinism in her economic argument for birth control: "The burden of supporting these unwanted types has to be born by the healthy elements of civilization. Funds that should be used to raise the standard of our civilization are diverted to the maintenance of those who should never have been born. In addition to this grave evil we witness the appalling waste of women's health and women's lives by too frequent pregnancies..." (Sanger: 1920: 58). In addition, Sanger claimed that unwanted pregnancies contributed to overpopulation which, in the struggle over limited resources, caused wars in which the strong and fit were killed, leaving the weak and helpless (Sanger: 1920: 161).

Pivot of Civilization echoes the premises laid out in Woman and the New Race and in many ways can be read as its second volume. A notable addition in Pivot of Civilization is a chapter ostensibly devoted to a criticism of eugenics: "The Dangers of Cradle Competition." Supporters of Sanger have cited this chapter as evidence that Sanger has been unfairly portrayed as a eugenics advocate. However, the essay's clearest criticism of eugenics is that "it has persistently refused to give any help toward extending the knowledge of contraceptives to the exploited classes" (Sanger: 1922: 183), a claim not altogether true. Sanger credits eugenicists for demonstrating the poor physical and mental condition of the human race (Sanger: 1922: 175). She accepts the results of standardized tests of mental capacity, using World War I army intelligence tests to fuel public fear that those of lesser intelligence were overrunning the country. Noting the work of prominent eugenicist Professor Pearson for showing that, "if fertility be correlated with anti-social heredity characters, a population will inevitably degenerate" (Sanger: 1922: 174-175), Sanger declares the feeble-minded the "great biological menace to the future of civilization" (Sanger: 1922: 176). Later in the chapter Sanger scoffs at the idea of judging the fitness of newborns, "Who shall say who is fit or unfit?," Sanger asks in seeming criticism of class and sex bias of eugenicists (Sanger: 1922: 181), yet only a few pages later Sanger answers the question as she credits eugenics with pointing out the "network of imbecility and feeblemindedness that has been sedulously spread through all strata of society" (Sanger: 1922: 187).

It is questionable as to whether Sanger ever truly identified with poor women, however we do know that Sanger ultimately identified with feminist ideology more than she identified with eugenic beliefs. Although Sanger supported marriage and reproductive restrictions for the unfit, she doggedly objected to positive eugenics' promotion of larger families from the fit (Ordover: 2003). This did not sit well with positive eugenicists and many distanced themselves from what they considered Sanger's radicalism, taking with them many who supported the simultaneous application of both positive and negative eugenics (Kline: 2001). Jeopardizing the endorsement of eugenic leaders, Sanger steadfastly refused to support the eugenic argument that fit women were responsible for bearing more children, a concept Sanger saw as anti-feminist and oppressive to women. Instead, the primary tension between birth control and eugenic supporters was how birth control would be administered. While eugenicists were interested in developing methods of control over a public body, Sanger saw birth control as a method of individual (feminist) control over the body. According to Sanger, a woman's individual control must "come from within...and not imposed from without...Motherhood must be the responsible and self-directed means of human expression and regeneration" (Sanger: 1922: 281).

Sanger began her public career with the goal of improving the lives of poor women by legalizing the dissemination of birth control information and freeing women from the economic burden of large families and poor health. As she cemented membership in the upper class, her pleas for birth control in order to protect the poor from suffering waned. Instead, she came to portray birth control as a method of social control and demanded it in order to protect the wealthy from the prolific poor, whom she portrayed as unfit and a national threat. Ultimately, Sanger incorporated eugenic ideology in the goals of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, established in 1952, which developed as its second objective, "research institutions to be established by scientists classifying basic factors in eliminating harmful dysgenic births in the nation" (Reed: 2003: 273).

Sanger's supporting arguments evolved over time, however, her commitment to ensuring women's access to birth control did not waver. Sanger's framing of birth control changed from portraying birth control as a method of protecting poor women from maternal defect and the burden of defective offspring to birth control as a eugenics tool: a way to protect the fit from the prolific poor and unfit. Sanger's contribution to the eugenic debates included stretching the category of defectives to include poor and second wave immigrant populations.

From Housekeepers to World-makers

Gilman and Sanger's efforts to empower women led to their own climb up the social ladder. In doing so, both women tapped into the influence of patriarchal eugenics in order to gain improved social standing for themselves and other middle class women. Gilman and Sanger campaigned for the rights of a social group they identified with: women. They did not, however, identify with the eugenical class of defectives as they might have done, and while challenging notions of gender-based inferiority, they failed to challenge other bases for such notions. Further, they did not recognize the social construction of the "true defective" nor did they speak out against eugenics along the lines of disability. Although Gilman and Sanger disregarded the plight of other minority groups, they were still able to see themselves as working in the best interest of humanity. In their view, it became the fit class that was vulnerable and in need of protection from the 'tyranny of the weak,' the unfit. Gilman and Sanger succeeded in shifting eugenic targets but they didn't question the need to construct a class of eugenically unfit. Instead of challenging such social hierarchies, Gilman and Sanger would, like many today, struggle to "pass" or deny their own vulnerability in order to keep from slipping onto the bottom rung of lethal social hierarchies.

Gilman and Sanger presented the public with new ideas that served to expand the range of women's choices. At the same time, they carried forward old ideas of mental and physical difference from the "norm" as a signifier of inferiority and thus kept the newly gained choices out of reach of disabled women. Eugenicists co-opted feminists such as Gilman and Sanger, who considered themselves compassionate and humane, into the role of eugenic enforcers; the ultimate exclusionists. Both devoted their careers to resolving social problems that caused them profound pain in their personal lives. Gilman and Sanger contributed to raising women from the lowly social role of disempowered housekeepers to the most powerful of roles as world-makers. In the process however, they discriminated against people with disabilities and perpetuated negative stereotypes of disability that still have profound power into the 21st century. The rhetoric of feminism rings hollow. Disabled women continue to be excluded from mainstream feminism, denied the right to work, raise families, live in communities, and participate fully in public life.

Both Gilman and Sanger convey that unwanted social roles had deleterious effects upon women's physical and emotional health. Modern day feminists have carried forward the understanding of earlier feminists such as Gilman and Sanger, that personal control and autonomy is linked to individual health and well-being (Freidan: 1984). Still, 21st century feminists have yet to answer the lonely plea of Elizabeth Stone whose religious differences with her family resulted in her incarceration in McLean Asylum (Charlestown, Massachusetts) from 1840-1842. Stone pointed out that forced institutionalization is always unjust, "If I had [emphasis added] lost my reason is it right to take advantage of a crazy person and destroy happiness?" (Geller and Harris: 1994: 41). Accordingly, it behooves all who work 'on behalf of' or otherwise "champion" the causes of oppressed populations to understand historical relationships and to probe personal and collective motives in order to recognize our own ideological participation in efforts intended to improve the lives of a minority group, but all too often at the expense and neglect of other devalued populations.


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