In August 1964, the North Carolina Eugenics Board met to decide if a 20-year-old Black woman should be sterilized. Because her name was redacted from the records, we call her Bertha. She was a single mother with one child who lived at the segregated O'Berry Center for African American adults with intellectual disabilities in Goldsboro. According to the North Carolina Eugenics Board, Bertha had an IQ of 62 and exhibited “aggressive behavior and sexual promiscuity.” She had been orphaned as a child and had a limited education. Likely because of her “low IQ score,” the board determined she was not capable of rehabilitation.
Instead the board recommended the “protection of sterilization” for Bertha, because she was “feebleminded” and deemed unable to “assume responsibility for herself” or her child. Without her input, Bertha’s guardian signed the sterilization form.
Bertha’s story is one of the 35,000 sterilization stories we are reconstructing at the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab. Our interdisciplinary team explores the history of eugenics and sterilization in the U.S. using data and stories. So far, we have captured historical records from North Carolina, California, Iowa and Michigan.
Eugenicists applied emerging theories of biology and genetics to human breeding. White elites with strong biases about who was “fit” and “unfit” embraced eugenics, believing American society would be improved by increased breeding of Anglo Saxons and Nordics, whom they assumed had high IQs. Anyone who did not fit this mold of racial perfection, which included most immigrants, Blacks, Indigenous people, poor whites and people with disabilities, became targets of eugenics programs.
Indiana passed the world’s first sterilization law in 1907. Thirty-one states followed suit. State-sanctioned sterilizations reached their peak in the 1930s and 1940s but continued and, in some states, rose during the 1950s and 1960s.
The team at the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab has uncovered some remarkable trends in eugenic sterilization. At first, sterilization programs targeted white men, expanding by the 1920s to affect the same number of women as men. The laws used broad and ever-changing disability labels like “feeblemindedness” and “mental defective.” Over time, though, women and people of color increasingly became the target, as eugenics amplified sexism and racism.
In North Carolina, which sterilized the third highest number of people in the United States – 7,600 people from 1929 to 1973 – women vastly outnumbered men and Black women were disproportionately sterilized. Preliminary analysis shows that from 1950 to 1966, Black women were sterilized at more than three times the rate of white women and more than 12 times the rate of white men. This pattern reflected the ideas that Black women were not capable of being good parents and poverty should be managed with reproductive constraint.
All forced sterilization campaigns, regardless of their time or place, have one thing in common. They involve dehumanizing a particular subset of the population deemed less worthy of reproduction and family formation. They merge perceptions of disability with racism, xenophobia and sexism – resulting in the disproportionate sterilization of minority groups.
Alexandra Minna Stern, Professor of American Culture, History, and Women's Studies, University of Michigan. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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