To `Fill the Comfortable Cradles and Empty the Gutters': Maternalist Eugenics and Reproductive Inequalities in the United States

Gordon, Tonie, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Pugh, Allison, Sociology, University of Virginia

After the cruelties of the Holocaust exposed the potential for scientific racism to devolve into genocide, the practice of eugenics became stigmatized in the Western world. In 1950, a global panel of scientists working with UNESCO, reported that racial hierarchies are not rooted in biological fact. Consequently, by the 1960s, a number of social scientists pronounced the end of eugenics and other forms of scientific racism. To the contrary, eugenic infringements on women’s reproduction including coerced birth control, forced sterilization, compulsory reproduction and the genetic manipulation of the reproductive process has continued in the United States since this time. Such infringements on women’s reproduction, have in the post-civil rights era, increasingly targeted black women. The interrelated paradoxes of the continuation and simultaneous racialization of eugenics leads to the following questions: What mechanisms have sustained eugenics from the dawn of the twentieth century to modern day? And, in the post-Civil Rights Era, how has eugenics come to increasingly target women of color?
Most of the current multidisciplinary literature on eugenics and women’s reproduction and coupling or ‘maternalist politics’ documents eugenics without offering a theoretical framework that explains its continuance. Likewise, scholarship that takes up the relationship between eugenics and race examines eugenics as a consequence of racism without identifying its underlying processes. To more thoroughly access the mechanisms underlying maternalist eugenics, I have conducted a meta-analysis comparing the Age of Reform (1890-1940) and our contemporary Era of Neoliberalism (1980-2015). Comparing these periods has allowed for an analysis of the cultural dimension of maternalist eugenics within different configurations of the state-market relationship. Accordingly, I show how the politics of progressivism and reform as opposed to the politics of neoliberalism produced divergent reproductive inequities or as I refer to them, “reproductive dystopias”.
A process I call “image-to-policy transmutation” in which complex cultural representations of “the other” in political and scientific discourse translates into policy, underlie the practice of eugenics in each period. By calling attention to image-to-policy transmutation in each period, I show how groups of women based on race, class and notions of disability become targeted for negative eugenics including coercive birth control measures and forced sterilization. Simultaneously, I show how other women in each period become subjected to positive eugenics or manipulation to produce multiple, genetically “fit” children. This dissertation attends to the diffusion of cultural understandings of difference within the realms of scientific discourse, national politics and the market. As such, this research contributes to cultural scholarship that focuses on inequality and boundary-making. This dissertation, which is inextricably tied to contemporary U.S. policy-making, also contributes to the literature inside and outside of academe on reproductive justice.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Eugenics/Scientific Racism, Reproductive Inequalities, State-Market Relationship, Intersectionality, Public Policy
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