Eugenics was popular in the United States long before Nazis like Josef Mengele used it to promote racial purity. Here's some perspective on its popularity: even Helen Keller supported eugenics. But the history of eugenics in Virginia led to a pair of terrible laws that allowed the state to sterilize people against their will and ban whites from marrying non-whites.
The Virginia sterilization victims number at least 8,000, and they include a woman named Carrie Buck who was declared “feebleminded” after she was raped and her foster family had her committed. And that was only the start. When was the last person sterilized in Virginia? Shockingly, sterilization was legal in Virginia until 1979.
Along with sterilization, eugenicists promoted the “science of racial purity” by arguing that interracial marriage harmed America’s purity. On the same day that Virginia passed the law that sterilized Carrie Buck, they also passed the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which made it a crime for whites to marry non-whites. That law would not be overturned until Loving v. Virginia in 1967. But even more shocking, the Supreme Court reached a very different decision about forced sterilization.
Eugenics Was Marketed As A Science That Could Improve Society
At the beginning of the 20th century, eugenics was seen as cutting-edge science that could improve society. The term was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, and it held the promise of giving people the power to improve the human race. Galton theorized two ways that eugenics could help society, which he called positive and negative eugenics.
Positive eugenics promoted the use of education, tax incentives, and payments for healthy children to encourage the “right” people to procreate. In this scheme, a large family of the "right" kind of people would have lower taxes, for example. Education was supposed to convince “fit” people to procreate for the common good, while tax credits and bonus payments for children were also intended to encourage childbirth. But there was also a dark side to the eugenics movement that encouraged the state to pass laws to stop "unfit" people from procreating.
Eugenicists Targeted Interracial Marriages And People Defined As "Feebleminded"
Negative eugenics sought to actively discourage “unfit” people from procreating. Some of the methods were relatively tame, such as encouraging the “unfit” to voluntarily not have children, but eugenicists also encouraged the government to pass laws to restrict which Americans could procreate. Many miscegenation laws, designed to stop interracial marriages, were passed using the (completely bunk) “scientific” argument that “race mixing” degenerated the country’s genetic pool.
Arguments against interracial marriage existed long before the rise of eugenics, as this 1864 cartoon arguing that Lincoln’s policies would create a “miscegenation ball” show. But eugenics provided a “scientific” argument to ban interracial marriage. In 1913, 29 states had laws forbidding interracial marriages, and 22 of them penalized those unions with fines or prison terms. Eugenicists like Harry Laughlin promoted new laws based on eugenics like Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924.
And states also began passing laws arguing that the “unfit” should be sterilized to guarantee that their “genetic defects” would not be passed on to subsequent generations.
Sterilization Laws Claimed That The Feebleminded Were A Drain On Society
In the early 20th century, “feebleminded” was a broad category that included all sorts of people. It was defined as anyone who demonstrated abnormal behavior or very low scores on IQ tests, and feeblemindedness was also linked to promiscuity, criminality, and social dependency. Negative eugenics promised a solution to these social problems by ensuring that the feebleminded could not reproduce. The argument claimed that science could provide social and economic benefits to society by identifying the "unfit" and stopping them from reproducing.
In 1914, eugenicist Harry Laughlin, who was head of the Eugenics Record Office proposed a “eugenical sterilization law” that would stop the feebleminded from reproducing. Laughlin defined the category incredibly broadly, proclaiming them “socially inadequate” people who were “maintained wholly or in part by public expense.” Laughlin included the feebleminded in this category, along with the “insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed, and dependent.” Laughlin argued that these conditions were somehow genetic, and the only way to protect the public interest was sterilization.
Laughlin also targeted “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless, and paupers,” claiming that they were corrupted and should not be allowed to procreate.
The Story Of A "Feeble-Minded Tavern Girl" Convinced Americans To Pass Sterilization Laws
Eugenicists used Martin Kallikak as an example of the dangers of feebleminded people in the gene pool. Kallikak was an American Revolutionary War soldier who had children with two women: one was an upstanding Quaker woman who had seven “worthy children.” According to The Kallikak Family, a 1912 book written by eugenicist Henry Herbert Goddard, these descendants became “respectable citizens, men and women prominent in every phase of life.
But Martin also had children with a “feeble-minded tavern girl.” Their son became known as “Old Horror” and went on to have 10 children, creating a disreputable ancestral line. They were “the lowest types of human beings,” proving that even one child born by a “feeble-minded” mother could destroy America’s gene pool and cost society through the burden of “unfit” people.
This story would eventually be entered into the record when the Supreme Court was deciding whether sterilization laws were legal.