The Painful History Of Eugenics In Wisconsin

University Place: Sterilization Programs Enjoyed Scientific Credibility, Disproportionately Harmed Women
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A 1929 map created by the Swedish government documents the widespread use of eugenics-motivated sterilization in the United States.

Policies based on eugenics — the notion that humanity can essentially speed up its own evolution by weeding out people with "undesirable" traits — were once widespread in the United States. Eugenics became established as a respectable scientific field in the late 19th century, and had broad support among social and economic leaders, politicians and advocates for women's suffrage. The eugenics movement in the U.S. informed federal immigration restrictions and influenced forced-sterilization laws in at least 30 states.

The Nazis' use of eugenics, while influenced by American policies, eroded public support for the idea in the United States after World War II. But the legacy of eugenics continued to harm vulnerable populations in the form of forced sterilization into the 1960s and 1970s.

Wisconsin had its own role to play in the eugenics movement. Phyllis Reske, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's College of Letters and Science, discussed the state's eugenics program in a January 21, 2016, interview for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place. Reske wrote a 2013 journal article detailing Wisconsin's forced sterilization of women, titled "Policing The 'Wayward Woman.'"

In the interview, she detailed how eugenics resonated with the politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. People who violated the social mores of the times often were targeted for sterilization, and industrialists found that eugenics helped to deflect blame for poverty and other social ills away from capitalism and onto supposedly inferior genes. Reske detailed how Wisconsin's sterilization program had an outsized impact on women—and noted that, going back through the record, it's very hard to find evidence that anyone at the time listened to the voices of people being institutionalized.

Key facts

  • Indiana passed the first eugenics law in 1907. Wisconsin passed a eugenics law in 1913. Wisconsin's law targeted "mental defectives" and epileptics for sterilization. Eventually, about 30 states had similar laws. These laws varied by state, and there was never any federal equivalent, except, arguably, in immigration laws. Most states stopped their sterilization efforts by the early 1960s.

  • Dr. Alfred Wilmarth was the first superintendent for the Wisconsin Home for the Feeble-Minded in Chippewa Falls and was one of the chief supporters of the state's eugenics law.

  • States often defined "mental defectives" as people who received state aid, people in state institutions, and people who were promiscuous or otherwise transgressed against societal norms. They would also look at a person's family history, searching for relatives with these traits.

  • People whose families refused to allow them to be sterilized could end up being kept in institutions indefinitely.

  • UW-Madison professors Edward A. Ross and Charles Van Hise supported eugenics laws. Author, political activist and lecturer Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind, supported eugenics and euthanasia of mentally challenged babies.

  • Eugenicists also lobbied for laws requiring people to prove that they were fit in order to marry. But in Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court overturned that law.

  • Women were particularly vulnerable targets for eugenics laws because of the social mores of the time — if they departed from strict norms of gender roles and sexual behavior, for instance having children out of wedlock or even being caught in a saloon with a man, women could easily be deemed "defective." Men had an easier time getting paroled or fighting their cases and thereby escaping sterilization.

  • The average age of women sterilized under eugenics laws was 21.

  • Women were sterilized in an irreversible procedure in which their fallopian tubes were cut. 

  • About 80 percent of the more than 1,800 people sterilized in Wisconsin between 1913 and the early 1960s were women.

Key quotes

  • On the patients: "They had very little say in it, of course. Being in a state institution, obviously they couldn't afford a private institution, and so they had very little legal recourse. Part of their [the state's] procedure is that once a person was a candidate for sterilization, they would send a notice to a family member, a relative or their guardian, and if they don't get any notification back, that was considered consent."

  • On the scientific context for eugenics: "Back then, reputable doctors like [Dr. Alfred Wilmarth] were very much respected, and their addresses to medical societies, to legislatures, to women's clubs, to other social clubs, they were believed. They were trusted. They would throw out the statistical numbers. Back then, in regards to eugenics, they weren't under scrutiny like we are now with research. And so, they were readily believed."

  • On public support for segregating people with developmental disabilities from the rest of the population: "That was the attitude toward developmentally disabled people at the time — out of sight, out of mind."

  • On why suffragists supported eugenics laws despite their impact on women: "One of my professors said that class trumps gender, and these suffragists and other women, they were from the middle to upper classes, so they supported eugenics too, even though they were of the same gender. It's like, 'Well, I'm keeping my piety, why aren't they?'"
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