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The Curious Case of the Socialite Who Sterilized Her Daughter

In 1936, 22-year-old Ann Cooper Hewitt sued her mother in court for having her sterilized. Doctors had removed Ann's Fallopian tubes during an appendectomy, rendering her unable to bear children. The disputed part of the case was the reason why. Maryon Cooper Hewitt insisted she took the step because her daughter was feebleminded and promiscuous, both valid reasons for sterilization at the time. But there was also Ann's fortune inherited from her father, which would revert to her mother if she were to die without offspring. Witnesses declared that Ann was not at all feebleminded or mentally ill. But her lifestyle was not up to the public's rigorous standards of motherhood, and testimony revealed that her mother's lifestyle wasn't, either.

As the spotlight moved from Ann’s “adrift” ways to her mother’s, it became clear to the public that both women were on trial for the same offense: being unqualified for motherhood. Wendy Kline, who wrote a chapter on the case in her book, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom, explains that the public found nothing extraordinary about this focus, as 1930s society fixated on the ills of female sexuality and the importance of protecting maternal virtues during a time of social crisis. For Depression-era America, Kline writes, “the real problem was not financial but feminine.”

There was something else about this case that raised eyebrows: the unconventional use of sterilization. Ann appeared to have been sterilized because of environmental rather than genetic defects; she was the product of bad parenting, rather than bad genes. Furthermore, the involuntary procedure occurred in a private practice, rather than in an institutional setting. Ann was also wealthy, whereas the usual targets of sterilization (epileptic, intellectually disabled, and unemployed persons) were poor. If the court ruled in favor of Ann’s mother, these details could reinvigorate and redefine a flailing movement that embraced the practice of sterilization: eugenics.

The sensational case brought the ethics of sterilization into the public consciousness. If a family of wealthy socialites could be deemed unfit for parenthood, could anyone be safe from the eugenics movement? An article detailing the complicated case of Ann Cooper Hewitt also addresses the rise and fall of eugenics, at Narratively. The story is also available in audio form. -via Digg

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I found this story historically fascinating and horrifying. As a special education teacher, I've been interested in this "hidden history" of how people with cognitive and other disabilities were treated through the decades. It may astonish you to know that as recently as a few years ago, North Carolina was paying reparations to people who had been sterilized: this isn't a story from long, long ago!
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