Fadeaway Girls: Victims Twice Over

What does it look like when the state only partially recognizes an individual as a person with basic human rights? Like they’re only half there and their opinion is not worth considering. To answer that question we can look at The United States. According to Ellen Bush, the editor of the University of North Carolina Press’ blog, we should specifically be looking at North Carolina. During its eugenics campaign, North Carolina used forced sterilization to violate people and their right to command their bodies. It seemed to only recognize their humanity as long as it was convenient to convict them and dole out a punishment. Afterwards, the state seemed to ignore the fact that they were people with rights that needed to be protected. People whose rights were violated.

Ellen’s blog post is being used to give voice to Johanna Schoen, a graduate student at UNC, whose research brought public awareness to North Carolina’s eugenics history. Let’s look at the numbers cited by Johanna. Between the years 1929 and 1975, 7,600 people were ordered to be sterilized by the state of North Carolina. [2] Of that number of people, over 7,000 individuals were actually sterilized. Eighty-four percent of those people were women (5,880 women). A third of the people sterilized were minors (2,333 minors), and most of the people were victims of rape or incest [3].

This system was designed in the hopes of bettering society by controlling the unwanted members. Looking back today we can see this attempt was misguided at best. What was shocking to me was when Johanna said that most of the people forcibly sterilized were actually victims of previous crimes. [4] How did these victims come to be targets of the State?

We can look at the effects assault have on a person. According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network’s (RAINN) website, the effects of sexual assault can be the following: post traumatic stress disorder which manifest in severe feelings of anxiety, stress, or fear; substance abuse; self-harm; self-injury; depression; and somatic body memories, where physical problems manifest for no medical reason due to stress from traumatic memories. [4]

These byproducts of assault—depression, alcoholism, criminality, and even epilepsy—were also used as deciding factors for someone to be sterilized. The online exhibit, Social Origins of Eugenics [in text link 5], talks about eugenicists and what they were looking for. “Eugenicists, however, were most interested in mental and behavioral traits—such as epilepsy, intelligence, manic depression, feeblemindedness, alcoholism, and criminality.” [5]

People—mostly women coping with trauma—were turned into what the system was targeting for the eugenics project. In a way, these women were victims twice over. They were victims of past assault and victims of the state’s program which featured lack of oversight. That means there was virtually no one to answer to regarding treatment procedures. Information about the procedures were also misrepresented to the victims. Sometimes they were told the effects could be reversed. Victims of the eugenics program were also threatened into compliance. Procedures were carried out without decision makers meeting the victim or even taking the simple courtesy of reading their file. [6]

The online exhibit had a quote that really resonated with me. “Eugenics used the cover of science to blame the victims for their own problems.” [7] They believed the problem was not with society’s view of women, but the problem lied within the individual woman, and an individual could be corrected whether they wanted to be or not. The state recognized they were people who needed to be punished, but the state did not recognize their human rights as individuals. This strange duality was something each victim of the eugenics program shared. They were human, but not human enough to consent to procedures. They were victims who were violated, but not enough to be protected from violation at the hands of the state. Recognition as people with rights seemed to end for the victims of North Carolina’s eugenics program, just like the outlines of Cole Phillis’ illustrated Fadeaway Girls.

[1] Bush, Ellen. “The legacy of North Carolina’s Eugenics Program,” The University of North Carolina Press, 26 March 2010, http://uncpressblog.com/2010/03/26/legacy-of-nc-eugenics/ (24 February 2014).

[2] Ibid, http://uncpressblog.com/2010/03/26/legacy-of-nc-eugenics/

[3] Ibid, http://uncpressblog.com/2010/03/26/legacy-of-nc-eugenics/

[4] “Effects of Sexual Assault,” Rape Abuse and Incest National Network,  https://www.rainn.org/get-information/effects-of-sexual-assault (24 February 2014).

[5] “Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement,” DNA Learning Center, http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/eugenics/list2.pl (24 February 2014).

[6] “Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement,” DNA Learning Center, http://uncpressblog.com/2010/03/26/legacy-of-nc-eugenics/ (24 February 2014).

[7] “Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement,” DNA Learning Center, http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/eugenics/list2.pl (24 February 2014).

21 thoughts on “Fadeaway Girls: Victims Twice Over

  1. Your description of how sexual assault victims were diagnosed and sterilized reminds me of how people can do evil things while trying to do good, and believing that they’re doing good. Some eugenicists undoubtedly thought that sterilization would help these women. This reveals a considerable degree of prejudice, but it’s not like the eugenicists were aware of this. It’s easy to write off eugenics as an abomination from another era, but I think we should treat the topic as a lesson on human nature. It’s easy for us to believe we’re doing the right thing, when we actually are not. In fact, we might be committing a serious evil.

    1. I tend to think that when it comes to forced sterilization, eugenicists were thinking only of themselves and other people “like them,” not of the women and men forced to undergo these procedures. I think eugenicists participated in an “othering” that placed themselves above everyone else, believing that anyone that didn’t fit into their ideas of what a human being should be was not worthy to live amongst them. The scary thing is that they were powerful, and they got other people in power to support them, and their ideas became actions that affected many people all over the world.

    2. Rick,

      Should all human rights abuses then be viewed as “a lesson on human nature?” The Stanford Prison Experiment was a lesson on human nature. Forced sterilization is an abomination. I can’t help but wonder if this argument almost excuses perpetrators from what they did, and poses a danger to understanding and interpreting the past for the victim, and not for the perpetrator.

      1. Yes, they should. People don’t act without a motive, unless perhaps they are really deranged. This applies to benevolent actions, neutral actions, any actions really–and they can all be studied for their motivations. Human rights violations are actions too, therefore they occur under some sort of motivation. There is a difference between comprehending why people will do something and excusing what they do though.

        Also, I don’t see how this is mutually exclusive to understanding and interpreting the past for the victim. If anything, I see studies of perpetrators’ motives as an extension of trying to interpret the past for the victims’ sake. Two weeks ago in class we covered how looking at a victim’s suffering can turn into voyeurism. We could study the lives of the victims instead, but how quickly can that compound on voyeuristic behavior? Now we’ll feel even more sorry for a victim because they were such a good person, who lived such a good life before the tragedy struck. If there is a certain point where we should stop studying the victims, then what’s next? We take action in the present day. What kinds of actions do we take though? We can counter modern violations of rights, though they rarely get as bad as the kind in the past. Isn’t it worthwhile to study these events to prevent similar ones from happening in the future? In that case, we should know why the perpetrators did what they did. If we understand their motives, then we can guard ourselves to avoid undertaking a similar set of actions. That rationale is the opposite of excusing the perpetrators. It permanently condemns them, because we will actively try to avoid ever being like them. And if the suffering of one person in the past can be fully studied to prevent something similar in the present or future, then at least some kind of good came out of it.

    3. Drew, I think what Rick is trying to say is that we never know what is going to become an abomination. We can look back on this time period and understand that there was sexual assault because we now acknowledge victims of sexual assault as just that–victims. Culture didn’t always think like that, certainly not in the early twentieth century (sexual assault had a much narrower, male-defined scope, so in turn they acknowledged fewer victims). In the same vein, is there a point in our culture’s thinking that is preventing us from seeing an abomination happening in front of our eyes? Hindsight will probably say yes. We overlooked and even promoted something future generations will say is–and was–evil.

      The consequences of eugenicist thought were evil, causing irreversible damage to already damaged victims, as Stephenie pointed out so well. That we can look back and see the evil through our own eyes should be a lesson on how we perceive good and evil, perpetrators and victims, and so on. Who knows what flaws our descendants will find in our view of what is right?

    4. I agree with you, Rick. The government thought it was helping the future with its actions. We have the vocabulary now to identify their actions as prejudicial and wrong, but if we were alive back then would we have the same insight? There were proponents fighting against eugenics, I’m sure, but which side would we be on? It’s a thought provoking exercise on the human nature.

  2. Stephenie, thank you for this interesting post. You make some really great points but I think one thing that doesn’t really come through in this post is the fact that eugenics was not isolated to North Carolina. Eugenics was, and still is today, a prevalent issue. I found the website Genetics Generation that highlights how eugenics still impacts life in the United States presently. I think it raises some interesting points. http://knowgenetics.org/is-eugenics-happening-today/

    1. Thanks for that link, Michelle. I have heard a lot about genetic testing in science recently, but mentally never made the leap to eugenics, but it is similar. The article raised an interesting point about genetic screening, “Parents who want to have a child without pursuing genetic testing may feel guilty if the child is born with any health problems. Additionally, some are concerned about what an overemphasis on eliminating disabilities in unborn children will mean for people who already have the disability.” I hadn’t quite thought of it that way. What does our endeavor to eliminate genetic abnormalities mean to those with disabilities today?

    2. Both mmpaulus and kwoodling bring up interesting points. I think that linking eugenics and genetic testing is very interesting and also very difficult to unwind. If genetic testing becomes thought of as eugenics does that mean that there would be no amniocentesis? What about screening for Tay-Sachs or Cystic Fibrosis? I would not call those disabilities. In both of those cases a genetic test would tell parents if they were both carriers for genes of debilitating diseases. I think intent matters in these cases and that can be a very thin line. The intent of the eugenists was to get rid of undesirables, the intent of parents is have healthy children and prevent suffering in their children and it feels very hard to begrudge them wanting to know if they could pass on horrific diseases. Where do intent and harm collide in this discussion? Who has the ability to tell a family they have no recourse against a genetic disease?

      1. I just talked about this on the “Eugenics, Class, and The Great Gatsby” post, but you bring up a point I overlooked. In my other comment I discussed whether advancements in genetic research could influence the way a large public viewed the ability to prevent certain traits from birth (and whether this “new” concept of eugenics could become acceptable). However, I seem to have overlooked the individual choice that is involved in this concept. I find it hard to say that parents should hold responsibility for a potential increase in the value eugenics, for the very reason that they would have trouble declining the ability to prevent traits that might make their children’s life harder. This certainly is a difficult topic, because it forces us to confront our view of certain traits like deafness or blindness from birth. Since a large percentage of the population views deafness or blindness as a trait which makes an individual’s life harder, it is easy to see why parents would want to prevent it if possible. However, this conflicts with individuals who value deafness or blindness as part of their identity. This “new” eugenics could be seen as an attack on the way they live. Then you have the slippery slope of determining which traits should be considered treatable “birth defects.” We will have to address this issue in great detail if geneticists soon become able to prevent certain traits at birth.

      2. Have you seen the movie Gattaca? The movie presents a dystopian future where parents can basically select all of the traits they want to pass down to their children and eliminate any undesirable traits. Any children born naturally in this society are relegated to a secondary class of citizen. Since this movie came out in 1997 this future seems more and more possible. I think that the implications of genetic engineering are at once exciting and terrifying.

      3. keswartz I haven’t seen that movie, I’ll have to check it out. It does sound somewhat terrifying!

        kcsten08: I wonder how many children are born deaf or blind vs how many become deaf or blind in childhood this could make a difference in the discussion of gene selection. I would hope that genetic testing would be used to find recessive genes that when matched result in diseases that end in a premature death or a poor quality of life. The median lifespan for someone with Cystic Fibrosis is early 40s and that is with lots of medical treatment. When thinking about genetic testing I’m not thinking of embryonic gene selection but rather individuals getting screened for these types of recessive genes.

    3. I was hoping someone would extend the scope of the conversation outside of North Carolina! The word limit ended up limiting me… I was thinking about genetic screening today, and I’m glad you helped bring it up. There have been cases where families chose not to terminate a pregnancy even though their unborn child carried traits for a disability. Some children diagnosed with a disability before birth ended up born with no disability. I have also read personal accounts on this subject. Articles about genetic testing in unborn babies had comments from families with disabled children. They argued that their child’s special needs gave the parents new perspectives on the world. They felt they grew in a way they wouldn’t have been able to if they had terminated their pregnancy for fear of a genetically inferior child. They posed the question: What life lessons will we miss out on if our focus is on genetic superiority instead of happiness?

      1. I thought about this while doing the readings for today. It seems like the “build a better baby” concept still exists, but instead of sterilizing “unfit” people, we make sure that our babies will be perfect before they are born. Parents who want to choose the sex of their baby, its eye color, hair color, and mental abilities… I was left wondering how that is different from eugenics and where do we draw that line? The relationship between science and eugenics remains strong and relevant.

  3. First of all, Stephenie, thank you for this very insightful post. I think you have very astutely pointed out that these women were victims twice over, and were blamed for circumstances that were out of their control. I feel this is something we still have a major problem with as a society. Instead of understanding that individuals are victims of oppressive systems that lead them to make choices, or act out in behaviors that are viewed as undesirable by society, and offer assistance for the underlying issue, we blame individuals. For instance, we often do not view poverty as a cyclical problem with crippling psychological effects, but rather make the uninformed assumption that poor people are lazy and do not want to help themselves.

    Second, I think the link Michelle posted raises some very interesting questions. It points out that while it is fairly clear cut that those who prescribed to the theory of eugenics in the past were in the wrong, how eugenics of the present and future will affect us may be a bit more complicated.

  4. I really appreciate your analysis on how the eugenics movement affected women. Prior to reading for class and reading your post, I always thought of eugenics as being motivated by race rather than disabilities or “undesirable traits.” Your discussion of how gender plays a role in the eugenics movement is very insightful. We’ve seen through the comments and readings that class also played a large role in who determined what members of society would be sterilized. I wonder if with women, the eugenics movement cut across all class boundaries, perhaps more so than for other groups labeled as “undesirable”? Or maybe the only ones protected were rich, white males with friends in high places.

    1. Emily, I too like you, always thought eugenics had to do with people with disabilities as well as non-whites, not necessarily with undesirable traits. I do however believe that the rich were not protected from getting into this system. There was probably a degree or a hierarchy of people who were more targeted than others, rich being at the lower end of the spectrum. Stephenie thank you for this post, I had no idea this was a factor in eugenics.

  5. Before reading about Carrie Buck and reading your post, I never thought about eugenics being a gendered issue. Carrie Buck’s trial was fixed and she was soon sterilized because people thought her family and background made her a model for eugenic reform. Her mother and sister were also sterilized as a result of her trial. I wonder how other many families had generations of women sterilized.

  6. I think it’s really important that you bring sexual assault into your discussion. Your last paragraph, especially, made me think of contemporary rape culture in the U.S. and its similarities to the period about which we read. “They believed the problem was not with society’s view of women, but the problem lied within the individual woman…” When hearing reactions to sexual assault, I think there is a tendency for some to blame the victim: instead of on the aggressors’ role in the assault, blame immediately falls on the women who weren’t wearing the “right” or “smart” or “safe” outfit.

    1. The online exhibit had a personal account of a woman who was sterilized for being promiscuous. She had a child outside of marriage. It turned out she became pregnant after being raped, and yet the system still punished her for her perceived “undesirable” traits.

  7. I think there is another area that hasn’t been investigated here, and that is consent. I agree with the general uneasiness I sense y’all have with genetic testing–I fear that it could lead to terminating pregnancies of fetuses with “undesirable” traits. At the same time, we should remember that expecting parents can choose whether or not to do these tests. They can can choose what to do with the information. In the readings, we read about the ways that government made the choices for victims they targeted in the name of racial, ethnic, and social superiority.

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