"Our Refractory Human Material"

Eugenics and Social Control

Margaret Quigley

Women, the Family, and the Welfare State

Professor Clark

May 28, 1991

Reprinted by

Political Research Associates

"Whatever the Jukes stand for, the Edwards family does not. Whatever weakness the Jukes represent finds its antidote in the Edwards family, which has cost the country nothing in pauperism, in crime, in hospital or asylum service."

Albert E. Winship
Heredity: A History of the Jukes-Edwards Families
Boston, 1925

"Our Refractory Human Material": Eugenics and Social Control

Part One: Introduction

During the first three decades of this century, the small but influential eugenics movement extrapolated from the new science of human genetics a complex set of beliefs involving the necessity for racial and class stratification and the limitations of political democracy. The eugenicists argued that the United States was in immediate danger of committing racial suicide as a result of the rapid reproduction of the unfit coupled with the precipitous decline in the birthrate of the better classes, and proposed a program of positive and negative eugenics as a solution. Positive genetics would encourage the reproduction of the better educated and racially superior, while a rigorous program of negative eugenics to prevent any increase in the racially unfit would include compulsory segregation and sterilization, immigration restriction, and anti-miscegenation statutes.

This paper argues that the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century was primarily a political movement concerned with the social control of inferior groups by an economic, sexual, and racial elite. To achieve this goal, the movement put forth an extensive, integrated political and social program. From 1907, when the first organization in the U.S. having professed eugenics goals was organized, until 1927, when the Supreme Court upheld the validity of a key component of the eugenicist agenda, the stability and consistency which characterized the eugenical program and its advocates are remarkable. I have looked here primarily at the organized eugenics movement and its leading figures.1 It is possible that it would be less fair to infer a motive of racial and class animus to the followers of the prominent eugenicists I discuss here.

Interpretation of the eugenics movement is difficult and the question of motivation has to a significant extent engaged the historians of the movement. An historical appraisal of the movement needs to step carefully to avoid imposing the values of the late twentieth century upon eugenicists. The legitimate, scientific framework of the eugenics movement, a mainstream view at the beginning of the century, has been for the most part abandoned by scientists in the years since then. Similarly, to a great extent racialist thinking, and in particular white supremacy, was neither questioned nor challenged among the white-dominated intelligentsia of the time. At the same time, the fact that white supremacist views were more acceptable in white society at the turn of the century still allows for gradations of focus and virulence and so, the question of the extent to which hereditarian arguments may have functioned as a pretext for a movement primarily concerned with the continuation of social and political dominance by upper-class, Protestant men of Anglo-Saxon background is difficult but unavoidable.

Most historians of eugenics have acknowledged the involvement of committed racists with long-standing connections to organized white supremacist groups within the eugenics movement but have been reluctant to impugn the motives of other, more respectable and socially prominent members. Several historians have argued that the racist component of eugenics was marked only during certain stages in the movement's development.2 Some have argued that the eugenics movement contained at least two distinct strains, only one of which was motivated by racial and class animus.3 A number of interpreters have gone further to claim that the eugenicists were motivated primarily by scientific and altruistic, rather than racist, concerns.4

One of the results of such arguments has been the tendency to de-emphasize the commitment shown by some activists to the racial and class nature of the eugenics movement. Another tendency has been to isolate those aspects of the eugenics movement in which racial animus was unequivocal and to present eugenical involvement in those issues as tangential to more primary eugenic goals. Advocacy in favor of immigration restriction and anti-miscegenation statutes are frequently presented as though they were distinct from the eugenics movement.5 In fact, while neither the immigration restriction nor the anti-miscegenation movement was identical with eugenics, eugenicists were prominent in both and further, support for such measures was key to the eugenics agenda from the beginning. Such arguments also affect the lineage which is attributed to the eugenics movement. Historians who believe that the eugenics movement only developed into a racist movement over time, for example, are more likely to relegate the racist antecedents of the eugenicists to the background, while emphasizing other historical paths.6

It is possible to argue that notions of control by a racial and economic elite were key to the eugenics movement without embracing reductionist or conspiratorial theories that do damage to the diversity and scope of the movement.7 It has been the diversity of the eugenics movement--the wide range of followers it was able to encompass--that has proved most difficult to explain. The eugenics movement was not monolithic: conservatives, progressives, and sex radicals were all allied within a fundamentally messianic movement of national salvation that was predicated upon scientific notions of innate and ineradicable inequalities between racial, cultural, and economic groups.

This diversity may stem from a number of sources. For one thing, the eugenics movement attracted people who, despite different ideas on the appropriate scope of individual freedom (particularly in their own lives), believed in the necessity of strong social controls for some groups of citizens, who were seen as fundamentally different and inferior. For another, the traditional conception of the progressives and the conservatives as conflicting and fundamentally dissimilar groups, obscures the many similarities between the two. It was not surprising that the two groups would find substantial common ground.

Eugenicist hereditarian ideas of worth tended to maintain the status quo by obscuring the racial and class basis of poverty and advancement in the United States in the early twentieth century. The middle- and upper-class professionals of Anglo-Saxon descent who were leaders in the eugenics movement acted in and out of their own interests. Those interests led to the development of a political program in which an extreme economic conservatism was marked by a virulent anticommunism linked to an embrace of the untrammeled, unregulated capitalist state. Some eugenicist leaders rejected democracy in favor of the corporate state and in the 1920's and 1930's, several leaders of the eugenics movement were active in the promotion of German and Italian fascism.

This paper will examine the background and history of the eugenics movement, placing a particular emphasis on its concepts of racial and class superiority. The eugenics movement put forth a coherent, consistent social program in which anti-immigrant and anti-miscegenation activism played a crucial role in advancing social control by a small elite. Particularly now, when familiar eugenicist arguments echo within contemporary scientific and political circles, questions of motivation and intent are compelling.


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