Breeding up the human herd: Gender, power, and eugenicsin Illinois, 1890-1940
AuthorRembis, Michael A.
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractThis dissertation is a gendered analysis of the creation and attempted implementation of America's first eugenic commitment law. On 1 July 1915, Illinois became the first state to enact a law that stated that any individual found to be "feebleminded" by a competent expert could be committed indefinitely. Women reformers played a critical role in the creation and attempted implementation of Illinois commitment law, and although the language of the law itself remained gender neutral, the arguments used to legitimize the creation of the law and the actual implementation of the law remained highly gender. Young poor and working-class women, not men, remained at the center of the debate over eugenic institutionalization in Illinois. Although Mark Haller argued in 1963 that indefinite institutionalization was one of the most popular eugenic reform measures in the United States, scholars are just beginning to make a detailed historical analysis of the relationships among gender, eugenics, and institutionalization. Illinois provides an excellent opportunity to build on this emerging body of scholarship. As many scholars have shown, Illinois was in the vanguard on most social reform issues. It was also a place where women played a significant role in social reform. Reformers in Illinois created the country's first juvenile court and were among the early advocates of the creation of a separate municipal court. They were also pioneers in labor and education reform, as well as myriad other social issues. The willingness of both female and male reformers in Illinois to experiment with modern state-sponsored social reform measures led to their eventual adoption of the eugenic commitment law, which they viewed as yet another way of using science and the state to improve society. Analyzing the creation and attempted implementation of Illinois' commitment law will expand our understanding of the relationship between "progressivism" and eugenics and, more importantly, our understanding of the role of women and gender in early-twentieth-century eugenics. This dissertation covers not only the legislative process and debates surrounding the eugenic commitment law, but also the rise of "scientific" testing and the emergence and transformation of sociology, psychology, and social work; the contested definition of expertise; the creation and transformation of mental health institutions; and the dynamics among the young subjects of eugenic institutionalization, their parents, and those experts and reformers responsible for their incarceration.
Degree ProgramGraduate College