What the Sterilization of a Wealthy White Woman Reveals About Eugenics

The story of Ann Cooper, told in The Unfit Heiress, "helped to modernize eugenics by shifting focus from hereditary to environmental defects."

[PHOTO: Image on left of author Audrey Clare Farley and on right, The Unfit Heiress book cover]
The Unfit Heiress is the biography of Ann Cooper Hewitt, a wealthy white socialite whose mother convinced doctors to sterilize her daughter without consent. Courtesy of Grand Central Publishing

Throughout history, white women have thrown the rights of other women under the bus in order to retain social status.

In her first book, The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt (out today from Grand Central Publishing), Audrey Clare Farley writes about the life of one such woman: Ann Cooper Hewitt, a wealthy white socialite and the daughter of inventor Peter Cooper Hewitt and his wife, Maryon.

When Peter died young and it looked like Ann would soon inherit his fortune, Maryon convinced doctors to sterilize her daughter without consent, due to Ann’s supposed promiscuity. The sterilization put Ann’s claim to Peter’s fortune at risk, allowing Maryon to inherit the estate. In 1936, Ann took her mother to trial, in a case that captivated the media.

“Ann’s social status certainly intrigued Americans, as did the sheer sensationalism of her feud with her mother,” Farley told Rewire News Group. “In fact, her case garnered far more press than Buck v. Bell, a sterilization case involving a poor rural Virginia woman that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1927.” Ann lost her case but she—unlike many sterilized women in the early 20th century—later married and did not face social ramifications.

Rewire News Group talked to Farley, who received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland, College Park, about how Ann’s defense against her sterilization was rooted in her white, wealthy privilege; how the eugenicists vilified female promiscuity; and how racism informed the way different disabilities were viewed in the eugenics movement before and during World War II.

In your book, you wrote about how Ann Cooper Hewitt was punished for her promiscuity. Were promiscuity and female sexuality perceived as almost a disability within the eugenics movement?

Audrey Clare Farley: In the early stages of the eugenics movement, promiscuity and oversexuality were thought to be a mark of feeble-mindedness—a catch-all term applied to sexually deviant, poor, substance-dependent, epileptic, intellectually disabled, or otherwise socially undesirable persons. Being feeble-minded meant someone was genetically and morally defective. So disability and immorality essentially went hand-in-hand, with eugenicists eager to prevent the proliferation of such traits.

But not all disabilities were equal, as not all were perceived to pose a threat to white supremacy, which was the ultimate goal of eugenics. Some disabled people, such as diabetics, were exempted from sterilization on the basis that their disease was one of the noble classes. Diabetes afflicted people of all classes and races, but only middle- to upper-class whites had the means to seek care, leading to a skewed sense of its incidence. While eugenicists didn’t love the idea of diabetics passing down their “defects” to their children, they were more worried about the lower classes breeding more prolifically than the upper ones. Also, diabetes wasn’t thought to incline someone to cross the color line, thereby diluting the purity of the gene pool.

Intellectually disabled and promiscuous persons were thought likely to mix with other races—a fact that Ann’s mother exploited. To prove Ann’s idiocy, Maryon Cooper Hewitt made a point of repeating how her daughter flirted with “Negro” servants. Following the eugenicists’ lead, she conflated interracial mixing and intellectual disability to justify medical intervention.

Ann’s mother, Maryon Cooper Hewitt, ordered her daughter to be sterilized without her consent. How do you think this action demonstrates how women can cause harm to other women, especially when they are acting in their own selfish best interest?

ACF: I think women, and particularly white women, often exhibit what Heather McGhee calls zero-sum thinking—a sense that there are only so many rights and resources to go around, so one person’s thriving depends upon another’s marginalization. Ann actually thought along these lines more demonstrably than Maryon. Rather than challenging the ethics of forced sterilization, she simply endeavored to prove that she was not deserving of surgery by virtue of her high-class education and such.

Not long before this, white women had advocated for the vote by promising that legal rights for them would not lead to rights for African Americans. And not long after, second-wave feminists strove for greater reproductive freedoms by strategically ignoring the needs of women of color. While some people do materially benefit from the exclusion of others, scapegoating is never going to lead to anyone’s true liberation. Nevertheless, many of us keep falling for the trap.

Eugenics operates under the assumption that people with bad genes should not reproduce. How did the hatred of otherness—as non-disabled straight white people viewed people of color, disabled people, queer people, and Jewish people—lead to the normalization of eugenics in World War II a few years after Ann’s trial?

ACF: Ann’s case, which focused a great deal on her mother’s failings, helped to modernize eugenics by shifting focus from hereditary to environmental defects and by enabling private practitioners to supplant asylum personnel as the persons responsible for diagnosing feeble-mindedness. As a result of these two changes, poor people of color became the primary targets of sterilization. There was no longer any need to prove imbecility or bad genes; the simple facts of poverty and large family size often sufficed to convince a doctor that a person was unfit for parenthood.

In California, Mexican Americans became disproportionately targeted for sterilization, as they were perceived to be hyper-breeders who drained public resources. In the South, it was so common for Black women to seek treatment for an abdominal procedure and come home without a uterus that the term “Mississippi appendectomy” emerged. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which enabled African Americans to access public programs, didn’t help. It stirred fears that Black women were going to usurp welfare monies intended for whites. It’s impossible to tell exactly how many individuals were operated upon without their consent, as doctors often recorded procedures as voluntary and there was no centralized record-keeping. But experts have put the figure in the tens of thousands.

What is at stake for reproductive rights when we start to question whether or not someone is fit to be a mother?

ACF: If we allow the state—or medical persons acting on behalf of the state—to decide who should and shouldn’t reproduce, then individuals lose their autonomy to those acting upon arbitrary moral judgments. This doesn’t only mean doctors have the authority to deny “unfit” women the chance to reproduce. It means doctors can coerce “fit” women to reproduce. That is precisely what happened after World War II, when middle-class white women came to desire sterilization for birth control purposes. Many hospitals enacted the “120 rule,” whereby a woman’s age multiplied by her number of children had to equal or exceed 120 in order for her to qualify for surgery. Today many doctors continue to refuse white women surgery, saying such things as “you’ll change your mind.”

Meanwhile, as the World Health Organization reports, doctors target poor, disabled, incarcerated, undocumented, trans, and other marginalized persons for birth control implants and even forced sterilization.

The relationship between faith and eugenics is complicated. How has Christianity played a role in eugenics? And at the same time, how has it influenced the fight against eugenics?

ACF: Christians were split on forced sterilization. The Catholic Church declared it intrinsically evil, leading many Mexican Americans to fight forced sterilization, such as by challenging the constitutionality of sterilization statutes. Evangelical Protestants also tended to oppose sterilization, if only because it grew out of bogeyman Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

Liberal Protestants, however, enthusiastically supported it. Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal leaders preached about the importance of selective breeding, helping to give eugenics a theological dimension. Part of their support was due to a blithe embrace of science, and part was due to their belief that Jesus would only return to earth once humanity reached a state of near-perfection.

Today conservative evangelicals pat themselves on the back for opposing sterilization, but it is important to remember that sterilization was only one tool in the eugenics toolbox. After World War II, secular eugenicists began to promote marriage counseling and “family values” for able-bodied, middle-class white couples. They wanted to be sure that these couples didn’t slack in their duties to proliferate the race. Evangelicals like Dr. James Dobson cut their teeth working under such eugenicists. Much of the initial evangelical resistance to Roe was also driven by positive eugenics. Conservatives opposed abortion because white women, who were the most visible in the abortion rights movement, were exactly the type of people whom they wished to see reproduce. The religious right’s full-throated embrace of white nationalism today is another sign that eugenics very much continues to reverberate within certain faith communities.