Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

To What Extent Was the Relationship between Feminists and the Eugenics Movement a 'Marriage of Convenience' in the Interwar Years?

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

To What Extent Was the Relationship between Feminists and the Eugenics Movement a 'Marriage of Convenience' in the Interwar Years?

Article excerpt


This article extends and questions historians' recent inquiry into feminists' relationship with the eugenics movement. It compares the work of three leading feminists--Eleanor Rathbone, Eva Hubback and Mary Stocks--with that of the Eugenics Society by focusing on the interwar campaigns of family allowances, birth control and voluntary sterilisation. Drawing upon National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship annual reports, personal correspondence and published articles, it challenges historians' assumptions that Rathbone and Stocks courted eugenic support; instead it exposes the pragmatism of an ailing eugenics movement. However, by demonstrating Hubback's ardent eugenic commitment, it also provides new and further evidence for the weakness of feminism during this period.

Keywords: New Feminism; eugenics; interwar period.


Far from being simply antithetical, the relationship between feminists and the eugenics movement, from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the Second World War, is one of complexity and variety. At one end of the spectrum was Sir Francis Galton, the first President of the Eugenics Education Society, which became the Eugenics Society in 1926, who was a well-known anti-feminist, supporter of the Anti-Suffrage Society and defender of the Contagious Diseases Act (McLaren, 146-7). At the other was Eva Hubback, who in her final presidential address to the National Council for Equal Citizenship (NCEC), set out that after the two great causes of peace and democracy, women's organisations should be working "for the preservation and welfare of our racial stocks" (NCEC, 1938). Historians have ignored, excused or embraced this relationship but analysis of it remains far from exhausted. This essay examines the extent of this relationship during the interwar years.

The two parties being studied here are, on one side, three feminists--Eleanor Rathbone, Eva Hubback and Mary Stocks--who were among the leading thinkers of one of the largest and the oldest feminist organisations, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), which reorganised itself into the NCEC in 1932. (2) Their work and actions will be compared to the eugenics movement. Since eugenic beliefs in Britain during this era were broad and varied (Soloway, 1990: xviii), this essay will focus on the policies and thinking that emerged from the one organised group of eugenicists: the Eugenics Society, whose founder defined eugenics as "the study of agencies under social control which may improve or impair the racial qualities o f future generations" (cited in Paul: 568). After setting out the historiography surrounding the subject, I will examine this relationship first through the lens of family allowances, then birth control and finally voluntary sterilisation. Both the NUSEC and Eugenics Society supported all three of these issues and through them Eva Hubback provides a concrete link between the two organisations: she joined the Eugenics Society in 1929, became a member of its Council in 1932 and sat on its committees on birth control, family allowances and eugenic sterilisation (Eugenics Society to Hubback, 6 July 1933; Hubback to Blacker, 4 February 1931; Blacker to Hubback, 18 December 1933).

This essay will argue that, contrary to assumptions of some historians, there was no marriage of convenience on the feminists' side during the interwar years (see Davin: 23; Fleming: 55; Alberti: 140). Rathbone may have dressed up family allowances in eugenically attractive arguments, but the way they were to be implemented would not have met with eugenic approval. Hubback, on the other hand, made no secret of her principled commitment to the legalisation of voluntary sterilisation. Stocks championed birth control as a need of the working classes, just as the eugenicists did, but this is not enough to suggest a marriage of convenience. Instead, it will be shown that such a relationship existed only on the part of the eugenicists. …

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