From Suffrage to Sterilization: Eugenics and the Women's Movement in 20th Century Alberta

By Moss, Erin L.; Stam, Henderikus J. et al. | Canadian Psychology, May 2013 | Go to article overview

From Suffrage to Sterilization: Eugenics and the Women's Movement in 20th Century Alberta


Moss, Erin L., Stam, Henderikus J., Kattevilder, Diane, Canadian Psychology


In the complicated relationship between early 20th-century feminism and eugenics. Western Canada in general and the Province of Alberta in particular provide a unique case study on the history and practice of the sterilization of the "feeble-minded." While feminism strove to enable women to control their own reproductive capacities, eugenics attempted to exert control over the reproduction of certain segments of society. Ironically, these movements exerted a significant influence on one another during their respective inceptions and were inextricably linked for more than 50 years. This paper discusses how misunderstanding and panic surrounding mental illness served to unite feminism with the eugenics movement. Specifically, the paper explores how first-wave feminism adopted a maternal ideology that embraced the role of "guardians of the race." How these events unfolded within Western Canada and the role that prominent feminists and women's associations played are reconstructed. Ultimately, it is argued that understanding the role that the feminist movement played in the application of eugenics legislation requires consideration of the importance of maternal feminism in the changing relations between the sexes.

Keywords: eugenics, feminism, feeble-mindedness, sterilization, Alberta

First-wave feminism1 in Canada had its origins in the late 19th- and early 20th century. Women involved in first-wave feminism began to focus on perceived gender inequalities, and one of the primary goals of the movement was to gain women's suffrage. Seeking to extend their role in society beyond the confines of their homes, women also wished to participate more actively in public life. In particular, leaders of first-wave feminism espoused the notion that women, as mothers, were particularly well-suited for improving society. The necessity of "bettering" society was espe-cially relevant, given early 20th century social and political changes. Motherhood became a social function for women as they tackled issues of poverty, crime, immigration, and temperance.

The paradoxical support of negative eugenics, in the form of sterilization, by early 20th-century feminists has been complex and sometimes embarrassing. Negative eugenics, which included the practice of compulsory sterilization, refers to the breeding out of certain characteristics in the population. Francis Galton ( 18221911 ), a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, is credited with being the originator of eugenics, and originally coined the term in the late 1800s (Galton, 1883, p. 17). Galton was initially interested in improving the quality of livestock. However, following the introduction of Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species and the subsequent pursuit of social Darwinism, he shifted his focus to an interest in improving the quality of the human race (Devereux, 2005). The notion of selective breeding posed the possibility of breeding desirable characteristics into the population. However, selective breeding turned out to be more aspirational than practical. Consequently eugenicists shifted their approach; if it was not possible to improve offspring through pairing up distinguished men and women, it was possible to restrict or prohibit the reproduction of individuals with undesirable characteristics. Furthermore, while eugenics was most frequently used in its negative sense to refer to sexual sterilization, it was also an oblique reference to poverty, social problems, class, and immigration issues.

With the joint aims of improving society, both eugenics and first-wave feminism were inextricably linked during their respective formative years. Dowbiggin (1997) argued, "imperialism, eugenics and maternal feminism frequently intersected" (p. 138), as feminists became deeply involved in the eugenics movement (see, e.g., Black, 2003; Devereux, 2005). Indeed, the breadth of support for eugenics in North America has been well documented by contemporary historians (e.g., Kluchin, 2006). …

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From Suffrage to Sterilization: Eugenics and the Women's Movement in 20th Century Alberta
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