Traditionally, feminism can be understood as a set of ideas and activities that endeavours to promote the amelioration of women’s political, legal, economic, and social status. In parts of Europe and North America, feminist movements during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries largely focused on acquiring equal voting rights, education, parental responsibilities, and property rights for women. During this time, some strands of feminist thought adopted eugenic ideals. Those strands of feminist thought that utilized and incorporated eugenic principles are often referred to as eugenic feminism. In Canada, parts of the early feminist movement are inextricably tied to its eugenic past.
Eugenic feminism can be characterized as a branch of the early feminist movement that made use of some of the core principles of eugenics, such as the notion of human betterment through placing restrictions on who could procreate and raise children. The central argument of eugenic feminism insisted that “better breeding” and child rearing conditions could only come about if women achieved social and political equality. Thus for eugenic feminists, women’s equality was a necessary condition for “racial” improvement, and it was paramount that eugenic science and law promoted women’s rights.
Eugenic Feminism: Key Components
A key component of eugenic feminism purported that women were essential to ensuring human progress. British eugenicists such as Caleb Saleeby, Karl Pearson, and Havelock Ellis, held that women were essentially reproductive agents. In other words, as mothers and potential mothers, women were held to be in a unique position to advance eugenic social engineering. To the extent that eugenicists viewed women and girls as mothers or potential mothers, women were held to be the bearers of the future of humanity. Proponents of mainstream eugenics and some early advocates of women’s rights found common ground. Not all early feminists supported eugenic practices, but the notion of social advancement as intricately tied to reproduction was central to both eugenicists and early feminists.
Some suffragists advocated for staunch immigration policies and eugenic practices such as mental hygiene and the social segregation and sexual sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” Canadian suffragist Nellie McClung was one of the most prominent advocates of women’s rights in Canada in the early twentieth century. Among Canadian feminists, McClung was also one of the most vocal proponents of eugenic feminism. In addition to strongly campaigning for the provincial (in Manitoba) and federal vote, she fell in line with aspects of the mainstream eugenics movement through her support for sterilization and mental and social hygiene. McClung’s promotion of eugenic ideals survived past the legalization of women’s voting rights. Early feminists such as McClung supported sterilization legislation (viz., the 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta and the 1933 Sexual Sterilization Act of British Columbia). Feminist organizations that advocated for eugenic legislation and social policy included the National League of Women Voters and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union among others. The integration of the eugenic political agenda with feminist campaigning allowed early feminists to make use of the core principles of both political campaigns and identify the women’s movement with the eugenic movement and vice versa.
Women, Reproduction, and Traditional Gender Norms
Although some early feminists allied themselves with the eugenics movement, mainstream eugenicists and feminists were not consistently of the same mind on women’s reproductive role in society. Specifically, mainstream eugenicists held that “fit” women in addition to "unfit" women should be barred from pursuing higher education, professionalization, and employment in favour of occupying themselves solely with having children. Eugenicists contended that women should only be “educated” to become good mothers and rejected the feminist notion that women ought to have access to any sort of advanced education that would potentially distract mothers and potential mothers away from their prescribed social roles as bearers of the human race, particularly of the Anglo-Saxon race. In other words, the gender norms that mainstream eugenicists advocated for were not in line with eugenic feminists who, despite their arguments that positioned women as central to human betterment, insisted that women have access to higher education, gainful employment, and professional opportunities outside of motherhood. Mainstream eugenicists’ emphasis on traditional gender norms were opposed to the eugenic feminists’ claim that society would benefit from equal education and employment opportunities for women.
Eugenicists’ views on marriage and divorce laws were also directly opposed to feminist views on marriage. Feminists held that women and girls ought to be subject to less social pressure to marry and have children, and instead should have the opportunity to pursue life goals and ambitions outside of or in addition to marriage and childrearing. Feminist advocates such as Victoria Woodhull strongly objected to the sexual moralism that mainstream eugenics imposed on women by requiring “fit” women to direct their life goals towards only marrying and raising children. In addition, Woodhull argued that restrictive divorce laws and stringent social norms on marriage and women’s sexuality were detrimental to human flourishing insofar as abusive marriages and the norms of male sexuality led to the births of “defective” children. Woodhull contended that women’s sexual liberation and freedom from oppressive marriages would promote a “fitter” human race and the well-being of individual women.
Birth Control and Sex Education
In addition to advocating for higher education, better employment opportunities, and the elimination of restrictive marriage norms, eugenic feminists emphasized the importance of birth control and sex education in bringing about the advancement of women and humanity. Women’s access to birth control was a moral imperative and would enable women to pursue aims outside of childrearing and marriage and would also prevent “overbreeding” among the working class and ethnic minorities. Birth control would also prevent the births of children who might be deemed as “defective.” Eugenic feminists such as Margaret Sanger supported access to birth control to better enable “fit” women to pursue more advantageous employment and education opportunities, yet they purposed that birth control would enable fit women to have more children than unfit women. Eugenic feminists also proposed that unfit women have access to birth control to limit their reproduction. Although eugenic feminists aimed to promote a degree of reproductive autonomy for individual women, the reproductive rights of those women and girls who were deemed socially unfit were not championed.
Carey, Jane. (2012). The racial imperatives of sex: Birth control and eugenics in Britain, the United States and Australia in the interwar years. Women’s History Review, 21(5), 733-752.
Devereux, Cecily. (2013). Woman suffrage, eugenics, and eugenic feminism in Canada.” Woman Suffrage and Beyond: Confronting the Democratic Deficit. Retrieved from http://womensuffrage.org/?p=22106
Moss, Erin L., et al. (2013). From suffrage to sterilization: Eugenics and the women’s movement in 20th century Alberta.” Canadian Psychology, 54(2), 105-114.
Ziegler, Mary. (2008). Eugenic feminism: Mental hygiene, the women’s movement, and the campaign for eugenic legal reform, 1990-1935. Harvard Journal of Law and Gender , 31, 211-235.