Thursday, August 17, 2006

Nellie McClung's eugenics: her shame and our heritage

Nellie McClung is a feminist hero of Canada. She was a popular novelist, helped improve the conditions of working women and was one of the “famous five” women who worked to have women recognized as equal under the law; gaining women the right to vote and hold political office. In my town, the library is named after her (since she lived in Gordon Head, Victoria late in life). When my book came out, the publisher wanted to know if I was related to her as it would have boosted sales. She was the only Canadian female delegate to the League of Nations and she may be chosen as one of the faces on the $50 bill. Oh yes, and she was responsible for the forced sterilization of thousands of Canadian men and women (primarily women).

Nellie McClung was, with other feminists, a proponent of Eugenics, which means “well born” and uses the breeding ideas for cattle and other animals toward humans. Darwin’s grandson founded the British branch of Eugenics and the idea of improving society by selective breeding soon caught on in the frontier lands. “In 1924, the United Farm Women of Alberta, led by the likes of Irene Parlby, Emily Murphy and Nellie McClung, launched a massive campaign of support for the implementation of a province-wide sterilization plan.” According to Emily Murphy, the first Canadian woman Magistrate: "Insane people are not entitled to progeny." Nellie McClung, who became MLA for the province of Alberta in the 20’s, argued that legislation was needed for forced sterilizationa and that "young simple-minded girls," would particularly benefit. Mrs. Margaret Gunn, the President of the United Farm Women of Alberta campaigned for Eugenics with the statement “democracy was never intended for degenerates.”

With Nellie McClung’s support on March 21, 1928 Alberta passed The Sexual Sterilization Act; the first sterilization act in the entire British empire. It stated: “the patient may safely be discharged if the danger of procreation with its attendant risk of multiplication of the evil by transmission of the disability to the progeny were eliminated, the board may direct ...sexual sterilization of the inmate..”

It was such a popular idea that the westernmost province British Columbia (where Nellie McClung moved) started their own forced sterilization program five years later. In 1942 Alberta expanded the act to include those with epilepsy and syphilis. Alberta was the most vigorous in all the British Empire with their sterilization policies, approving almost 5000 cases before the four member Eugenics board was disbanded in 1972. Yet, they still managed to approve 55 sterilizations even in their last year of existence. From 1929 to 1972 only 46 out of 4785 cases for sterilization were turned down. Dr. Jana Grekul for her dissertation went though the minutes of the board, examining each case. “Her two years of research revealed that nearly two-thirds of the patients referred to the board had no documented genetic condition.” So, the genetic "reasoning" behind sterilization turned into something else. The Eugenics board went specifically after women, teenagers and the native population: “Beginning in the 1940s, women were more likely to be presented to the Board, even though they constituted less than 40% of all patients in the feeder institutions. On average, 64% of all women who were presented were sterilized...Although teenagers and young adults made up less than 20% of the Albertan population at the time, they comprised 44% of all presented cases, and 55% of all sterilization cases..In the last few years that the Act was in place, Indians and M├ętis comprised about 27% of the sterilizations, although they were only accountable for 2.5% of the population.”

The girls who were sterilized had often been previously transferred to Schools for Mentally Defectives and determined to be of low IQ. In reality, many been sexually and physically abused and then dumped by foster or step parents, as was the case of Leilani Muir, who successfully sued the Alberta government for wrongful sterilization.

In British Columbia the fear of the influx of Slavic immigrants from the Anglo Saxon settlers put the blame of societal breakdown as genetic traits (mental illness, alcoholism, sexual degeneracy, etc). Locals then passed thier own Eugenics law and started the British Columbia three person Eugenics Board. It lasted a year longer than Alberta, ending in 1973. There is no exact count of how many people were sexually sterilized in British Columbia because ALL the records of the board were conveniently destroyed.

This subject, besides research for my novel, has a particular interest for me. After all I was born in British Columbia, one of the few provinces to have a sexual sterilization law. I was also, at age six, determined to be mentally defective and the teachers wanted to send me to one of “those schools.” This was because I was writing everything backwards and I tended to freak out around noise (in fact that’s why I didn’t go to kindergarten: too noisy). Around this time my father started reading to me the children’s book Leo the Late Bloomer (nice try Dad). A little while later they noticed me doing math problems and had me retested. This time it said I was a genius and the talk of moving me to a "special school" was dropped (Hey, 1 vote for extremely high IQ, 1 vote for low IQ: still could go either way). But, yeah, there is a bit of the “There but a twist of fate and parents who didn’t immediately accept everything they were told go I”

Lest we think that “gee…that was all in the past.” Manitoba in 1990 and 1992 proposed bringing back a partial consent sterilization program (where involuntary sterilizations would only be done if it was in the patients "best interest"). Also only in a 1986 court case did the Supreme Court of Canada decide that a parent or guardian could not sterilize their ward without consent. This was from the “Eve” case where a mother wanted to sterilize her mentally challenged adult daughter. The daughter didn't want to, nor did she want to stop seeing her boyfriend (which was why the mother decided to sterilize her).

Not that the US wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about Eugenics as well, with 30 states having Eugenics laws, the first proposed law was in Michigan in 1897. By 1942 thirteen states had various forms of “three strike” laws which beyond incarceration allowed courts to sterilize prisoners against their will.

Virginia, for example, forcibly sterilized 7,450 individuals, stopping in 1979. “Virginia’s law asserted that "heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy and crime…" It focused on "defective persons" whose reproduction represented "a menace to society."

The first person Virginia sterilized was Carrie Buck, whose mother gave birth to her at an asylum, and Carrie also had a child but was NOT married (insert grim, moralistic music). Carrie was charged with hereditary sexual promiscuity and “feeblemindedness.” Modern research has shown that the defense and State lawyer made an agreement so that the sterilization law would be enacted, and that she was not “feebleminded” as she got A’s and B’s in school and was on the honor roll. Nor was she “sexually promiscuous” but her child was produced when she was raped by a relative of her foster parents (before she was dumped back as a State ward).

The principal targets of the American program were those mentally challenged and the mentally ill; but many states also targeted the deaf, blind and epileptic. Native Americans were particularly targeted and were sterilized, not only against their will, but often without even their knowledge, while they were in the government controlled hospitals for other reasons.

North Carolina, who forcibly sterilized over 8,000 is notable in that it increased it’s sterilization AFTER the war more than before (three times more). It stopped in 1974, when all records were permanently sealed. Odd, how these governments don’t have a problem sterilizing the most vulnerable and victimized members of society, but they do have a problem, once they decide not to do it anymore, to let anyone read about their glorious handiwork.

The worst victimized group in the US was the Native Americans, who were targeted not in 1920’s but in 1970. Why? Because in 1970 the census came out showing that the average Indian woman bore 3.79 children, whereas the median for all groups in the United States was 1.79 children. Thus the Indian Health Services (IHS) started a policy of sterilization as a form of birth control: targeting the women and using deception, lying and any other means.

This was not an isolated idea. In 1977 Dr. R.T. Ravenholt, director of the United States Agency for International Development (office for population control), said “the United States hoped to sterilize 25 per cent of the world's roughly 570 million fertile women. Ravenholt linked such control measures to the "...normal operation of U.S. commercial interests around the world."”

"Various studies revealed that the Indian Health Service sterilized between 25 and 50 percent of Native American women between 1970 and 1976." (Source: The American Indian Quarterly 24 no.3 pgs 400-419 Summer 2000)”. “A young Indian woman entered Dr. Connie Pinkerton-Uri's Los Angeles office on a November day in 1972. The twenty-six-year-old woman asked Dr. Pinkerton-Uri for a "womb transplant" because she and her husband wished to start a family. An Indian Health Service (IHS) physician had given the woman a complete hysterectomy when she was having problems with alcoholism six years earlier. Dr. Pinkerton-Uri had to tell the young woman that there was no such thing as a "womb transplant" despite the IHS physician having told her that the surgery was reversible.” Marie Sanchez, the Northern Cheyennes' chief tribal judge found two fifteen year old girls who said that they had been told they were having their tonsils out, only to emerge from a local IHS hospital without their ovaries.

The US General Accounting Office conducted a study which, while not explicitly stating that the IHS was coercing forced sterilizations, did conclude that the IHS was NOT following the guidelines of informed consent. “In a lot of cases, women were told that hysterectomies could be reversed, that they would lose the children that they already had, lose the federal aid that they were getting if they did not comply, or were given consents to sign when they were still drugged after having given birth to other children (Akwesasne Notes Spring 1977).”

While the rest of North America was quietly ending Eugenics laws, on the US Reservations, the IHS coerced sterilizations were actually increasing: “A study of the Navajo Reservation sponsored by the Public Health Service, calculated that the percentage of interval sterilizations had doubled from 15% in 1972 to 31% in 1978” In 1979 a researchers' visit to a single facility in Claremore found 81 sterilizations in six months with nurses who "validated that sterilizations were occurring and with greater frequency." By the by, because sterilization was done by the IHS, that meant this whole action was federally funded. When tribal bands finally took over health agencies in the late 70’s and 80’s the program of sterilization was ended.

Is there sense in the horror? Not much, except that this didn’t occur in Nazi Germany (though Hitler did get a lot of ideas from the long running US and Canadian Eugenics programs), but with the "good folks" and heroic feminists of these shores of "freedom." These were feminists and national heroes who advocated that women who were different than they were, or didn’t have the same moral values they did should have removed, against their will, the right to ever bear children. I had nightmares last night after reading the material. I’m glad I did. I hope I never forget what can happen when people use the “common good” to take away an individuals right to choose. Or how easy it is to do horrific acts...but with the best of intentions.


deanie said...

You've done it again! Forced me to look beyond the "glossy images" that history books and media present to see what a person, a government, a nation is really about. BRAVO!! Looking forward to the rest of the story in your next book

Yoga Korunta said...

The earth is richer for you and Linda.

Daniel, the Guy in the Desert said...

This is brilliant and beautiful and heartbreaking. Thank you so much for your passion and labor.

Tim said...

This situation is so fucked up I can't even believe it. No, that's not true. I CAN believe it because I know how fucked up and evil my government is.

I really have to buy your book, Beth. I haven't had the pleasure of experiencing Zed yet, but I'll remedy that soon. I will buy your next book too!

Tim said...'re not related are you? Not that it makes any difference, I just was wondering...

Elizabeth McClung said...

My grandfather was a british orphan who was adopted into a off-shoot branch of Nellie's family - so there is no blood connection between us and I told Arsenal Press I didn't want to push the "Great-great grandniece twice removed" issue. However, as she is the town hero, I do like telling people when they ask how to spell the last name, "like the library". So I was pretty appalled when I found out that she was one of the big movers, even in Alberta legislature that created probably the highest per capita area of forced sterilization outside of some US native american reservations.

It really took a bit of research for the blog, so thanks for reading it - the problem is what do you say to a group of (in the Alberta Eugenics board) three men and 1 woman who sit there and approve 99.9% of the cases brought to them: "manic depressive? Sterilize" "Low IQ: Sterilize", "Compulsive sex: sterilize" (and you know there is "Gay" in there under "Sexual deviant:sterilize"). I am guessing this will not be made into a touching 2 minutes "Canadian moment" for CBC.

GayProf said...

If you think that this was a bad issue in the States of the United States, just imagine what happened in the colonies, or, er, I mean "territories."

It was no accident that U.S. doctors tested the birth control pill on women in Puerto Rico.

Sober @ Sundown said...

I'm am impressed with all the research for this post. Depressing subject, but very well written.

Jen said...

It's also very easy (and dangerous) to interpret history through a modern context.

Imagine going back to 1924 and the early feminists and telling them that in the future women would be free to choose to terminate a pregnancy. I'm sure they would be all over the map, just like women are on this issue today, but for a miriad of other reasons that modern women no longer consider (e.g.: high infant mortality). Imagine telling them that euthanasia was a legitimate topic of debate... I'm not saying that these are completely analogous situations morally or ethically, but there are definate parallels. Similarly-minded people in different times would/do draw different conclusions.

That the various sterilization acts lasted through the '50s, '60s and '70s--horribly shameful. That early century, pre-universal health care, pre-antibiotics feminists considered eugenics a viable medical option, LESS shameful given what we know about the context.

I'm not saying that we should ignore those elements of history that we no longer agree with, i.e.: "McClung's good work out stripped her bad, so ignore the bad" would be inaccurate and wrong. But isn't it more informative and supporting of your statement re: "how easy it is to do horrific acts...but with the best of intentions" to realise that someone as progressive as McClung in so many ways could also be so regressive based merely on the context of her times (i.e.: her religion, how society at that time viewed differently abled people, etc.).

McClung as cautionary tale, yes. McClung responsible for "how fucked up and evil my government is" (Tim) now or in the era after her death, no.


Elizabeth McClung said...

Eugenics has always been a bad idea since it is based on the premise that actions against individuals are permissable for "the greater good". And when a person steps forward declaring that they are going to be the one who can decide who is worthy and who is not, again, a bad idea (though popular in any time or society).

Historically, Nellie McClung along with other Alberta feminists threw herself with the zeal and enthusiasm in using her political and personal influence to get passed a bill which was the first of it's kind in the entire british empire. She was not an inevitable outcome of thoughts of the time but rather someone who pushed herself to the front as an example. The Alberta Eugenics boards WAS radical, including a female on the very first 1924 board, as they chose a path that, with the exception of British Columbia (and never with the same numbers or zeal), was not reflected in the rest of Canada. Nor was it elsewhere in the English speaking commonwealth.

If we wish to respect Nellie McClung as the innovative and passionate leader that she was, we must give her the due that she was a rational human being, and made rational decisions to set herself up as a human arbitrator, to decide that while she and those she respected were one type of human being, those she did not approve of should be medically altered against thier will so that they not be accorded the same human condition as her - and then convinced the government of Alberta to make that law.

Historically, women were too emtional and weak minded to be allowed to vote or hold office. We applaud and give Nellie McClung heroic status for seeing through this popular, but incorrect idea. If she was not a pawn of history in her foresight, then she needs to be acknowledged for the repressive and evil views which she also spread.

Also, though she lived on though WWII and the 50's, I have not yet found any apologetics for her earlier positions. Hiding her actions does no service to Canada, Nellie or feminism; unless feminism is now going to participate in its own revisionist history where women only make the right decisions and we have nothing to learn from our history.

spear said...

I just want to say that Jen's lame reasoning, justifying the actions of these people, is another form of racism. Jen, you have to deal with the inner racist in you. To try and say that getting a handful of rich, anglo-saxon women into judgeships, and the Supreme Court was worth the mutilation of thousands of non-rich, native, or slavic peoples, is pure racism.
I think that the problem is deeper than that. The "feminist" movement had always been racist, and elitist. It was always about "glass ceilings", and never about the great mass of women who are neither "well-bred", nor of british ancestry.
Perhaps, being native, I am a bit touchy on this subject. I'd been lucky to have raised in the US, after my father left Manitoba, and was shocked to see how natives are treated in Canada. A friend of mine, a former draft dodger, recounted how he observed a native being flogged by a woman in a school where he worked in the seventies. Personally, I'd been singled out while working as a movie extra in a film in Montreal. I was humiliated by this costume person, from BC by the way, after she'd dressed me in a pair of pants that were several sizes too small...and I, she went and took a straight razor, slashed the pants to ribbons, and left me standing there, while she chatted to her friends on the phone. finally, I announced that I would tell my agent that I didn't want to work with whites anymore. The next day, I was called, told that I was fired for displaying "anti-white hate." If you read the real history of the likes of Nellie McLung and Emily Murphy, you'll see that they were rabid supporters of white priviledge. Don't start talking about the
"context" of the twenties. There was the Winnipeg General strike, there were great women, like Emma Goldman, who fought for the rights of poor working women my personal experience here in Canada, I would say that all racists aren't feminists, but all feminists I've met are racists.

Jere said...

Um Wtf why was this not courted After Nazi germany There was War Crimes and all the German officers where Courted for there crimes. Why did this not go to court? Why where this people not punished this is pure evil nothing good about it.

carrie said...

Hi Elizabeth -- this is a great article, very well-researched. Thank you.

I am also one of those people who like to inform/educate people about McClung's legacy of hate, and I have found all too often that when I point out the reality of McClung & Murphy, I get dismissed with a "well, those were the times." Even better is when I'm told to calm down, what's past is past.

I am continually appalled at how so many people are prepared to shrug horrible things off because "it was the times". And I'm so pleased that one of your commenters mentioned Emma Goldman.

If we all just rolled over and said "well, majority rules" or "hmmm, it's the times", all progress would halt.

Thank you for being an agitator and true educator.

Spencer M said...

well written and well researched. Good job.