WPT University Place: Eugenics in Wisconsin


– Welcome to University
Place Presents. I’m Norman Gilliland. The late 19th Century
brought quite a number of really major advances
in human well-being. For example, the electric
light in the 1870’s provided a clean, safe
source of illumination. The invention of the automobile did away with all of
the disease components associated with horse traffic. And in 1919, of course,
Prohibition was an attempt to regulate human behavior
in a more healthy vein. In 1907, the State of
Indiana passed the first State Eugenics Law,
a logical extension, perhaps, of the foregoing. And in 1913, Wisconsin
followed suit. What was the purpose
of these laws, exactly? How effective were they? And where are they today? Joining me for
University Place Presents is Phyllis Reske. She’s the author of the article, “Policing the ‘Wayward
Woman’: Eugenics and “Wisconsin’s Involuntary
Sterilization Program,” which appeared in the
Wisconsin Magazine of History. Welcome to University
Place Presents. – Oh, thank you,
good to be here. – So I’ve mentioned all
these wonderful advances you know,
– [Phyllis] Yes. – in human health
in the late 19th into the early 20th Century. A logical extension, eugenics, to police the
population’s new members? – Yes, it started in
the late 19th Century. A precursor was Social
Darwinism where– – [Norman] I
wondered about that. – Yes, yes, so where we just we just leave the races alone and eventually the “unfits”
population will just die out. Natural selection,
it would just happen. And then Sir Francis Galtan, he coined the word “eugenics,” which is in general
meaning “well-born.” He was the cousin
of Charles Darwin. He believed that no,
they’re just not, it’s not going to happen
with Social Darwinism. With natural selection
they’re not going to die out. There needs to be human
intervention into it. And so he developed
the theory of eugenics, where scientists would intervene in the sake for
human betterment. – Of course, the
concept goes way back. I mean, Oedipus sat
out on the hillside because of his defective foot. And a long tradition of that and of course speaking of Darwin and going back into
the animal kingdom too. Mothers killing defective
children and all that. But where do we actually see it consciously practiced
under the name of eugenics? – Do you mean in
the 19th Century? – [Norman] Mm-hmm.
– Early? Eugenesis, now with this theory
of eugenics, what do we do? With Sir Francis Galton,
what he came out with, the eugenic theory, there
were family histories that were published. The most famous
was a Dr. Dugdale. And he did a study of the
Jukes, this family in New York. They had a history
of promiscuity,
criminality, poverty. It’s like if we could
curtail the procreation of this family, we would
save the State of New York over a million dollars. – Is he making any kind
of distinction between physiological traits,
which might be passed on, and behavioral traits, which
may or may not be passed on? – That’s a very interesting
point with Dr. Robert Dugdale was that he did believe that with a change of environment, especially the children,
we take the children out of that environment,
give them an education, that they won’t turn out like their relatives
or their parents. – Okay, that’s a
– [Phyllis] So he did – far cry from eugenics.
– [Phyllis] Yes. He did believe in
inheritable traits, however. But he said that
something can be done when it comes to pulling
them out of the environment and educating them. But the people at the time
in the late 19th Century focused on the
inheritable traits. During that time too,
we have the imperialism. The United States starting
to go out in the world and conquer these colonies,
these inferior people and bringing Western
Civilization to them to improve society,
those colonies. And also that’s the
lessez-faire, if I’m pronouncing
that correctly, that you have like J.P. Morgan
and the Rockefellers and all these very
rich, ostentatious people that, you know,
a monopoly is forming. And them becoming
richer and taking up more and more of the wealth.
– [Norman] Sure. – And that deflection
from them, it’s like it’s not this
capitalism gone amuck. It’s not us. Eugenics gave them a way
to say that “It’s not us. “It’s these defective people. “They’re just producing
more of their kind. “It has nothing to
do with environment. “It has nothing to do with
capitalism, what’s going on “in the industrial society
and what comes with it.” – So pretty quickly there’s
a political component to the eugenics debate, assuming
there is a debate, even, at this point. – Mm-hmm, yes. And the political debate, yeah. There is more of the
scientists, the upper classes. They’re supporting
eugenics because, again, it’s not we are, we get the fruit
of capitalism. And so why not? We’re the superior class.
– [Norman] The fittest. – The fittest. Now with eugenics, it’s
scientifically proven. And we just produce
more of our kind. That’s why more of our
kind get richer and richer. They get more affluent
while the poor get poorer. So that was a really good
rationalization for them. – Let’s start with
Indiana and this law – [Phyllis] Yes.
– in 1907. What was the purpose of it? – The purpose was to
curtail the unfits. With eugenics laws, there wasn’t like a Federal eugenics
law, except for immigration. It depended on the states
and what the doctors, the legislatures believed,
what they perceived or what they got out
of the eugenic theory. For Indiana, they
focused more on the mental defectives,
the criminals. Some states didn’t. They didn’t focus
on their criminals. They just, who they deemed
as mental defectives. Usually that’s the people who
are dependent on the states, who got aid from the states,
financial support, welfare, the welfare recipients,
and the promiscuous people, people who broke like
societal transgressions. – Okay, so again there seem
to be two things going on. – [Phyllis] Okay.
– One of them has to do with behavior.
– [Phyllis] Yes. – The other has to do with
what we call defects or physiological defects. So in this law in
Indiana, what are they actually doing to implement it? Who they target were the inmates
in the state institutions who were there, who
were diagnosed as insane or having a mental defect. They just called them
mental defectives. For women, like a
sexual transgression, if they were like a prostitute or they just had
illegitimate children. So there’s that
sexual transgression, that societal transgression. – They have a whole
– [Phyllis] Yeah. – set of state prisons. But they’re not going there. And they’re not assuming
that because somebody is a criminal and incarcerated
– [Phyllis] I’m not – that they would be subject
– [Phyllis] Yeah. – to a eugenics, just the more, those considered to be
mentally defective somehow. Yeah, with Indiana I’m not sure. What I remember is
that I think it was in the prisons, they
would go to the prisons and examine some
of the prisoners and see if they were
deemed mental defectives. Then they would transfer them over to the state institutions. Now when we get to
a nice, progressive, enlightened state like
Wisconsin in 1913, how did that compare
in terms of its implementation of eugenics laws? With Indiana’s passing the first eugenic sterilization law,
then other states followed. So Wisconsin just
picked up on that trail. It’s like we should
have a law, too. The person who very much wanted a passage of a eugenic
sterilization law was Dr. Alfred Wilmarth. He was the first
superintendent for the Wisconsin Home
for the Feeble-Minded, which that was the
name of the, now it’s the Northern
Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled. – [Norman] And what did the
law actually say in Wisconsin? – [Phyllis] It’s any mental
defective or epileptic in inmates in a
state institution, they can undergo the operation. They can undergo,
that is to say– Well they should. Then who makes– – [Phyllis] In fact any, yeah. Who makes the decision?
– [Phyllis] Well Is there any kind of a
safety valve for that? What happened was
when the law passed, the state departments
that oversaw that whole sterilization program was the State Board of Control. So the State Board of Control, along with the
superintendent, Dr. Wilmarth, would compile the
list of potential sterilization candidates. What they did was, of course,
look at each case file, but also their
family backgrounds. And so they would research
the family backgrounds and see if there was any
relatives or family members who were either in
other state institutions or just a history of welfare, receiving welfare
from the states, criminality, yeah. Did this individual,
whether it was a prostitute just picked up last
week, or an epileptic who might have been
institutionalized for a year, have any kind of say
or choice in this? Or did this group of experts
just make the decision and there was no recourse? They had very little
say in it, of course. Being poor themselves, being
in a state institution, obviously they couldn’t
afford a private institution. So they had very
little legal recourse. Part of their procedures
is once a person was a candidate
for sterilization, they would send a notice
to a family member, a relative, or their guardian. If they don’t get an
notification back, that was considered consent. – [Norman] Silence was
considered consent? Yes, and if there was
a refusal of their ward or their daughter or son
to get a sterilization, then they were an inmate of
the institution indefinitely. – Oh, so this sterilization
was assumed to be, then, kind of a credential
for getting freed of – [Phyllis] Very much.
– the institution. – Yeah, for discharge
or parole, very much so. So there is that coercion there. – What do we know
about Dr. Wilmarth? Was his motive
well-founded, do you think? Because there were a lot of
people around at this time, pseudo-experts who
did profit from doing one of kind surgery
or another on people. – Back then, reputable
doctors like Dr. Wilmarth were very much respected
in their addresses to medical societies,
to legislatures, to women’s clubs, to
other social clubs. They were believed.
# They were trusted. They would throw the
statistical numbers. Back then, in regards to
eugenics, they weren’t under the scrutiny like
we are now with research. So they were readily believed, maybe in the way they
wanted to believe that. – It was a time, of course,
of authority figures – [Phyllis] Yes. – really right on through
into the 50’s probably that if somebody was
purportedly an expert in a field – [Phyllis] Yes. – he or she was credible. Yes. So kind of this
instant credibility we saw of course
– [Phyllis] Right. in advertising
– [Phyllis] Right. for years.
– [Phyllis] Mm-hmm. – And Dr. Wilmarth,
didn’t he have a, I want to say confederate, but that’s not quite
the right word. But he had adherents
and he had assistance in this crusade for eugenics? – Oh yes. He was the chief
supporter of it. I know that there
were at UW Madison, or the Wisconsin State
College I think it was, or the university back
then, here in Madison there were professions
who supported eugenics, like E.A. Ross and
Charles Van Hise, so very much in the
intellectual circles. – Actually, I mean the
president of the university, Van Hise–
– [Phyllis] Yes. – supported eugenics.
– [Phyllis] Yes. – [Norman] But I
think there was also, wasn’t there a presidential
candidate who supported it? – [Phyllis] Theodore
Roosevelt, yes. Theodore Roosevelt, right.
– [Phyllis] Yes. Yeah, it’s surprising,
even Helen Keller, she – [Norman] Oh no, really? – Yes, she supported eugenics. Surprisingly,
shockingly, she supported eugenical euthanasia of
mentally-challenged babies. – [Norman] So that’s
– [Phyllis] Yes. – quite a surprise. – Yeah, and also feminists, too. Marie Stopes and I think a local suffragist, Etta James. – Were in favor of eugenics? – Yes, mm-hmm. – That’s fascinating how–
– [Phyllis] Yes. – it kind of splits out–
– [Phyllis] Yes. – in these various factions
that would you think might be antithetical
to each other. – Yes. Even through the 20th Century, these people were
in the same circles, similar organizations,
the same organizations. So they talked to
each other frequently, probably about eugenics
and sterilization. They had connections
to the legislatures. So they had that
influence and power. So if they’re going to
believe this eugenic theory, and say sterilization,
that is a good idea, they could do
something with that. Augustus Beier,
was he one of the figures in this also? Yes, he was the
second superintendent of the Home for
the Feeble-Minded. He was the assistant
superintendent to Dr. Wilmarth. He also believed in eugenics. He just continued the tradition. Now he started to be
the superintendent, I think in the early 1920’s. That’s when the Wisconsin
Home for the Feeble Minded turned from like a
custodial institution to, and they even
changed the name to the Northern Wisconsin
Colony and Training School. And everyone called it
“the Northern Colony.” Instead of lifelong
incarceration for these inmates – It was
– Right. – a big transitional place. – Exactly. They were trained in
gender-acceptable occupations, the women for sewing, and
then men in the wood shop and making stuff like
that, and being paroled in the community to
serve the community. – This is an interesting
bit of, I want to call it “propaganda,” but I’m not sure
that’s quite the right word. In describing the
concept behind eugenics, this tree that shows
– [Phyllis] Yes. – [Norman] that with
eugenics you can kind of guide the development of the
branches of the human race. – [Phyllis] Yes, yes. And it’s very much
interdisciplinary. You have the genetics. So you have the science. You have the
sociological factors. You have the medical factors. You have all these other
different branches, too coming together. Then as they’re
working together, out comes this wonderful tree,
the betterment of society. That was a logo for the
Second Eugenics Congress that was held in, I think
it was in New England. And that was like in 1912. So this was very much
a popular movement. They had these national
congresses and stuff like that where they came together
from all over the world and talked about eugenics. – I think really, I
mean, when we’re talking about eugenics, is really
– [Phyllis] Yeah. – the main thrust of
it just sterilization? Or were there other
components to it? – The method that they really
supported was sterilization. At first it was segregation. There were three
main ways actually. It was segregation,
eugenic marriage laws, and sterilization. – Eugenic marriage laws?
– [Phyllis] Yes. – Okay, would that be
where you’d have to prove – [Phyllis] Yes,
you’d have to prove – you’re healthy?
– [Phyllis] That you’re fit, you’re healthy in
order to marry. Yes, in Wisconsin, they first
started with segregation. Dr. Wilmarth was realizing that we can’t tall all who we
deem mentally or unfit and just stick them
in institutions. It would just be to many people. Then the cost to the state
would be too much, of course. – So we can’t do that. So the second was
the enactment of a eugenic marriage
law in Wisconsin. I think that was
around the same time, I think it was 1910. That was before the
sterilization law. But then there’s
this belief that the people who propagated
more their kind, the unfit, they didn’t marry. So there was a lot of
out-of-wedlock births. So you’re not really
curtailing the unfit by– – [Norman] Sure, yeah. – They’re seeing the, you know, they were perceiving
that as illogical. – The eugenics
marriage proponent? – Yes, yes.
– [Norman] Yeah. – Actually that was overturned. That law was overturned by
the State Supreme Court. – Really?
What was the basis? – The basis was– – [Norman] Because this
could– – [Phyllis] Yeah. – [Norman] Pertain
on the whole outcome of the eugenics thing in general
if we get into any– – [Phyllis]
Yes. – [Norman] Court
challenges later on. – Yes, yes. It was struck down. It just wasn’t, some
legislatures were saying that doctors, they’re just
making money off of it. – Right, that would be–
– [Phyllis] Yes. – [Norman] That would
be an understandable– – [Phyllis] Right.
– [Norman] Belief. – Yes, and so eugenesis
and eugenics supporters are really supporters
of sterilization because looking at the program where you admit so many
people into the institution, sterilize them, and
then parole them, you can get new admits. And most of them
are good eugenic or sterilization candidates. You can sterilize them and then get them out
into the community. You had this program where
they come in, but they go out. – Right, right.
– [Phyllis] Yeah. – So this Northern
Colony was where? – In Chippewa Falls. – Chippewa Falls?
– [Phyllis] Mm-hmm. – And it was established when? – [Phyllis] 1897, very much an
isolated parts of Wisconsin. It still is. I did visit there
several years ago. Some of the old buildings
are still standing. But it was very much a colony. It was very much
it’s own village and isolated from the world. But that was the
attitude towards developmentally-disabled
people at the time, out of sight, out of mind. – And just to skip
ahead briefly though– – [Phyllis] Sure. – so the focus of it,
the Northern Colony has changed, obviously,
from eugenics to some other form
of transition into– – [Phyllis] Yes.
– society? – Yes. In contemporary times
now, they take on more severe physically
disabled clients, yes. – Let’s look at kind
of the social fabric– – [Phyllis] Sure. – that was being addressed
by these eugenic laws in Wisconsin in 19-teens. We talk about people who
were sexually promiscuous. – Yes. – Primarily women?
– Yes. – Was the concern because
they were the ones who would be having children? – But was there a male
component to this concern also? – The male component that
was they had more rights. They could probably
assert themselves more in getting legal
protection as the woman. The most vulnerable
back at that time was the sexually
promiscuous woman who would fall out of favor, fall out of favor of society. They were very much
more vulnerable to sterilization than men. – I suppose it’s harder
to prove promiscuity with the man anyway
if he doesn’t– – [Phyllis] Right.
– [Norman] Stick around. – [Phyllis] Yes, yes. – We have here a party scene. – [Phyllis] Yes. – [Norman] This is, I
believe, Milwaukee, 1914? – [Phyllis] Yes. – [Norman] Would
this group of people be candidates for the kind of– – [Phyllis] You know, they– – [Norman] eugenics
we’ve been talking about? – [Phyllis] Yes, yes, the–
– [Norman] Why would that be? – [Phyllis] I remember
once case in particular where a woman was admitted
to the Northern Colony, partly because she was caught
in a saloon with a man. You picture a woman in
this dance hall back then. They weren’t the most,
they would be looked at as very pious women.
– [Norman] Right. – [Phyllis] In that
particular county, I think that was
south of Milwaukee in Racine County,
she was arrested. She was incarcerated
at the Northern Colony. – Okay, and what were the–
– [Phyllis] Yeah. – What was she arrested for? – She was caught with
a man in a saloon. And that’s (laughs),
she had well– – [Norman] No children
necessarily out of wedlock? – As far as I can– – [Norman] Certainly
not selling sex? – No, but back then in
a saloon or a dance hall that was very much where people
saw women being confronted with their own downfall,
selling themselves. – [Norman] Or giving
themselves away. – Right, right. So being caught with
a man in a saloon, that could have meant,
that could have went both ways there, prostitution
or just giving oneself away. – [Norman] Right. So it was considered kind
of preemptive in this case, which makes you
wonder a little about how preemptive they could
get with a eugenics law. If somebody is
just in a situation where they might
have this downfall. – [Phyllis] Oh yeah. They might have the downfall
or they committed it. I remember case
studies where there was one woman who was admitted
and then sterilized. She was caught for prostitution. Women who had
illegitimate children, and also the family history,
they had family members who were committed or receiving
welfare from the states. For some of these women,
they were assaulted or raped. And they were
incarcerated while the men may have gotten parole or
may have gotten jail time, but then sooner or later
they would be released. – Which is a reason
why I’m kind of amazed that the suffragists
would support these laws ’cause they’re so unfair. – Yes, and it’s also, you
know, one of my professors said that class trumps gender. These women, these suffragists
and other women too, they were from the
middle to upper classes. They supported eugenics
too, even though they were of the same gender. It’s like,
“Well, I’m keeping my
piety. “Why aren’t they?” Or something like that. – [Norman] Yes. – They must be defective.
That was the attitude– – [Norman] “I can do it,
why can’t they?”
– Right, right. They must be defective. Why would you give
yourself away? Why would you prostitute? There’s something wrong
mentally with you. – So something as simple
as one instance of being apprehended in a
saloon with a man– – [Phyllis] Yes. – would get an individual
into this Northern Colony automatically subject
to sterilization? – Unfortunately, there was
women from other institutions who were transferred to Northern
Colony to get sterilized. Some of these women
were in institutions for a number of years,
lived in their young lives an institutionalized life. With that, they have
to go before the judge ’cause the judge can,
they’re the only ones who can order their
incarceration. – [Norman] Right. They can go before the judge
and have the “witnesses” come forward and “she
did this, she did that.” According to where she was
in her community, her status, maybe she was a
woman of bad repute that the judge can, and
it depended on the judge and whether or not they
knew of this program. And probably most of them did. Women were incarcerated
or admitted from all over the state. So it’s like this is
where you need to be. I’m going to send you
to the Northern Colony. – Let’s follow this.
– [Phyllis] Yeah. – It’s not hypothetical. But we don’t necessarily
know everything about her subsequent history. – [Phyllis] Yeah. – But this woman, arrested for
being in a saloon with a man. – [Phyllis] Right. – We’ll say 1914 or so. And sentenced to
incarceration by a judge. – [Phyllis] Yes. – Then somebody decides
that she should go– – [Phyllis] Right.
– to the Northern Colony. – Right, and so
she’s transferred to the Northern Colony from
probably the county jail. Once she is there,
they do examine her. They are given an
intelligence test. Then they are put into,
or placed into a cottage. What happens then, if they are a candidate for sterilization,
how that’s determined is the sterilization committee. That is made up of
the superintendents, the alienist which was, now
we call him a psychiatrist. – [Norman] (laughs) Alienist. – Yes, and a medical doctor. They would look at the case
and probably interview her. For a woman to go
before a judge, and having this
exposed, or whatever, and then having this shame,
this past coming up again for her, and then
losing one’s fertility, it was just, what the
women went through. – [Norman] But–
– [Phyllis] Yeah, yes. – she would have to though,
she would have to go through the sterilization
in order to get out of the colony,
in order for her to be
released? – Yes, and so yeah. – It just kind of
reminds me of the way the Humane Society is today. But then, how long would
she be in this colony typically, sterilized
or otherwise? – The average time, I did
calculate the average time of. I think it was
five to ten years. – [Norman] Five to ten years? – Yes, yes. – Whether she’d been
sterilized or not? Or how did that work? – The thing is, the average
age of sterilization was 21 years old for a woman. So they could be sterilized. And that was in the admission
books that I examined, they would have the date
of the sterilization. Then they would stay
for a period of time and then be paroled
or discharged. Some of them escaped. Then so many years
later, it could be that someone just enters
into that admission book “Discharged from the
State Board of Control.” So whether that was
an actual discharge or they just wrote it in
just to close the case, who knows? – What was the actual
sterilization procedure? We have this operating
room scene here. – [Phyllis] Yes. – [Norman] What did
they actually do? – [Phyllis] It was
called a salpingectomy. – [Norman] Salpingectomy. – [Phyllis] Yes. That was the cutting
of the Fallopian tubes, I believe it was, yes. That was the main method. – [Norman] And that would
have been irreversible? – [Phyllis] Right. – Okay, so five to ten years
in this Northern Colony. – [Phyllis] Yes. – Was it there was a mix
of genders at this colony? – [Phyllis] Yes, there was. – There was. – It was for the most
part equal number of men and an equal number of women
who were at the colony. – What did they do for
their five to ten years? – They did according
to what society would have men and women do. Men were in the workshop. They would be trained
to do woodwork or trained to repair shoes
or work in agricultural because they had their
own farm there too at the institution. So they would be doing that. The women would be
in home domesticity where they would be
trained to wait tables or they would be trained to wash dishes and to cook, to sew. – [Norman] Was it regardless
of what their profession may have been
before they went in? They were just kind
of funneled through this sort of job
training program? – [Phyllis] Yes, yes. Especially that really took off
in the 1920s with Dr. Beier. He very much believed in
that type of rehabilitation. – Do we have a sense of any
case studies in terms of how these people did
after they were released from the Northern Colony? Was this something
that they would have on their resume,
that would make it perhaps more difficult for
them to get employment? – I think they were placed. I have read that
they were placed in different areas
of employment. But very much once they
were paroled or discharged, they didn’t check up on them. – [Norman] They weren’t tracked. – They didn’t keep
track with them. They didn’t. Throughout this research,
I found very little voice on account of the
inmates’ parts about it. – Oh really? Then there really
wasn’t any record, any memoirs, any letters– – [Phyllis] No.
– from the– – [Phyllis] Not that
I could find, no. – inmates, if we
can call them that? – There was one that I found
where a woman was sterilized. She was discharged. I think it was in the 1940s. This was maybe ten
to 15 years later. She got married
during that time. And she wrote a letter back to, she wrote a letter to
the Northern Colony. It was like, I think
I was sterilized. I’m married now, and I
wanted to have children. But I can’t. And I wanted to know
exactly what happened when I was there. – Oh, to know–
– [Phyllis] Yes. – whether it could
be reversed or not. – Yeah, and it was just,
to go back a little bit, she was from the
Southern Colony. There was a Southern
Colony in Union Grove. They also transferred
their inmates to the Northern Colony
to be sterilized. Then they would be
transferred back, and then eventually be
discharged or paroled. And she was a Southern
Colony inmate. ‘Cause she was sterilized
at the Northern Colony, she wrote to the superintendent
of the Northern Colony. The superintendent’s
response was, how I interpret it
as rather terse, was, “You were a
Southern Colony inmate. “You need to write to them.
Thank you.” – Even though it
was done up here. – Yes, yes, yeah. You need to write
to them about this. Sincerely, and that was it. I did look up that
particular patient that they did have records
of her sterilization. They could have given
her information. For whatever reason, he just
decided not to deal with it. – We have some, I’ll call
them “domestic” scenes here from the Northern Colony. – [Phyllis] Sure, yes. – [Norman] And some of
the occupational training. This, again, let’s see,
represents probably some occupational training for men,
that we’re looking at here? Or are we getting– – We’re looking at women
who are being trained in
sewing. That was the sewing room. – [Norman] The sewing room. – [Phyllis] Very much the
woman’s world back then. That was a
culturally-appropriate thing for a woman to be trained in. And so that’s how they were. Sort of transgressing
against society by being promiscuous or
being free in that way, whatever they wanted
to do, it’s like, “No, you can’t do that”
and “You have to do this.” This is what women do. – This is another
scene that would be exactly as
you would expect actually– – [Phyllis] Right. – [Norman] For a job
training for a woman– – [Phyllis] Yes.
– [Norman] At this time. That’s kind of the kitchen work. – [Phyllis] Yeah, kitchen
work, very much so. – [Norman] Then there’s
another one here too– – [Phyllis] That was–
– [Norman] Which is similar. – [Phyllis] Yeah, and
that was serving people. If they were going
to be a waitress or if they were
in somebody’s home and they would be serving them. – Do we have a sense of totals? How many people were
sterilized in Wisconsin over what period of time? – That’s interesting
because I didn’t find a consistent number. I know it was over 1,800 people. And about 80% of
them were women. – We still have very
little record though of what became of these people and what the experience
was like for them. – Right, yes. – Here’s one more occupational– – [Phyllis] That would be–
– [Norman] Scene. – [Phyllis] Yeah, and I know the
previous picture was sewing. This is more needlework too
that they could do and sell or work for somebody else. They would know that precise
needlework to do that. – Do you have a sense,
Phyllis, of how many states, by the time we’re full
force in Wisconsin with eugenics, how
many other states had laws, similar ones? – Up to about 30 states had
eugenics sterilization laws. Yes, and California sterilized,
over the 20th Century, over 20,000 men and women. They were number one in
total sterilizations. And Wisconsin is ranked eighth. – This goes out till what
period of time this goes on? – The majority of eugenic
sterilization laws, most of them were
repealed in the 1970s. Most of the states
stopped sterilizing men and women in 1963. – Specifically that date, why? – That year, yeah. Yeah, that was very peculiar. It’s like, okay, why
all of a sudden in 1963? Unfortunately, I never
found that document that said, “We stopped
sterilization because…”. – But the repeals of the laws? There must be some
documentation for that. – For epileptics, I know
that the sterilization law, Wisconsin, when it
came to epileptics, that was repealed in 1955. Of course, they had the
medical studies that came out– – [Norman] Right. – that this isn’t genetic
and it’s treatable now. And they can live
productive lives. So that was repealed. A couple of factors
that I found, one was that now
medical authorities, like the American
Medical Association and the American
Neurological Association came out with a year’s
worth of studies. This started in the
1950s to the early 1960s. They were publishing
these studies where mental defectiveness
wasn’t inheritable. There’s no real solid
evidence of this. And they were questioning
the legality of doing this. – Well I was
wondering about that when this came up earlier
in our conversation, – [Phyllis] Yes. – this reference to
possible court cases. You would think with
these laws in the books from 1907, 1913,
for decades that there would have been some. – There was the
Buck versus Bell. That is the famous United
States Supreme Court case where the sterilization
law, where was that, in West Virginia, that
Carrie Buck was sterilized. Then after that happened,
she brought suit against the state. It eventually went to the
United States Supreme Court. And they upheld
the sterilization law. – [Norman] Oh, did they? Yes, they did. – What as their reasoning? – Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous quote,
“Three imbeciles,” “Three generations of
imbeciles are enough.” You had legislatures here. You had judges here and
judges in other states that supported eugenics. You had the United
States Supreme Court upholding that too. And they believed in the
eugenic theory back then. That was in the, I
think, late 1920s. After that, there was a
spike in sterilizations because, oh, this is
a constitutional– – Protected by the United
States Constitution. – Yeah, yeah, right. But in Wisconsin, it did
rise, but not to a point, it seemed like they wanted
to be under the radar and not get too much attention
with what they were doing because of the liability factor. They wanted to
protect the physicians who were performing
the sterilizations too. – Was there any kind of, as
we get later into this process of sterilization–
– [Phyllis] Yeah. – was there any kind of
political consciousness, social consciousness
movement that would say, I mean, we already know that
the science was no good. I mean that comes out later.
– [Phyllis] Right. – But what about just
the whole ethics of it? Is that questioned on any
kind of systematic way? The ethics of that, yes,
because if it’s not, if studies are showing that
this eugenic theory is just, it’s going to be
disputed or it’s not, it’s pseudoscience, then
the ethics, the coercion, you can’t be discharged
unless you’re sterilized, that very much is
going to be questioned. That was even more so in
the 1960s in this state with Frederick Kessler, our
representative that introduced a law to repeal the
sterilization law. I found it surprising
that back then it was the State
Board of Control and I think it was the State
Department of Public Welfare. I can’t remember all
the name changes. But they really fought that. It was in the legislature
for a long time to repeal that law. It seemed like they were
holding on to a fact that this, what they were doing
was right or ethic, being ethical and
defending themselves. – I would suppose,
science notwithstanding, it would be hard to
demonstrate a return on this kind of
investment in terms of how can you demonstrate that– – [Phyllis] Right,
and that was– – society is somehow better for having sterilized
all these people. – And I wrote that at
the end of my article. It hasn’t been proven. It’s not like they
went back as like, okay, has the human gene pool
improved because of this? It’s like why have this
program in the first place? – There must be still–
– [Phyllis] Yeah. – some thousands of
people in Wisconsin, hundreds of people,
at least in Wisconsin, who went through–
– [Phyllis] Sure, yeah. – this process and they’re–
– [Phyllis] Still alive, yes. – just not talking about it? – No, after the
publication of the article, I didn’t hear of anyone coming
forward to say anything. Especially with, there was some, well a lot of national
attention at the time with North Carolina, where
especially African Americans came forward and said,
“We were sterilized. “We were coerced.” Back in the 1950s and into
the 1960s, and that’s, they wanted, I can’t
think of the right word, but some sort of– – [Norman] Like restitution? – Restitution, yes,
restitution from the State of North Carolina. – Have all the states
then, all these 30 states repealed the laws by now? – I’m not sure about that. I know that some states have, of course North Carolina,
Indiana, Wisconsin. I would think they
would have, yeah. – Probably a chapter that’s–
– [Phyllis] Yes. – pretty well closed in–
– [Phyllis] Yes, yes. – American health history. – Very much so. – Well Phyllis Reske,
thank you for joining me for the University
Place Presents. – Oh, thank you very much. – [Norman] And
telling us about this chapter of Wisconsin history. – Yeah, well thank
you for having me. – I’m Norman Gilliland,
and I hope you can join me next time around
for University Place Presents.

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