[Forgotten Stories of the Eugenic Age is a blog series exploring the lesser-known ways that eugenics affected and engaged American lives during the first half of the twentieth century.]
For American women in the early twentieth century, marriage was a dangerous affair.
Upon her marriage, a woman’s civic and social identity became subsumed in her husband’s. A wife was expected to be subservient in the home and in the marital bed. If a husband became abusive, indifferent, or otherwise lackluster, she had little recourse. Divorces were rare, difficult to obtain, and stigmatized.
Even if a woman could obtain a divorce on grounds of cruelty or adultery, separation was often impractical. Few women worked after marriage and even fewer after having children, leaving most financially dependent on their husbands. To make matters worse, judges in divorce cases typically awarded custody of children to their fathers. Sexually transmitted diseases were rampant, alcoholism was epidemic, and even discussion of these serious matters—especially in regards to their impact on women—was considered uncouth. For all these reasons, a woman’s choice of spouse was likely to be one of the most important determinants of her lifelong happiness.
But broad social changes were afoot. The middle-class “True Woman” of the Victorian Era—passive, pious, frail, and domestic—was facing challenges from the Progressive Era “New Woman”—passionate, opinionated, independent, and well-educated. The New Woman studied in university, worked before marriage and occasionally after, and didn’t hesitate to tackle some of the more difficult and uncomfortable marital and reproductive matters of the time.
In this context, the field of eugenics emerged as a lens through which white middle-class women could more deeply examine these issues and solve the “marriage problem.” As a 1909 Current Literature article declared, “Marriage is, essentially, a science.” And indeed, eugenists advised women to learn all they could about the scientific basis of marriage, and then put the facts into practice in life’s laboratory. If women carefully studied eugenics, they could determine with the greatest accuracy which man to marry to ensure a happy future.
Eugenists argued that the negative traits men could display after marriage, such as alcoholism, promiscuity, feeble-mindedness, and cruelty, all had a hereditary basis. Furthermore, claimed Dr. Woods Hutchinson, Clinical Professor of Medicine at New York Polyclinic, these traits were not limited to "the communities of chicken thieves [and] feudists who fight and inbreed among themselves and live like animals," but could also be found "on the roof of society, among the idle and mentally weak." Since any man regardless of class status or outward appearance could have hereditary defects invisible to the untrained eye, middle-class women hoping for a happy marriage had to be vigilant to protect themselves.
Here, eugenists combined an insistence on the hereditary nature of most undesirable traits with a healthy scorn for the traditional practice of shielding middle-class women from some uncomfortable truths about sex and married life. Dr. Anna Blount, one of the most well-known women eugenists, warned that eugenically inferior men were more likely to contract devastating venereal diseases—euphemistically called “red light diseases” or “social diseases”—that they would then pass on to their wives and subsequent children. Even "modern novelists," Blount wrote, are unable to convey the misery of "the blooming bride transformed in a few short months to the querulous invalid, or returning from the surgical operation at the hospital with the best of life and hope gone." Blount further cautioned that cruelty and the propensity for wife desertion were hereditary. Women needed to educate themselves about eugenics to safeguard against marriage to such men.
Dr. Norman Barnesby counseled that alcoholism was either a symptom or a cause of natural inferiority. Women may idealize marring an alcoholic man to reform him, but these innately hopeless causes would produce a "wrecked life and a dreary home." With statements like these, eugenists warned women that despite their hopes that the men they marry will abandon their damaging habits, love cannot eliminate inborn qualities.
Along with developing awareness of eugenic principles, eugenists emphasized that women could undertake special eugenic training to help identify signs of insidious degeneracy in prospective marriage partners. Professor Dean Inge of Cambridge University and the Eugenics Education Society claimed that without eugenic knowledge, women might find themselves drawn simply to a man's "fine and strong physique," despite lack of adequate information about his health. But the development of a "scientific eye" could help them avoid these womanly pitfalls.
Virginia Hinkins, who taught eugenics at Indiana University's YWCA, provided some concrete love-interest examination tools. When gazing deeply into a lover's eyes, she advised, women should not look for the "yearning, burning, soulful fires, which rage in the erotic litany of love," but for symptoms of eye disease. She continued, "His heart, to beat true, must pump seventy-two to the minute, and his sighs should rest under suspicion as indicating a liverish and morbid disposition." Eugenists also pressed for local and state governments to adopt laws requiring men and women hoping to marry to first present a eugenic health certificate signed by a physician indicating that they were fit to wed.
If these suggestions appear to strike a blow to romance, eugenists certainly didn't think so. Dr. Elizabeth Hamilton-Muncie asserted that eugenists wanted love to be essential for marriage but also desired that couples love "with their eyes open and brains active." Learning about eugenics would enable women to pursue romantic relationships with a healthy dose of common sense, contributing to a more informed, and thus purer, love. Notable British eugenist and sexologist Havelock Ellis wrote that marriage between two young healthy “wholesome wooers” in love was more likely to benefit the race than a money marriage between a young woman and a sick, elderly man. Love marriages were often eugenic by nature compared with marriages for money, social status, or simple convenience because love required people to find worthy characteristics in one another.
Some newspapers bolstered this connection between eugenics, love, and marriage with profiles of “eugenic” weddings. These weddings typically occurred between wealthy, well-educated, and socially prominent men and women who were vocal about their support for eugenics and their conviction that their marriage conformed to eugenic ideals. Along with the usual details about the bride’s family, the groom’s occupation, and the honeymoon destination, these flattering profiles frequently described the couple’s physical qualifications and eugenic credentials.
One such eugenic wedding occurred between Leo B. de Lano—quite the renaissance man as an "athlete, aquatic hero, temperance advocate, hat salesman, USC graduate, adventurer, and extremist”—and Betty Wehrle, "about as pretty a girl as ever posed for an artist." A Los Angeles Times article noted that de Lano was 5 feet 10 inches tall and 175 pounds, Wehrle was 5 feet 4 inches tall and 110 pounds, and both were “perfect blondes” who were “practically perfect physically,” as evidenced by the eugenic health exams to which they had submitted before agreeing to wed.
The previously cited Virginia Hinkins, who herself had a eugenic wedding, said that eugenic marriages were born out of “a normal desire to know the standing of a life partner, the only human insurance we can get for permanent love and happy married life." At a time when women’s life options significantly diminished after marriage, some middle-class women turned to eugenics in fervent hope that this “science” could assist them in making the best possible marital choice. In a way, focusing on scientific selection of a spouse was a way to avoid addressing the serious issues women faced once they were married. Eugenics provided assurance that women could identify a good husband, and that happiness would naturally follow.
Yet women’s interest in eugenics during this period also indicates their concerted effort to grapple with the difficulties and dissatisfactions of marriage and to claim greater control over their lives. It is poignant that in the early twentieth century, marrying eugenically appeared more attainable than social reforms to expand married women’s economic and legal options and to reduce the stigma of domestic abuse.
1. Barnesby, Norma. "Eugenics and the Child." Forum (Mar. 1913): 341.
2. Blount, Anna. "Effect of Divorce on the Next Generation." San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 28, 1917.
3. Blount, Anna. "What Marriage Health Test Bill Means If It Becomes Law." San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 18, 1917.
4. Dicker, Rory. A History of U.S. Feminisms. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008.
5. Ellis, Havelock. "Why First Love Is Always Wrong." Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 24, 1912.
6. "Eugenic Wedding to Begin the New Year." Los Angeles Times, Jan. 01, 1914.
7. "The Future of Love-Making in the Light of Science." Current Literature OL. XLI, (Jul. 1906): 97.
8. "Marriage As the Youngest of the Sciences." Current Literature OL. XLVI., (May 1909): 561.
9. "Real Eugenic Marriage." Los Angeles Times, Dec. 31, 1913.
10. Schneider, Dorothy and Carl J. Schneider. American Women in the Progressive Era, 1900–1920. New York: Facts on File, 1993.
11. "'Science First' in This Wooing." Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 25, 1915.
12. "Science in Marriage: Knowledge of Eugenics Would Prevent Unwise Unions." Washington Post, Mar. 20, 1910.
13. "Won't Banish Cupid: Dr. Elizabeth Muncie Defends the Purpose of Eugenics." Washington Post, Jul. 07, 1914.
14. "Would Check Birth of All Defectives." New York Times, Sep. 21, 1912.
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