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Midwestern Women and the Eugenics Movement

The eugenics to children's pageants pipeline.

Published onDec 06, 2022
Midwestern Women and the Eugenics Movement

Eugenics, a term that calls to mind experiments conducted in dark labs by Nazi scientists, is something that has strong roots within the United States. The movement found its way into the heart of the United States, the Midwest. Eugenics is defined by its creator, Francis Galton, as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.” 1

Throughout the early 1900s, the eugenics movement permeated popular culture within the United States in multiple ways. Through eugenicists traveling around the country giving lectures, publishing best selling books, and filling children’s movies with eugenic messages, the eugenics movement gained quite a bit of popularity. The most popular phenomena to come out of the eugenics movement were pageantry contests put on at county and state fairs throughout the midwestern region. Fitter Family and Better Baby contests were born out of the popularization of biological determinism and looked at the baby or family’s physical traits and overall appearance along with their mental and moral traits. 2 The winner was then chosen for aligning most with the ideals in these categories as a family or baby that would overall better society by eventually reproducing and furthering their line. Looking at various states throughout the Midwest, it can be shown that the agrarian society of the Midwest combined with the increased political participation of women as a whole led to the popularity of the eugenics movement amongst women in the Midwest. 

Fitter Family and Better Baby contests were specifically chosen by their creators Dr. Florence Sherbon and Mary T. Watts to be held in the rural and agricultural regions of the Midwest. The agrarian roots in the society made eugenic practices not seem as odd, since people in the Midwest have already been using the same practices through competitions and fairs already, but as agricultural practices for crops and livestock, not human beings. However, awarding blue ribbons for the best babies and families at the county or state fair did not seem like much of a stretch from the already common practice of awarding blue ribbons for the best in a show for livestock. 

Looking specifically at the state of Indiana, researcher Alexandra Stern supports this by stating, “For many Hoosiers, born and raised as farmers, breeding superior children was just a step away from producing heartier corn, pigs, and cattle.” 3 In Kansas, these contests were tied to state pride of their agricultural success, in this case the state’s wheat production with headlines declaring, “‘Kansas Grows the Best Wheat in the World’; let us prove that she also ‘grows the best people in the world.’” 4 The state of Iowa had a similar approach tying the development of their children and participation in these contests directly to how their agrarian society made it one of the best places to raise children.

Another factor that led to the appeal of the eugenics movement to midwestern women was the women’s political movement within America and the concept of Republican motherhood and virtue. Researcher Alisa Klaus argues in her work that this Republican virtue “lingered in the efforts to provide the proper environment and necessary resources for the rearing of healthy children and good citizens.” 5 A majority of the leading people in the movement were also women. Furthering the movement’s popularity amongst women, these leaders often tied the movement to the predominantly female political cause of children’s welfare.

Looking into a case study of Indiana, the state’s eugenics movement was led by Dr. Schweitzer and other Indiana Progressive who sought to lower the state’s infant mortality rate though controlling procreation and “further only the birth of the ‘best’ and most salubrious babies.” 6 Moving to another state, while Iowa was not facing the health crises that were common during the early 1900s, the eugenics movement still found a foothold in regards to children’s welfare. The leader of Iowa’s eugenics movement, Cora Bussey Hillis, promoted the child research she conducted through Better Baby contests. Hillis also tied these contests to Iowa citizens’ state pride as she often pointed out that Iowa was the best state to raise children in and to gain knowledge of children’s development. 7 This move made these contests, and by extension the eugenics movement, as a whole, popular amongst women in the state.

Looking at case studies of midwestern states, it can be seen that the factors of their agrarian societies and the women’s movement at the time contributed to the eugenics movement’s appeal to midwestern women during the early 1900s. Overall, looking at what drew women to this movement helps one better understand the history of the Midwest and more broadly the United States’ history regarding a topic not commonly talked about.

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