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Defective History 

Author Elizabeth Catte researches Virginia’s eugenics programs to sterilize the “mentally unfit” and finds their legacy still resonates.

click to enlarge Author Elizabeth Catte presents a virtual talk “Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia,” at the Library of Virginia on Thursday, Feb. 25, at 6 p.m.

Josh Howard

Author Elizabeth Catte presents a virtual talk “Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia,” at the Library of Virginia on Thursday, Feb. 25, at 6 p.m.

Between 1927 and 1979, more than 8,000 people were involuntarily sterilized in five hospitals across Virginia. They were a result of the 1924 Sterilization Act, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court three years later. Rather than the misguided initiative of well-meaning men of the day, the state’s eugenics program was many things: a manifestation of white supremacy, a form of employment insurance, a means of controlling “troublesome” women, and a philosophy that helped remove poor people from valuable land.

When author and historian Elizabeth Catte researched her new book “Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia,” she realized just how much eugenic sterilization in Virginia had been used as a method of control. Despite its purported reason, which used language about what it termed hereditary defectives, the law arrived at a moment when powerful people were attempting to steer the state toward a more modern version of itself.

“The problem is that these powerful people didn’t want a complete break from the past,” she explains, citing how those in power wanted to preserve a society that condemned Black people as biologically inferior – where power followed bloodlines and women were relegated to subordinates. “Eugenics allowed these older beliefs to feel modern and scientifically validated.” Catte’s book is the subject of her upcoming online talk at the Library of Virginia.

Under Virginia’s Sterilization Act, the state ordered the sterilization of anyone committed to a state institution who was deemed a “mental defective,” as well as people afflicted with “hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy.” This criteria cast an intentionally large net over the state’s residents, while the umbrella of feeble-mindedness was often applied to unwed mothers, teenage runaways and the poor.

What surprised Catte most, after extensive research at the Library of Virginia and the University of Virginia Special Collections, was that sterilization in Virginia wasn’t just a method employed to prevent future births. It also functioned like a kind of employment insurance, particularly when it came to young women. If unable to become pregnant, the thinking went, these young women would be better suited to serve as menial workers. Families in Virginia could apply to state hospitals to receive sterilized young women as domestic workers and be assured that pregnancy wouldn’t interrupt their employment or create a potential scandal.

Eugenic sterilization was practiced at all five of Virginia’s state psychiatric facilities: Eastern State, Western State, Southwestern State, the former Lynchburg State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded and Central State, the only facility for Black patients at the time. In the early 20th century, the patient populations began to grow exponentially because the country’s population was also growing, lifespans were getting longer and local communities had begun to chafe at the expenses they incurred helping the elderly, poor or disabled survive.

Growth of patients meant growth of the hospitals’ physical environments as well, including large agricultural operations needed to supply food and other commodities for the hospitals. Although eugenic sterilization was seen as a means to decrease patient populations, the reality was that didn’t happen.

The book makes a case for the state’s eugenics program having contributed to the inequalities of today. “One example among many is the fact that it’s legal today for employers to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage and to base their compensation on perceived productivity,” Catte explains. “It’s still perfectly legal for an employer to compare a disabled worker’s productivity to their nondisabled coworker and adjust the disabled worker’s wage down accordingly.”

In Virginia’s eugenics era, state leaders used mathematical formulas to determine how much labor could be extracted from its “unfit” residents as a public good.

“It’s hard not to see the shadow of those ideas today in debates about work requirements, public assistance and how unproductive people must earn back their right to survive.”

The legacy of eugenic sterilization programs can also be felt today in the reluctance on the part of some people of color to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“What I can say in the context of my work is that eugenic beliefs did sometimes translate into unethical medical experiments, perhaps most notoriously in the Tuskegee syphilis study, which was masterminded by eugenicists trained at the University of Virginia,” Catte says. “But those connections are only a small facet of the larger story of medical racism in the United States.”

Author Elizabeth Catte presents a virtual talk “Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia,” at the Library of Virginia on Thursday, Feb. 25, at 6 p.m. Register at lva.virginia.gov.

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