The Time Kansas Sterilized Sixty-Two Girls in a Rehabilitation School Over Eighteen Months (and almost twenty two others)

Flashing light sign at fitter family contests via APS archives

When most people hear that I study the American eugenics movement, their first question is “what the hell is that?”

So I say “You know how the Nazis went about rounding up millions of people and then either sterilized or murdered them because they weren’t the ‘right’ types of people?”

Then they’re usually all like “Oh yeah, some pretty redonk stuff going on back then. Glad this is ‘murica, where we didn’t do stuff like that.”

And then I say, in the condescending voice I’ve learned from being a student interacting with professors for nine years, “Actually, the United States sterilized over sixty thousand people during the twentieth century. Many of them before the July 14th, 1933 Law for the Prevention of Progeny of Sufferers from Hereditary Disease was approved in Germany under Hitler. In fact, the masterminds behind the German program enthusiastically credited American eugenicists for their development of eugenic ideas and practices. They gave one of the leading American eugenicists, Harry Laughlin, an honorary doctorate for it. Which he openly accepted.”

The truth is, eugenics was a powerful and persuasive force in the early twentieth century. It promised to allow the manipulation of the most basic “stuff” (what early eugenicists and geneticists called germ plasm) that, it seemed, governed our biological and perhaps even our mental lives. Early work in genetics, by accessing those realms and seemingly laying them bare for scientists and philosophers alike, appeared to have finally uncovered a blueprint for all human action and interaction, simultaneously opening a window to the past and offering a guide the future. It begot Social Darwinism, and was wildly popular in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century.

Thus a narrative of human history had appeared, driven by a biological engine (Darwinian) rather than one that was sociopolitical, economic, cultural, or technological (Lockean, Marxist, Goethe-esque, Veblenian, etc.) (In a word, this is why Darwin is such a big deal, still today). Crime, racial tensions, poverty, public health, war, overpopulation, interpersonal relations, and mental disease seemed for the first time solvable problems. Thus eugenics had at its disposal both a culturally pervasive ethos and a powerful vocabulary borrowed from a number of different social- and hard-scientific disciplines.

Kansas, in particular, finds itself in a somewhat unique position. In sterilizing 3,032 people by 1963 it catapulted its relatively low state population (twenty-ninth, nationally) to the number six spot in terms of sterilizations. In the 1930s, it was third in the nation in total sterilizations.

From another angle, if you lived in Kansas’ southern neighbor, Oklahoma, from 1935 to 1963, you had roughly a 1 in 4196 chance of being forcibly sterilized. If you lived in Kansas from 1913 to 1963, you had roughly a 1 in 718 chance of being sterilized. Men were sterilized at a higher rate than women in Kansas, at a ratio of about one and a half to one. When combined with Nebraska and Oklahoma, the southern plains region enjoys the dubious distinction of contributing roughly seven percent (4,490) of the total number of persons eugenically sterilized in the United States (~63,000). Kansas accounts for a full sixty-eight percent of those on the southern plains.

What does this have to do with the sixty-two girls sterilized in 1937? Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy was Kansas’ first elected female congressperson, and served from 1933-1935, during the heyday of eugenic sterilization in the United States. In 1937 she initiated a firestorm by accusing the Beloit Industrial Girls School of the cruel and “wholesale” use of sterilization against its inmates by the institution as a punitive measure.

Sixty-two of the one hundred forty eight girls in residence at Beloit had been sterilized over a period of eighteen months from September 1935-March 1937, a rate far higher than at any other point in the state’s history.

More than a third of its population.

After studying eugenics for the last four years, I can tell you that’s almost unheard of. But it gets more horrifying.

It was particularly unusual because Beloit was not a mental health facility, where most of the nation’s “unfit” were sterilized, nor was it a penal facility, where a majority of the remainder were. When the firestorm broke out in 1937, almost two dozen additional girls at Beloit were scheduled for “treatment.”

A former state representative, McCarthy had a record of social activism. It would be a casual exchange between then superintendent Blanche Peterson and McCarthy that introduced the latter to the politics of control that had existed under (previous superintendent) Lucy Coyner’s tenure:

“There’s been a change in this school since my last visit.” Mrs. McCarthy remarked [to Peterson]. “There seems to be a wonderful improvement in the morale of the inmates.” “Yes?” Mrs. Peterson was pleased. “And the next time you come to see us, I hope we’ll have better furnishings. For one thing, I hope to have that off the floor.” She pointed to a shabby rug. “I think we can buy some new rugs, now that we won’t have to spend so much money for operations.” “What operations?” asked the puzzled visitor. “I don’t understand.” “Come into the office. I think you will,” Mrs. Peterson told her. [1]

The vouchers Peterson showed McCarthy were for four thousand dollars-worth of eugenic sterilization operations performed on Beloit girls at the Women’s Prison Hospital in Lansing, just a short distance away. All were performed, at a cost of twenty-five dollars to the state of Kansas, by a Dr. Outland from Kansas City. In all, a full forty-two percent of the current population of Beloit (148 girls) had been sterilized during the period 1935-1937.

Access to detailed information about the sterilized, as is so often the case in histories of eugenics, remains difficult to come by. But we know a few details. Fifty percent of the eighth-grade graduates had been subjected to the procedure. Ten of the eighteen members of the orchestra. Of the sixty two sterilized, five had one ovary removed, and eight had both, regardless of their age (one of the latter was a nine year-old girl).

Wasserman test records show none of the girls had a venereal disease (a common justification for eugenic sterilizations in the United States). From its inception Beloit did not even admit girls with an IQ below fifty, another common rationalization, and certainly none of the official records show below-average intelligence as a justification for sterilization. Indeed, one set of records shows one of the girls who was sterilized had an IQ of 102, which is decidedly normal.

Further, Beloit was a juvenile rehabilitation center, not a prison or a mental facility. All this points to an incontrovertible truth, and one that would be revisited in coming weeks by everyone incensed by McCarthy’s revelations: eugenic sterilization wielded at Beloit as a preventative measure or punishment, whatever the legality with respect to state and federal law regarding imbecility or criminality, would not have applied.

The state board which approved the procedures went on the defensive, calling the girls who had been sterilized “perverts, obstreperous, fighters, or near degenerates.” “I don’t believe any girl was sterilized,” one member wrote to the newspaper, “who was fit for motherhood.” Others, however, attacked the wanton abuse of power the sterilizations represented.

How in the world was the system, albeit broken in the first place, abused in such a way? Legally, the primary trouble for the girls at Beloit stemmed wholly from the draconian nature of Kansas’ eugenic sterilization laws. Kansas passed its first eugenic sterilization law in 1913. Unlike its neighbors to the south and north, however, Kansas passed a revision in 1917 which eliminated both the need for court approval and the circumscribed the ability of those marked for sterilization to appeal via the court process. In Kansas after 1917, then, jurisdiction and decision-making authority over the girls’ bodies lay effectively in the hands of the superintendent of their institution and the (often sympathetic to the latter) state boards of examiners and probate courts. This effectively meant that there existed little recourse for those who were recommended to undergo the procedure.

The archives tell one particularly Machiavellian series of moves enacted with the express intent of stripping a girl deemed “undeserving” or “undesirable” of her motherhood:

[One] victim was a girl of high school age—one whose parents had died, and who had been sent to an orphanage at Atchison. She had reached the age when the orphanage no longer could keep her. She had no place to go. It was decided to send her to the Beloit school so she would have a home. But, to do that, it was necessary to charge her with incorrigibility. It was done. She had an intelligence quotient of 115, and a negative report on her Wasserman tests and slides. Yet, in June, 1936, that girl was transferred to the state penitentiary at Lansing and sterilized! No allegation or proof that the girl was a pervert or that she was immoral or insane was made. Her crime was that she was homeless, an orphan with no relatives to look after her interests and no kindly person to protect her. [2]

McCarthy’s challenge to the system was not in vain, though it did not result in any amendment of Kansas’ sterilization law as she had hoped. When famed journalist Albert Deutsch published his castigating account of the nation’s juvenile facilities, the miscarriage of justice at Beloit featured prominently.[3]

General conditions improved at Beloit, and subsequent annual reports show no further sterilizations at the facility through 1948. But the damage was done, at least for the girls for whom motherhood was forever denied to them. At the same time, those who were sterilized were socialized to feel shame, and hide what had been done to them. If one did speak out, he or she faced an uphill battle with little support (as an orphan) or delegitimizing ontological markers (like criminality, deviance, mental incompetence, or subalternity).

The sterilizations at Beloit between September 1935 and March 1937 were, like so many others across the country, about controlling not only the current generation’s body but all subsequent generations. Eugenics sought to excise the individual from the gene pool in the name of the greater good.

Almost ten years later, between 1944 and 1946, Lula B. Benton was superintendent of the State Industrial Girls’ School at Beloit. When confronted with the history of sterilization at Beloit by a journalist, she replied: “There is [currently] no sterilization program at the Kansas Girls’ Industrial school. No inmates have been sterilized in the last 10 years. I have a good many so-near-feeble-minded—I.Q. 71. In my opinion they should be sterilized. School for feeble-minded full up [sic]—I have to keep them and try to train them. When they leave here on paroles—as is bound to happen—they will breed more of the same or worse.”[4]

These “inmates,” the “them” Benton so comfortably un-names, are not so unlike the sixty three thousand other individuals sterilized in the United States during the twentieth century. Too often, we cannot recover their voices.

[1] Dan T. Kelliher, “Sterilization: The Unholy Horror of Lost Motherhood,” Front Page Detective, July, 1938: 27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Albert Deutsch, Our Rejected Children (Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1950).

[4] Letter from Lula B. Benton to Albert Deutsch, reproduced in Topeka Journal, July 3, 1948.