“Mothers of the Race”: Eugenics and Women in Early Twentieth Century Ontario
Lecture by Elizabeth Koester, LLB, PhD, University of Toronto
24th November, 16:00 GMT
The seminar will take place on Zoom, with tickets available via Eventbrite. If you would like to join us, please register using the following link - https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/london-pus-seminar-elizabeth-koester-on-mothers-of-the-race-tickets-207040382357 . The link to the zoom meeting will be available on the Event page for those who register.
The eugenics movement – the set of ideas based on the notion that “mankind” could be improved by selective breeding – swept the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In North America, over thirty American states and two Canadian provinces enacted laws requiring coerced sterilization of those deemed “unfit.” While we might expect that the targets of such legislation and other eugenic practices were so-called “feeble-minded” women, the significance of the role of women as leaders in the movement and in promoting eugenic ideas may come as a surprise. In fact, many leading first wave (or “maternal”) feminists found eugenic ideas coexisted easily with other goals. In Canada, for example, some of our erstwhile historical heroines were important eugenicists. These include prominent Ontario physician and beloved public health advocate, Dr. Helen MacMurchy (1862–1953) and Alberta magistrate Emily Murphy and writer Nellie McClung, two of the “Famous Five,” the group of women at the centre of the celebrated 1929 Privy Council decision which declared women to be “persons.” In the U.S., Harvard biologist Charles Davenport who created the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, drew year after year upon cohorts of university-educated women to undertake family studies which purported to show that various undesirable traits were inherited. In this talk, I will focus on the connections between women and eugenics in my own research on the history of eugenics and law in Ontario – highlighting the work of Dr. Helen MacMurchy and the role of women involved in multiple ways in a sensational criminal trial in 1936 in which a young woman who distributed birth control information was successfully defended against obscenity charges partly on the basis of eugenic principles.
Elizabeth Koester currently holds a Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. After practising law for many years, she undertook graduate studies in the history of medicine at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto and was awarded a PhD in 2018. A book based on her dissertation, In the Public Good: Eugenics and Law in Ontario, was released in September 2021 by McGill-Queen’s University Press.