Thursday, May 25, 2006

The "girl" problem, the eugenics solution

More from Building a Better Race:

They received such an opportunity in 1916, when the state embarked on a statewide survey of “mental deviation.” The committee noted that “a nation-wide awakening to the menace of the feeble-minded is one of the most noteworthy movements of public thought, ” and the extent of the problem in the state needed to be determined. Surveyors noted that often the worst offenders had IQs placing them somewhere in the moron, borderline, or even normal ranges. Not satisfied with their results (as it would be difficult to incarcerate large numbers of people who fell into a “normal ” category), these authors devised an alternative scale of intelligence that they called “social intelligence.” In this category, intelligence was redefined in the “social sense”—“the extent to which the subject is mentally capable of 'managing himself and his affairs with ordinary prudence.'” Offenders, or “persons incapable of doing so, … who can not compete in the world… on reasonably equal terms, ” automatically fell into the feeble-minded group. 37

With this new definition of intelligence, IQ became largely irrelevant to the diagnosis and treatment of social offenders. At the head of this team of surveyors was the man who devoted his career to the development and widespread, standardized use of the IQtest, Terman. Yet he was comfortable with the scientifically questionable approach of a committee frustrated to discover that not every prostitute or unwed mother was a moron. Their solution? “We may ordinarily expect to classify persons as feeble-minded, ” Terman and his coauthors announced, “whether or not the test results show them to fall within the usual I.Q. limits of that group.” 38

Faced with evidence that did not support their assumption that mental and moral depravity were linked, California mental surveyors struggled to redefine the nature of their search. “It can not be too strongly emphasized that the feeble-minded do not constitute a separate and distinct class, ” Terman declared. “No sharp line of demarcation can be drawn which would separate the feeble-minded from the more intelligent.” Yet the surveyors' very objective was to draw such a distinction in order to determine who needed to be institutionalized at Sonoma. Their results suggested the inherent weakness in the use of mental testing to grade morality. Such a study should have undermined the eugenic strategy of segregating moral transgressors through mental testing. Instead, it raised the stakes. If there was no clear boundary between the feebleminded and the normal, then many deviants might be lurking about, unnoticed and difficult to detect. 39

Investigating a state home for unwed mothers, for example, surveyors found that the mothers demonstrated a “marked inferiority to average adults.” In Terman's estimation, these women had become pregnant out of wedlock because they could “pass for normal in almost any community, ” and consequently “many untrained persons might overlook [their] mental deficiency” and unsuspectingly be tricked into sexual intercourse. Yet one unwed mother had an IQ of 91, placing her in the “dull-normal” range. Terman concluded that while “she will pass for absolutely average-normal in any community… she doubtless has weaknesses which intelligence tests do not indicate.” Was she to be institutionalized? The surveyors were not sure where or how to draw the line in cases of moral transgressions not backed by mental deficiency. “We are faced with an important problem presented by the small group ofintellectwlly normal individuals among these social variants, ” they admitted.

It is not difficult to understand why a feebleminded girl, such as those described in this study, should become [a victim] of circumstances, and thus be found among the unwed mothers…. But that young women whose intelligence is equal or superior to that of ordinary persons of the same age should be found with them and with apparently similar histories, demands that our search for causes shall extend to other fields…. weakened will power and excitability seem to have played important parts. 40

This report, begun in 1916 and published in 1918, reflected the continued unraveling of Victorian notions of feminine virtue during the 1910s. As eugenicists busily targeted the working-class “women adrift” as mentally and morally delinquent in the early twentieth century, they discovered, much to their dismay, that the “problem” of female sexuality —in other words, sexual behavior outside the boundaries of marriage —had spread into the middle classes. By 1918, even “intellectually normal” women, women who “should know better, ” were becoming unwed mothers, exhibiting a “weakened will power” and “excitability.” 41 These surveyors, like many defenders of female social purity in the early twentieth century, did not know what to make of this new evidence of female sexual agency and independence. They were witnessing a transformation in middle-class sexual values that many were reluctant to accept; this transformation made the first two decades of the century a “time of conflict, as defenders of the past and proponents of change contended for hegemony in sexual matters.” In New York City during the 1910s and 1920s, for example, the “girl problem” was spreading into the middle class and even the most “respectable” parents found themselves incapable of hindering their teenagers' participation in this sexualized culture or their patronage of heterosocial amusements. 42 Nineteenth-century notions of morality were quickly becoming obsolete.

And now? Sexual Fascism in Progressive America


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