In early 20th century America, eugenics was promoted as a new way to scientifically shape the human race. The idea was to change the human population for the better through selective breeding and sterilization. As you can imagine, this led to serious abuses. People of color, the poor, and those deemed otherwise unfit for reproduction were disproportionately targeted, and usually the sterilization was accomplished by targeting women’s bodies in particular.

One interesting facet of the effort to promote eugenics is the language used, or the framing of the issue. Indeed, just last week I introduced my students to the notion of “Birthright.”  The term birthright suggested that all children have the right to be born into a sound mind and body.  Why was it important to sterilize individuals deemed morally, culturally, or biologically inferior?  Why, we must do it for the children, of course!

I was reminded of the idea of children having such a birthright by a vintage ad (posted at, predictably, Vintage Ads).  The ad is for a school designed to improve the future of the human race by improving parenting.  The school would, therefore, teach parents how to engage in civilized “intelligent” “parenthood.”  The idea that such parenting can be taught points to the way that eugenics evolved from a biological to a cultural basis.  And in several places you see the term “birthright” (excerpted below).


For a time, pro-sterilization laws were very popular.  The U.S. map below, for example, shows which states had pro-sterilization laws in 1935 (striped) and states with laws pending (black). As you can see, most of the United States was on board at this time.  Later, condemnation of the practices in Nazi Germany would take the blush off of the eugenics rose.


For a wonderful book on the history of eugenics, read Wendy Kline’s Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom.

For more on eugenics and sterilization, see our post with additional pro-eugenics propaganda and two contemporary examples of coercive sterilization campaigns by your health insurance carrier and politician who’ll pay the “unfit” to get tied.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

As a number of readers emailed us to point out, yesterday was International Women’s Day, designed to highlight both women’s accomplishments and the persistence of gender inequality worldwide. Ben Buursma noticed an ad in an Indonesian newspaper celebrating International Women’s Day and marketing “Books to empower all women,” though it turns out what they empower women to do is “look into the minds of men” and “find, keep, and understand a man”:

Emma M. H. sent in a link to the the White House Council on Women and Girls report on the status and well-being of U.S. women on a variety of social indicators. Interestingly, while both men and women are waiting longer to get married, the gender gap in age at first marriage has remained relatively constant for decades:

Men are more likely to be either married and never-married, while women currently more likely than men to be divorced or widowed:

Over time, the percent of women who have never given birth has gone up, particularly for the 25-29 age group, though in the last decade there has been a slight downward trend for women aged 30-44:

One note about that graph: the report uses the phrase “had a child” and “childbearing,” so I think this data would include women who have adopted children but never given birth.

I was surprised to see that rates of Cesarean sections have gone up in the past decade:

Women are now outperforming men in terms of educational attainment, earning the majority of bachelor’s degrees, though notice the number of degrees in engineering/computer science earned by women hasn’t increased since 1998:

However, women still make less than men at each level of educational attainment:

The report has lots more data on family life, work, education, health, crime, and so on. I’ll post on other topics in the future.

Finally, Ben N., Kay C., Gregory S., and Dave Z. all sent in this video starring Daniel Craig that highlights global gender inequality (though unfortunately I can’t find any reference that provides sources for the statistics in the video, so take it for what it’s worth):

Last year I wrote about a series of billboards in Atlanta that re-framed the abortion debate as a race issue. The billboards featured a child’s face and read “Black Children are an Endangered Species.” A new billboard, in the same theme, has appeared in New York City and was sent in by Kristy H. and Kelly.  Featuring a young girl, it reads: “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb”:

Three points:

(1) People without economic resources —  including, disproportionately, black women — are more likely to end pregnancies in abortion. This is not a trivial matter; many women in the U.S. have abortions because they can’t afford (more) children.  It’s terribly saddening to think that some women abort children they want.  And some members of the Black community do argue that this is a form of genocide.

(2) This ad, however, doesn’t come across to me as sympathetic to Black women.  The language in the ad leaves the aborting woman unstated, but still culpable.  She is simultaneously reduced to a womb and accused of placing her child in danger (of being a murderer?).  As Michael Shaw at BagNewsNotes suggests, this ad appears to happily trigger our thoughts of Black people and Black spaces as violent.  Is this ad appealing to the Black community?  Or is it appealing to stereotypes about Black people as a strategic move in the anti-abortion debate?

(3) Finally, as I wrote in my previous post, and on a different note, the message illustrates something very interesting about social movements and framing.

The fact that abortion is highly politicized in the United States, deeply connected to feminism (but not race or class movements), and framed as a specifically-gendered contest between “life” and “choice” seems natural to most Americans. Indeed, it’s hard for many Americans to imagine a world in which the procedure is less politicized or debated differently.  But the politics of abortion in the U.S. is not the only kind of abortion politics that could exist… [see, for example, Shaping Abortion Discourse].  So, whether you agree or disagree with the claims in these billboards, they nicely jolt us out of our acceptance of abortion politics as is.  How might thinking about abortion as a race issue or a class issue change the debate?

Source: Gawker.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The Guttmacher Institute reports that the decades long fall in the rate of surgical abortions has plateaued:

Decreasing abortion rates is something that most Americans support.  Sharon Camp, president and CEO of Guttmacher, suggests that greater availability of cheap effective contraception might help jump start the decrease.  That seems like a politically safe recommendation.  What say you?

Via Michelle Chen at Ms.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

At Ms., Amy Williams posted about the pre-conception care movement.  Pre-conception care is health care aimed at making the bodies of fertile women most conducive to a healthy pregnancy.  The movement asserts that women of childbearing age should be receiving care with pregnancy in mind, whether or not the woman intends to get pregnant.  The Preconception Care webpage at Healthy Beginnings, for example, reads as follows:

In a presentation on the topic, Rebecca Kukla,  Professor of Philosophy and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of South Florida, explains that preconception care is an “official priority” for the Center for Disease Control and the US Office of Minority Health.   So what’s to be concerned about here?

First, the approach reduces women to their potential to make babies. Concern for women’s health is motivated not by concern for the woman herself, but her “merely imaginary future children.”   What is the value of old women, transgender women, involuntarily infertile women, and women who have been voluntarily sterilized?  What principles guide their health?

Second, treating women as potential fetus carriers sometimes interferes with the best practices for treating women. Kukla explains that doctors driven by this approach may be inclined to choose drugs that are known to improve fertility and enhance pregnancy outcomes, instead of the most effective drugs for whatever condition is at hand.  As an extreme example, consider a woman diagnosed with cancer for whom a hysterectomy is the most aggressive treatment?  Whose interests should the doctor consider?  Hers?  Those of her “merely imaginary future children”?

Third, treating women as potential fetus carriers encourages doctors and others to police women’s behaviors more stringently than men’s. Anything she does that doesn’t maximize her fertility and baby-making condition can be seen as a problem needing fixing.  Men’s life choices are simply not subjected to this sort of social scrutiny.  We already see this sort of intervention against women who are told to avoid alcohol even if they are unaware of being pregnant and have no intention of getting pregnant.

Fourth, Kukla points out that the approach skews women’s health towards those things that we think affect fetal outcomes. Should these conditions necessarily take priority over others?

Finally, this approach makes women, like myself, invisible. I am a fertile woman in my 30s who has chosen not to have children.  I truly hope that my health care is not being compromised by my doctor’s concern for the babies I am never going to have.  Nor do I think it’s cute that her concern for me is driven by my reproductive potential.

UPDATE: Heather Leila, in the comments, critiqued this post.  “Having participating in the Office of Minority Health´s preconception campaign,” she writes, “I can attest that none of the above 5 points speak to the reality of the program.”  She continues:

It´s easy for women commenting on this blog to be offended when it is suggested they are not in full control of their fertility. But the truth is that many women are not. They don´t have the access or the education about contaception. 50% OF ALL US PREGNANCIES ARE UNPLANNED.

OMH´s campaign addresses contraception and avoiding unwanted pregnancy. OMH recognizes that many women don´t want to become pregnant, now and later. The campaign seeks to reduce unwanted pregnancy alongside improving preconception health as a way to reduce infant mortality. The campaign also speaks directly to men – taking some of the pressure off women.

This post failed to mention that the OMH campaign is based on the very racial disparity in infant mortality that SI posted on just a few weeks ago.

Lastly, the campaign is geared towards women, not to their doctors. In no way would this campaign promote doctors valuing fertility over a woman´s life. Never would it suggest witholding a hysterectomy to protect fertility. The campaign is NOT about increasing fertility. It is about decreasing infant mortality. Two very different things.

It seems like neither Dr. Kukla nor Sociological Images has taken the time to fully understand this campaign before criticizing it. I think there is a lot to analyze and criticize within the campaign, but Dr. Kukla´s 5 points do not address true aspects of the program. They are invented.

Heather has posted about pre-conception care at her own blog, A Minha Vida.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The New York Times has made available a digital copy of The Gentleman’s Directory, a guide to New York City published in 1870. The guidebook informs travelers of a particular type of local attraction: brothels. Of course, the information was for curiosity’s sake only:

Not that we imagine the reader will ever desire to visit these houses. Certainly not; he is, we do not doubt, a member of the Bible Society, a bright and shining light…But we point out the location of these places in order that the reader may know how to avoid them… (p. 6-7)

Certainly passages like this, from p. 13, make it clear that such establishments are to be avoided:

It also included pages that were simply ads for particular brothels:

Interestingly, the NYT checked the 1870 Census for the houses listed in the guide. In general, the women living there were described by Census workers as domestic servants or women who “kept house.” However, they found a few cases where the Census openly listed them as working at a “house of prostitution” or “house of assignation.”

A doctor advertised “imported male safes,” i.e., condoms:

His ad also describes an unspecified cure for women that may very well refer to abortions (at the time, products that caused abortion were often advertised as helping with menstrual regulation or any type of “menstrual stoppage”):

In addition to an article about the directory, the NYT put together a map showing the locations of the establishments it mentions (which were a small proportion of all brothels in NYC, where prostitution was illegal but widely available at the time):

In the first five minutes of the clip below, economist Jeffrey Sachs explains to Dalton Conley that ending poverty in Africa requires a demographic transition, one where we move from high fertility and high mortality to low fertility and low mortality.

How to encourage such a transition?

1. Bring down mortality with advanced medicine. Declines in childhood mortality lead families to choose to have fewer children (’cause they don’t have to).

2. Make sure girls go and stay in school; they’ll get married later, and have less babies.

3. Provide free contraceptive services and family planning education.

Also see Dr. Sachs explain why Africa ended up so poor in the first place.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The CDC has just released a Health Disparities and Inequalities Report with new numbers detailing the uneven mortality and morbidity in the U.S.  Family Inequality‘s Philip Cohen highlighted the data on pre-term birth among whites, blacks, Asians/Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, and some Hispanic subgroups.  It’s nice to see data that includes more than just whites and blacks; studies often do not report data on Hispanics, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and especially American Indians because the number of respondents is considered too low (and they do not over sample these groups).  More, breaking out the different Hispanic sub-groups is also rare.  As Cohen said, it’d be nice to see such detail for other groups as well (though it’s tough to do so for black Americans because those who arrived in the slave trade have often lost track of their national/ethnic origin).

In any case, the data both confirm previous findings and offer an important insight.  In the confirmatory case, it shows that Asians and whites are less likely to give birth to pre-term babies than other groups, with blacks suffering the worst outcomes.  As for the interesting finding: notice the wide range of outcomes for Hispanics of different origin.  Reporting only “All Hispanic” hides important variation. We can be assured that that variation is true for the other racial groups as well.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.