Wendy Kline Reading for 5/9

Wendy Kline: “Motherhood, Morality, and the ‘Moron'”

                This article provides a brief history of the eugenics movement, as well as outlining the argument that eugenicists made for “bettering the race.” The opening section of the paper recounts the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. At this exposition, eugenicists held a week-long conference entitled “Race Betterment Week.” This conference was the most widely attended and publicized portion of the exposition and is cited as evidence of the growing fear of “race suicide” among white middle-class people. Kline uses the Exposition’s sculpture of the “mother of tomorrow” as a recurring image throughout this piece.

                Kline briefly discusses the historical context in which eugenics gained ideological authority; she explains that the economic changes during the late 1880s-1910 “increased anxieties that the middle class was losing social authority” (9). Around this time middle-class white men were experiencing a strange physical ailment that became known as “neurasthenia”, which often resulted in “nervous strain” and “mental and physical illness” (9). Kline says that at this point white men became acutely aware of the “powerful masculinity” that African American men appeared to have. This manifested in the creation of the “negro rapist” myth, and the stated desire to protect “the sanctity of southern white womanhood” (9). Immigrant men soon became grouped in the same category as African American men, and viewed as threats to white morality.

                One of the more interesting parts of this reading for me was the way that poor and minority women were categorized as “women adrift” while middle-class white women were going through a “new woman” transformation. Equally interesting is the way that eugenics sought to stamp both of these trends out. The goal of positive eugenics was to get middle-class white women back into the traditional roles of domestic housewives and arbiters of morality and away from the independent “new woman” mode. On the other hand, negative eugenics was used to classify some women as mentally unfit to be mothers, thereby gaining the authority to sterilize and control the reproductive capacities of these women. The women who were unfit were characterized as “women adrift” and condemned as “morons”(which is described as someone “who demonstrated a mental age of eight to twelve years” (22)).


1. There are various ways that “science” was used as “proof” of the superiority of white people during this time (Darwinism, Mendelian genetics, statistics, IQ tests, psychology). What are the legacies of these scientific failings? Is science used today to discriminate against groups of people? Why is science still considered to be the way to “progress” and “advancement” when there are many examples of science contributing to policies and beliefs that discriminate against people? How did science and issues of morality become intertwined by eugenicists?

2. How do the binaries presented in this article (such as “Mother of tomorrow” vs. “woman adrift”, “normal” v. “abnormal”) compare to other binaries that we have discussed in class (savage v. civilized, mind v. body, etc.)?

3. Are there places in the text that evoke imagery of native people? Is it similar to the imagery that Columbus and other European explorers used to describe the native people that they encountered? (Section 24, 17)

4. How did eugenics “offer a solution to both assaults on the authority of white middle-class manhood” (19)?