University of Illinois at Chicago
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Bodies of Surveillance: Disability, Femininity, and the Keepers of the Gene Pool, 1910-1925

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posted on 2013-02-21, 00:00 authored by Sara A. Vogt
This project focuses on eugenic field workers in the United States between 1910 and 1925 in order to highlight the ways in which the U.S. eugenic project imagined disability and femininity. The Eugenic Record Office (ERO) in Cold Spring Harbor, New York led by Charles B. Davenport and the Vineland Training School for Feeble-minded Girls and Boys in Vineland, New Jersey led by Henry H. Goddard used field workers and the data these field workers collected on feeblemindedness to promote the importance of eugenic research to institutions, state governments, and the general population. My main goal in this dissertation is to explore the work of eugenic field workers in the advancement and promotion of eugenic science as well as the dynamics between themselves and their subjects. I argue that the case of eugenic field workers demonstrates how feebleminded and normal women were situated differentially and dialectically as keepers of the national gene pool. In eugenic thought, feebleminded women, on the one hand, held the prime responsibility – over their male counterparts – for the transmission of the feebleminded germ plasm. Normal women, like the field workers, on the other hand, were “keepers” in the sense that they protected the national gene pool, ensuring that the feebleminded taint did not spread within the national population or extend to future generations. By examining eugenic field workers and their employment from a variety of angles, I demonstrate the different ways that femininity and disability were constructed by the U.S. eugenic project between 1910 and 1924 – the years in which the program was most valued and productive as a mechanism of eugenic research. I begin my project with an exploration of hereditarian explanations of degeneracy and the process by which eugenicists attempted to secure a productive nation, as these explanations became the foundation of the eugenic fieldwork program and structured the day-to-day work of the field workers. Because feeblemindedness was seen as the result of a tainted germ plasm, I argue that attempts to halt the transmission of this taint centered on feebleminded women, who were then disproportionately institutionalized and sterilized as a means of stopping their reproduction. Chapter III considers how eugenic field workers distinguished between normal and feebleminded individuals at a glance. I argue that the diagnosis of feeblemindedness centered primarily on one’s proximity to early twentieth century, white, middle- and upper-class normative gendered appearances and behaviors. The standardized intelligence tests field workers administered in institutions relied on knowledge of such social norms, which outsiders from this culture would not necessarily be aware of. Once outside institutional walls and in the field completing pedigrees, eugenic field workers utilized gendered labor norms of the household to determine whether or not an individual was normal or feebleminded.



Sufian, Sandra M.


Disability and Human Development

Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Committee Member

Davis, Lennard Sandahl, Carrie Carlson, Licia Rembis, Michael

Submitted date



  • en

Issue date


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