1880s - 1920s


    The American eugenics movement influenced many aspects of American life including immigration. The restriction of immigrants was seen as a way to keep American society “pure” by keeping out those deemed “unfit.” In 1790, Congress passed America’s first naturalization law, defining US citizens as “free white persons.” This law defined who was considered American, but by the 1880’s, laws were being passed to identify who could become an American through immigration and who was deemed “undesirable.”

   The hypersexualization of Chinese women, anger towards Chinese laborers, and the xenophobic and racist stigmas surrounding all Chinese immigrants were the foundations of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which banned Chinese labor immigration to the United States.

    The Immigration Act of 1917 banned immigration from "idiots, imbeciles, and feeble-minded persons,” persons of "constitutional psychopathic inferiority,” "mentally or physically defective” persons, the insane, alcoholics, persons with epilepsy, tuberculosis or contagious diseases, paupers and vagrants, criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, polygamists, political radicals, contract laborers, Asians, and poor, illiterate Southern and Eastern Europeans.

Questions to Consider

  • How does this primary source support or contradict the immigration laws that were being implemented at the time

  • How did Eugenic ideas shape the immigration policies from 1880-1920?

Primary Source: Robert De C. Ward ( 1910)

The question is, however, a racial, perhaps even more than an economic one. The days of a dominant Anglo-Saxon immigration are over, forever. From a little trickling rivulet, forty years ago, when it furnished less than one percent, of our alien arrivals, southern and eastern European immigration has increased until it now numbers about seventy percent, of the total. It has become a flood, and the flood is increasing. Asia is contributing more each year, and British India has begun to send its advance guard. Already we have not hundreds of thousands, but millions of Italians and Slavs and Jews whose blood is going into the new American race. There are those who believe that the Anglo-Saxon American will disappear as the American Indian and the American buffalo have disappeared, and they have some basis for their belief.

Positive and Negative Eugenics

    Eugenics can be split into two categories, referred to as “positive” and “negative.” “Positive” eugenics refers to the encouragement of breeding among those seen as “worthy.” The prime example of “positive” eugenics was Fitter Families competitions, in which families would provide judges with their own pedigree charts, tracing the families’ eugenic histories, and be judged on a number of factors, both physical and mental, and three families (one small, one medium, and one large) would win trophies. Another example of positive eugenics was the endorsement of eugenic marriages – marriages between people seen as eugenically fit. Couples entering eugenic marriages would receive prizes. “Negative” eugenics, on the other hand, refers to the discouragement of “unfit” individuals from reproducing, through propaganda, fear-mongering, or brute force.

Birth Control

    World population grew at a steady rate during the 19th century. However, by the turn of the 20th century, several factors aligned to markedly increase the rate of population growth. The eugenics and birth control movements founded early in the 20th century were different responses to the specter of rampant population growth. Although both movements were involved in reproductive control, each was driven by different objectives and methods.


    While the birth control movement was concerned with limiting population growth and giving women a choice, eugenicists were more concerned with limiting the spread of supposedly dysgenic traits. Margaret Sanger and other female leaders of the birth control movement believed that women should be empowered, by education, to make choices to limit their own reproduction. In a society that frowned on open discussion of sexuality and where physicians knew little about the biology of reproduction, Sanger advocated that mothers be given access to the scientific information needed to thoughtfully plan conception. Davenport and other eugenic leaders, predominantly male, believed that the state should be empowered, by statute, to control reproduction by whole classes of people they deemed genetically inferior.


    Eugenicists focused on segregating the "feebly inherited" in mental institutions, ultimately seeking the legal remedy of compulsory sterilization. The birth control movement's emphasis on personal choice aligned it somewhat with the "positive eugenics" advocated by Galton. However, many eugenicists regarded birth control as "dysgenic" because it limited births among the intellectual families who practiced it most frequently. Some, including Davenport, felt that contraception would increase sexual promiscuity among the very classes of people they sought to restrict. Harry Sharp performed the first eugenic sterilization, in 1908, and Sanger was arrested in 1913 for opening the first birth control clinic. The Supreme Court was quick to uphold the concept of mandated sterilization (Buck v. Bell, 1927).

    Post WW2 the relationship between Eugenics and Birth Control changed. White middle class feminists were no longer fighting the concept of sterilization but instead were embracing the new practice as a form of birth control. As the attitude shifted, so did the targeted populations.

Buck vs. Bell

    In the Buck vs. Bell decision of May 2, 1927, the United States Supreme Court upheld a Virginia statute that provided for the eugenic sterilization for people considered genetically unfit. The Court's decision, delivered by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., included the phrase "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Upholding Virginia's sterilization statute provided the green light for similar laws in 30 states, under which an estimated 65,000 Americans were sterilized without their own consent or that of a family member.


    Carrie Buck and her mother Emma had been committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg, Virginia. Carrie and Emma were both judged to be "feebleminded" and promiscuous, primarily because they had both had borne children out of wedlock. However, the main difference between Carrie and her mother was that Carrie was raped by a relative of her foster parents, and forced to keep the child. Carrie's child, Vivian, was judged to be "feebleminded" at seven months of age.

    On the eve of the Virginia legal contest, the ERO dispatched its field worker, Dr. Arthur Estabrook, to provide testimony and after some cursory examination, Estabrook testified that the seven-month-old Vivian "showed backwardness." The Superintendent of the Virginia Colony, Dr. Albert Priddy, testified that members of the Buck family "belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South." Upon reviewing the case, the Supreme Court concurred "that Carrie Buck is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization."  Although in 1942 the Supreme Court struck down a law allowing the involuntary sterilization of criminals, it never reversed the general concept of eugenic sterilization.

Margaret Sanger

    Margaret Sanger was a heavy advocate and leader in the woman’s fight for the right to decide whether to have children or not, and Time magazine declared her one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. Sanger worked as a nurse in a hospital in the lower east side of New York, and provided $5 abortions for massive lines of women who wanted them.


     Her political views evolved as she lived through WW1 and the Russian revolution, and believed strongly in reforming the capitalist system, and to create a stronger welfare system. She was disappointed, however, because socialist leaders did not push her ideas about women’s rights to have children as much as she would’ve liked.

    Sanger’s daughter died of pneumonia when she was only 6 years old, but her grief did not prevent her from continuing her public speaking and campaigning around the country. She did not discriminate against different crowds that she spoke to, and she even offered to speak to the women’s affiliate group of the ku klux klan. She believed the every woman, no matter their morals or politics, should have the right to choose whether or not to have a child.

    1917 was a furious year for eugenicists, who were pushing a movement to rid of people with negative mental or physical defects, and make the population more “pure.” She was a follower of eugenics, but only through the lense of mental/genetic defects. She said, “I admire the courage of a government that takes a stand on sterilization of the unfit and second, my admiration is subject to the interpretation of the word “unfit.” If by “unfit” is meant the physical or mental defects of a human being, that is an admirable gesture, but if “unfit” refers to races or religions, then that is another matter, which I frankly deplore.”

    Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood, a non profit organization that practiced eugenics, essentially breeding the population based on who they believe to be feeble minded. Sanger was firmly against racial eugenics, however, and never supported practices of eugenics based on one’s race. Sanger did suggest slight racist tendencies in her establishment of birth control support clinics, as she did not open any clinics in predominantly black neighborhoods like Harlem. She has also been criticized to sound “paternalistic” in her writing towards African American parents and how they should go about their pregnancies. Sanger has also been accused of having affiliation with the Nazi party, however most of the rumors have been debunked. She was, however, one of the early pioneers in the eugenics movement, a movement that the Nazis practiced relentlessly.


Read the complete Buck v. Bell majority decision by Mr. Justice Holmes (Click link ^)


Discuss in small groups: 

  • How difficult or easy was it to understand?

  • How is this legal document written differently than other documents you may have read?

  • How is its tone different? How is the vocabulary different?

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