Hypatia vol. 22, no. 2 (Spring 2007) © by Anna Stubblefield
“Beyond the Pale”: Tainted Whiteness,
Cognitive Disability, and Eugenic
The aim of the eugenics movement in the United States during the first half of the
twentieth century was to prevent the degeneration of the white race. A central tactic of
the movement was the involuntary sterilization of people labeled as feebleminded. An
analysis of the practice of eugenic sterilization provides insight into how the concepts
of gender, race, class, and dis/ability are fundamentally intertwined. I argue that in
the early twentieth century, the concept of feeblemindedness came to operate as an
umbrella concept that linked off-white ethnicity, poverty, and gendered conceptions of
lack of moral character together and that feeblemindedness thus understood functioned
as the signifier of tainted whiteness.
The aim of the eugenics movement in the united States during the first half
of the twentieth century was to prevent the degeneration of the white race.
A central tactic of the movement was the involuntary sterilization of people
labeled feebleminded. Between 1927 and 1957, approximately 60,000 Ameri-
cans labeled either feebleminded or insane underwent sterilization at state
institutions in the name of eugenics. Sixty percent of those sterilized were
women, and a large majority of those sterilized were white and poor. An analysis
of the practice of eugenic sterilization provides insight into how the concepts of
gender, race, class, and dis/ability are fundamentally intertwined. i argue that in
the early twentieth century the concept of feeblemindedness came to operate
as an umbrella concept that linked “off-white” ethnicity, poverty, and gendered
conceptions of a lack of moral character together, and that feeblemindedness
thus understood functioned as the signifier of tainted whiteness.
Anna Stubblefield 163
My argument proceeds in stages. first, i argue that cognitive dis/ability is a
social construction. i use the term ‘cognitive dis/ability’ to specify the generic
concept of which ‘cognitive ability’ and ‘cognitive disability’ are particular
kinds, just as ‘race’ is the generic concept of which ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’
are particular kinds. While the understandings of race, class, and gender as
social constructions have circulated widely in academic circles, the understand-
ing of cognitive dis/ability as a social construction is less frequently discussed.
understanding how the concept of feeblemindedness functioned as a signifier
of tainted whiteness in the early twentieth century requires understanding how
people in positions of social power constructed and reconstructed cognitive
dis/ability over time to serve their own interests.
next, i argue that the concept of feeblemindedness was based upon a racial-
ized conception of intelligence, according to which white people supposedly
had normal and above normal cognitive ability, while members of other races
supposedly had subnormal cognitive ability. This racialized understanding
defines cognitive ability as the capacity to make contributions, in a manner
appropriate to one’s gender, to the building of civilization. White people were
“civilization builders,” while members of other races supposedly lacked the
ability to produce civilization. By the early twentieth century, however, the
racialized understanding of cognitive ability was used to signify not only the
difference between white and nonwhite people but also the difference between
pure and tainted whites. Tainted whites were “off-white” (of Eastern European,
Mediterranean, or irish rather than Anglo-Saxon or nordic descent), poor, or
lacking civilization-building skills. White elites feared that declining birthrates
among pure whites, high rates of immigration by and high birth rates among
tainted whites, and reproductive mixing among tainted and pure whites
meant that tainted whites were “not only displacing, but literally replacing the
rightful heirs of the great republic” (Jacobson 2000, 162). i argue that white
elites deployed the concept of feeblemindedness to link the different versions
of white impurity—off-whiteness, poverty, and lack of civilization-building
furthermore, i examine how feeblemindedness, once it was linked to tainted
whiteness, became gendered. As a sign of tainted whiteness, feeblemindedness
was linked to moral depravity. in women, but not in men, moral depravity was
primarily equated with sexual promiscuity. Significantly more women than men
were labeled as feebleminded, committed to state institutions, and sterilized
in the first half of the twentieth century, solely due to their sexual behavior.
Wendy Kline (2001) documents this, but her analysis ignores how the associa-
tion between feeblemindedness and unchasteness resulted from the develop-
ment of feeblemindedness as an umbrella concept that linked together various
versions of tainted whiteness. finally, i argue that involuntary sterilization of
white people who were labeled feebleminded should be understood as a case
of tainted white Americans losing—in a very material, physical way—the full
protection that whiteness had previously afforded them in a white supremacist
society. Tainted white Americans were treated as “beyond the pale”: unac-
ceptable and outside the bounds of protection that white elites established for
Eugenic sterilization of supposedly mentally deficient white people gave
way to widespread coercive sterilization of black, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and
American indian women in the 1960s and 1970s. My emphasis in this essay,
however, is on white people, particularly women, labeled feebleminded. This
is not because the sterilization of white women is of more concern. Rather, an
examination of the sterilization of white women classified as feebleminded pro-
vides important insights into how the state used the combined construction of
race, gender, class, and dis/ability to regulate the reproduction of whiteness.
The Eugenics Movement in the united States
The term “eugenics” was coined by the British naturalist francis Galton. in
1865, Galton argued in his treatise “Hereditary Talent and Character” that
“human mental qualities” could be manipulated or cultivated through selec-
tion in the same way that breeders control the qualities of domestic animals
(quoted in Jacobson 2000, 154). The idea of promoting reproduction by pure
white people while restricting reproduction by tainted white people spread
throughout the united States in the late 1800s, spurred by white elites who
feared off-white immigration and supposedly inherited forms of “degeneracy”
including pauperism, criminality, feeblemindedness, insanity, and homosexual-
ity. The eugenics movement thrived in the united States during the first three
decades of the twentieth century and its influence on scientific research and
public policy continues today (Ordover 2003).
in 1904, Charles Davenport, a biologist at the university of Chicago,
received a grant from the Carnegie institute to establish a genetic research
station at Cold Spring Harbor, long island. in 1906, he persuaded the Ameri-
can Breeders’ Association, a group founded in 1903 to promote work based on
Mendelian genetics, to create a Eugenics Section “to investigate and report
on heredity in the human race” and “to emphasize the value of superior blood
and the menace to society of inferior blood.” under Davenport’s leadership,
the Eugenics Section established ten different research committees, including
feeble-Mindedness, Heredity of Criminality, Sterilization and Other Means of
Eliminating Defective Germ Plasm, and immigration. “The idea of a ‘melting-
pot’ belongs to a pre-Mendelian age,” wrote Davenport. “now we recognize
that characters are inherited as units and do not readily break up” (quoted in
Jacobson 2000, 156–58).
Anna Stubblefield 179
became gendered in a way that led to women bearing the brunt of eugenic
The analysis i have presented requires that we recognize cognitive dis/
ability as a socially constructed concept that is historically inextricable from
the concepts of race, gender, and class. The racialized and gendered concep-
tion of cognitive dis/ability has been a powerful tool in the hands of the white,
male elite for justifying its conception of itself as the epitome of humanity
while providing a basis—cognitive deficit—for discounting the humanity of
everyone else. When people who consider themselves to be cognitively able
merely protest that their cognitive ability should not be questioned on the
basis of their race, gender, or socioeconomic class, they leave unchallenged the
concept of cognitive dis/ability itself. This implicitly condones the treatment
of those whom our society understands at any given point in time, based on
ever-changing standards, as personifying cognitive deficit—people who were
labeled “mentally retarded” during the second half of the twentieth century
and people who are now being labeled “intellectually disabled.” As Sarason
and Doris argued, “The field of mental retardation is a good window through
which to look at our society. . . . Changes in conceptions of and reactions to
mentally retarded individuals are indicative of major societal changes. When
we study mental retardation we are studying our own society and how and why
it changes” (1979, 17–18).
forced sterilization of poor, white, feebleminded women was not simply
something terrible that happened to “retarded people.” nor was it simply some-
thing terrible that happened to white women who were “erroneously” labeled as
feebleminded due to their sexual behavior or to poor white Americans because
they were poor. it was an episode in which a particular group of people became
the focus of the fears of the white elite, who had shaped a conception of them-
selves that they were desperate to defend. At the heart of the idea of whiteness
is the idea of purity, and cognitive ability was constructed as the touchstone in
a way that linked race to class and gender and created the tangled mess that
we are still untangling today.
i gratefully acknowledge the Rutgers institute for Research on Women for support of
this work and the participants in the institute’s 2004–2005 seminar for their helpful
comments. i also thank Sophia Wong, Alison Bailey, and the anonymous reviewers for
their insightful suggestions.
1. See Rafter 1988; Kline 2001; and Carlson 2001.
2. Just as there is debate among those who endorse social constructivist theories
of race about exactly what that means, so there is debate among theorists who embrace
social interpretations of disability about what exactly that means and which of a variety
of models is best. The earliest formal expression of a social model of disability was a
policy statement issued in 1975 by the union of Physically impaired against Segregation
(uPiAS), a disability rights organization in the united Kingdom. By the 1990s, the
term “social model” was applied worldwide to a variety of different models. in 2001, Vic
finkelstein, one of the authors of the original uPiAS policy statement, argued that the
terminology “social interpretations of disability” should be adopted to classify the various
different social models that challenge the medical model but with different emphases
and theoretical backgrounds (Gabel 2005, 3–8).
3. See also Carlson 2001, 126–27.
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