eugenics project in Arkansas did not result in compulsory eugenic sterilizations
of mentally ill, mentally deficient, or otherwise.
Precipitating Factors and Processes
the early 1930s, at the height of the eugenics movement in America,
Arkansas had been hit hard not only by the Great Depression but
also by a terrible drought, making it one of the poorest states in the
country (Leung 1994, pp. 57-58). Though
declared a disaster area, Arkansas did not receive food as a form of
direct aid from Herbert
Hoover’s administration. Thus, the prospect of controlling the number
of children of poor affected by the depression could have,
appealed to physicians and
lay persons alike (Leung 1994, p. 58). In this context, many believed
birth control clinics, such as the Little Rock clinic, could help prevent
“undesirable” people of society from procreating.
though the movement in Arkansas may have shared some of the same
"negative" eugenic rhetoric with the larger national eugenic movement,
the practice was quite different, as supporters in Arkansas
focused on limiting reproduction of the poor through
contraception instead of forced sterilization.
Proposed Sterilization Law
In 1941, a legislation for eugenic sterilization was considered in the
Arkansas Senate. The bill pushed for the creation of an Arkansas State
Board of Eugenics that, much like those found in other states, would be
comprised of a group of individuals, including the superintendent of
the Arkansas state mental institution, a practiced physician of
sterilization cases, and the dean of the Arkansas medical school (Welch
2009, p. 30). Those people in power at mental institutions and prisons
could recommend individuals to be brought to the attention of this
State Eugenics Board (Welch 2009, p. 31). The bill failed, but it seems
that it may have been for reasons quite different than one might
expect. The Arkansas sterilization bill, and an attached pubic funded
contraceptive bill, failed due to an overarching public consensus that
the bill represented a form of "socialized medicine" (Welch 2009, p.
Groups to Receive Contraception
there were no sterilizations performed in Arkansas, there were never
any targets of sterilization. Instead, there was a powerful
contraceptive movement that primarily aimed at getting contraceptives
to poor, white women who could not support families for what were
eugenics reasons, many believed that the number of offspring of the
poor should be limited, and humanitarian reasons, many believed that it
was ethical to provide poor women with contraceptive who could not
otherwise afford physician treatment (Leung
1996, p. 52). The language that was used sometimes included that of
eugenics," or stopping those undesirable individuals from procreating,
but focused largely on making clear those desirable properties of those
individuals who should procreate (Leung 1994, p 57). This list included
"emotional stability, strong characters, considerateness for other
people, the tendency to uphold or improve moral standards,
intelligence, adaptability, and originality" (Leung 1994, p 57).
Major Proponents of Contraceptive Rights
largest proponent of eugenics and birth control in Arkansas was Hilda
Cornish. Born in 1878 in St. Louis, Missouri to German immigrants
Sophie and Rudolph Kahlert, her early life spent observing working-class
struggles made those different life experiences of the many facets of society all the more evident. While raising
her six children, Cornish volunteered on the board of managers of a correctional facility in Arkansas, the
State Farm for Women, and as the manager of
the Arkansas Federation of Women Clubs. She also led volunteers
aiding victims of The Flood of 1927. Cornish devoted all of her
available time to reform and social work, after the suicide of her
husband in 1928. Though she may have originally been influenced by the
regime of the American Eugenics Society and the ideals of eugenics,
that seemed to change with an interaction with Margaret Sanger. Having
met and collaborated with Margaret Sanger, the
leader of the American Birth Control movement, in 1930 (Welch 2009, p
5), Cornish launched the
Arkansas Birth Control movement and her mindset seemed to change from
that of endorsing eugenics to that of endorsing contraceptive rights.
Cornish also joined the Arkansas
Eugenics Association, which did not involve itself in any involuntary
sterilizations but focused on "positive" eugenic practices instead.
the Little Rock Birth Control Clinic in 1931 to further the ability of
lower class white women to have access to contraceptives during a time of
great depression when many women did not feel they had the means to
raise a child, or even the physical health to bring one into the world.
Cornish, with the help of a small group of very devoted women including
her daugher Hilda Cornish Coates, was able to help these poor women,
most of whom had already given birth multiple times (Leung 1998, p.
20). She advocated that though most of these women did not have the
funds to attend a clinic, they should not be denied access to
contraceptives (Leung 1998, p. 22).
Cornish also worked with the National Committee
of Federal Legislation for Birth Control. Eventually, the
Arkansas Eugenics Association limited its work to referrals and
education and changed its name to the Planned Parenthood Association of
Arkansas in 1942. Hilda Cornish died November 19, 1965 (Leung, “Cornish”).
Clinics in which Contraception was Made Available
there were no sterilization institutions in
Arkansas, important to the eugenics movement was the Little Rock
Birth Control Clinic, providing poor white married women with safe
contraceptives (Leung, “Cornish”).
resources were not made available to African-American
women until 1937, after African-American contraceptive rights became a more public issue.
All members of
the Arkansas Eugenics Association received a subscription to the Birth
Control Review, a magazine released monthly by the American Birth
Control League, from Cornish's connection with Margaret Sanger's
organization. The June, 1932, issue of the magazine was considered a
special issue, including the views of contributors W.E.B. Dubois (Leung
1996, p 57). This publication further demonstrates the changing face of
eugenics in Arkansas, with Afircan-American writers, including Elmer A.
Carter, calling for "eugenic" practices for African-Americans. " 'Birth
control,' Carter stated, 'as practiced today among Negroes is
distinctly dysgenic.' He urged for increased access to birth control
information for Afircan Americans of hte lower socio-economic level"
(Leung 1996, p 58). Thus, it seems that the face of the eugenics
movement was different in Arkansas, not a eugenics movement in the same
sense as other states, but rather a contraceptive rights movement.
It is difficult
to understand the motivation of those inviduals working at the clinic
in Little Rock, or furthering contraceptive rights with Cornish in
Arkansas. As Welch writes, "These women were not feminists in the sense
of calling for greater individual freedom, meaningful work, or freer
sexual expression for women. Instead, Arkansas birth control advocates
identified with eugenics, arguing for birth control for potential
charity cases, and for eugenic sterilization. Their rhetoric did not
include discussion of beliefs in biologically inferior and superior
races or promotion of lower birth rates for racial minorities" (Welch
2009, p. 8). There are statements that seem to suggest that those
leading the clinic, including Hilda Cornish, were influenced by the
ideals of the American Eugenics society, which in the early 1930s
stressed the economic burden that an increased lower class would have
and advocated for the availability of birth control to those
individuals (Leung 1994, p. 57). In fact, an Arkansas Planned
publication of the 1940s went so far as to cite "fewer births of
unwanted children who can be cared for only at public expense" as a
reason that the community would benefit from the widespread access to
contraception (Welch 2009, p. 32). The group did concern itself with
humanitarian issues, however, such as voicing a deep concern that
contraceptive use allowed for better child spacing. It stated publicly
"child spacing is not concerned with the total prevention of pregnancy,
but with giving the mother an opportunity to recover fully from one
pregnancy before starting another" (Welch 2009, p 36). Soon,
the clinic distanced itself from the eugenic ideals, as made evident by
the change in association name mentioned above.
"Better Babies: Birth Control in Arkansas in the 1930s." Pp. 18-68 in Hidden Histories of
Women in the New South,
ed. Virginia Bernhard. Columbia: University of Missouri
Leung, Marianne. 1996. "'Better Babies' : The Arkansas Birth
Control Movement during the 1930's." Doctoral Dissertation, Department
of Philosophy, University of Memphis.
Marianne. 1998. "Making the Radical Respectable: Little Rock Clubwomen
and the Cause of Birth Control during the 1930s." The Arkansas
Historical Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Spring): 17-32.
Marianne. 2008. “Hilda
Cornish (1878–1965).” Available at <http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=1625.>
Melanie. 2009. "Politics and Poverty: Women's Reproductive Rights in
Arkansas, 1942-1980." Doctoral Dissertation, Dept. of History, Auburn
University. Available at <http://etd.auburn.edu/etd/bitstream/handle/10415/1716/WmrepAR.pdf>