Graduate Research Spotlight - Jess Whatcott

November 23, 2018

California Eugenics and The Making of a Liberal State

Women picking berries in Sonoma home.

Inmates of Sonoma State Home near Eldridge, California, wearing white dresses and hats pick berries in the garden. A variety of people labelled "defective" were committed indefinitely to Sonoma State Home in the early twentieth century. Many women were non-consensually sterilized while at the home. Photo dated 1920.

California’s history of eugenics came under public scrutiny when an investigative journalist uncovered evidence that non-consensual reproductive sterilizations took place in women’s prisons as recently as 2010. My interest in the investigation was grounded in hearing similar stories of unethical medical practice within prisons while volunteering as a prisoner advocate for over 8 years. However, I was shocked to learn through the report about California’s long history of eugenics policies and practices, and I became convinced that attacks on the bodily autonomy of prisoners will continue until California’s grapple with this history. In particular, I became determined to understand how eugenics policies worked to uphold the gender and racial order in California.

Through original research at the California State Archives and California Historical Society, my dissertation research tracks how reformers and the California state legislature took action to contain the so-called “defective class” who, it was argued, threatened the health and futurity of the body politic. I reject a reading of state-sponsored eugenics policies as marginal to an otherwise progressive march of Golden State history, and argue instead that eugenics was a technology for modernizing liberal state power in California. Eugenics underwrote radical claims of jurisdiction for the state that identified gender and racially “defective” bodies as a problem, and legitimated state interventions on those bodies. Specifically, I examine how California eugenics programs introduced technologies of classification, infrastructures of containment, a feminized industry of state care, and rationale for state spending that continue to enact violence on gender non-conforming, sexually deviant, disabled, and mad people today.

This research exposes how everyday acts of liberal public policy and law making establish interconnected hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, and disability. The establishment of these hierarchies is obscure, yet I argue they constitute intimate forms of state violence and radical assertions of state jurisdiction. They are obscure because they are not spectacular wars nor necessarily recognized as historical events, and they are ignored because they target racialized, gendered, sexually deviant, and disabled bodies that have historically been excluded from citizenship. I use the case of eugenics-based policy-making to show how seemingly mundane policy decisions enact state violence on deviant bodies and also delimit the future horizons for us all.