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Oklahoman Sterilization Laws of the 1930's

Page history last edited by debbye scroggins 14 years, 6 months ago




Eugenics in America 

      America in the late 19th Century was facing massive immigration, economic depression, the closing of the frontier, mass industrialization, labor upheavals, and class and race struggles which all combined to create a social storm that many Americans wanted contained.  In response to this, American elitists interlaced social Darwinism together with social theories as a means to stratify the races through biological means.  In doing so, they also unleashed one of the most shameful and well kept secrets in American history - The forced sterilization of at least 60,000 citizens who were deemed unfit to procreate.  Gayle Bederman's article "Remaking Manhood" gives a glimpse of how the naturalization of so called inferior peoples occurred.  "Although to twentieth century sensibilities, "civilization" seems to confuse biology and culture, Victorian ideas of race were predicated on precisely that conflation."    This confusion or mixture of biology and culture stemmed from the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest, twisted to portray white middle and upper class Victorians as having achieved a higher evolutionary place than any other persons not having the preferred white lineage, i.e. the whites who had descended from Nordic lineage.  Bederman also tells us "the refinement of more privileged classes had been associated with the highest civilization and contrasted with the coarse tastes of the unwashed masses."  To many Victorians, this was the proof necessary to show the higher evolution of the white race, while totally disregarding the argument of financial means creating higher civilization.  

      This naturalization of citizenry led America to be swept by a movement founded on the principles of eugenics developed by Sir Francis Galton which promoted "eugenic" marriages and procreation, as well as denounced the procreation of "dysgenic" peoples.  Galton, cousin to Charles Darwin, promoted the idea of dividing people into three classes - desirable, passables, and undesirables.  "I conceive it to fall well within man's province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective" (New York Times, 1909).   He advocated sterilizing undesirables in order to end their lineage while "furthering the productivity of the fit by early marriages and the healthful rearing of their children." The desire to replace natural selection of  undesirables simply put, is genocide.



     The definition of eugenics according to Jacob Landman in his 1932 book Human Sterilization; The History of the Sexual Sterilization Movement,  "Eugenics is the science of human betterment.  It is concerned with the study of being well born and with all of the social agencies which may improve or impair, physically or mentally, the racial qualities of future generations.  Its purpose is to discover how to breed better human beings.  Applied eugenics treats of the agencies affecting the differential fecundity of the race.  It deals with a conscious effort for improving the human race by such methods as the control of immigration, birth control and restrictive marriage legislation.  Positive eugenics is concerned with the increase in the propagation of the physically and mentally superior individuals, such as selective immigration legislation, whereas negative or restrictive eugenics is concerned with the restrictive reproduction of those with socially inferior hereditary endowment, such as eugenic human sterilization legislation."   This nationwide movement was based upon newly re-discovered heredity principles of Gregory Mendel which were skewed to promote the idea that traits such as intelligence (whether high or low), epilepsy, insanity, feeble-mindedness, criminality, alcoholism or drug abuse, and promiscuity were passed from generation to generation just as traits such as eye color were.                                                                                                                                    

Breeding played an immense part in the science of eugenics.  People such as Charles Davenport, the head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, argued that if farmers chose to breed livestock well, how much more should humans pay attention to breeding.  Many organizations were created to propagandize this theory such as the American Breeders’ Association and the Society for Human Betterment.  These foundations also sought ways to get "eugenic" families to have more children as families of good stock were having fewer children than those of inferior stock. One way these groups were able to get their message out was by setting up booths at state and county fairs which held "Fitter Family" contests.  Family pedigrees would be examined, as well as individual family members.  The winning family would be awarded a medal which was engraved with the scripture "Yeah, I have a goodly heritage".  This verse from Psalms 16:6 had the effect of tying religion to the eugenic movement, which justified the sterilization of those who were considered dysgenic, since they were not of goodly heritage.     


             Beginning in 1907, with Indiana legislation, America became the first country in the world to endorse forced sterilization of such as members of society deemed feeble-minded or inferior.  The laws would vary from state to state, with California being the most avid in the application of its law.  In 1931, Oklahoma passed legislation making it lawful to sterilize inmates of insane asylums and homes for the feeble minded who were scheduled for parole from said institutions.  Further amendments to the Oklahoma law would eventually lead to the landmark Supreme court case, Skinner v. Oklahoma in 1942.

 The Oklahoma Eugenic Movement

 During the 1930’s, Oklahoma was suffering from economic pressures such as mass unemployment, brought on by the depression, as well as from massive dust storms that had devastated the state’s agricultural community.  Many people were turning to the state for relief, and in turn, the state began looking for ways to ease its own financial burdens.  Legislators began examining long term solutions for the poor in Oklahoma, and in following the lead of several other states in the nation, passed sterilization laws aimed at eradicating the less desirable of the population.

             On April 22nd, 1931, Oklahoma became the thirtieth state to pass legislation calling for the sexual sterilization of inmates in mental asylums such as the Institute for the feeble-minded in Enid and Eastern Oklahoma Hospital in Vinita.  Oklahoma House Bill No. 64, Chapter 26, Article 3 states “That whenever the superintendent of the Hospital for the Insane at Vinita, Oklahoma, or of the Hospital at Supply, Oklahoma, or the Institute for the Feeble-Minded at Enid, Oklahoma, or of any other such institution supported in whole or in part from public funds shall be of the opinion that it is best for society, that any male patient under the age of 65 years and any female patient under the age of 47 years, and which patients are about to be discharged from said institution, should be sexually sterilized.”  In 1933, this law was expanded to include “patients likely to be a public or partial public charge” and habitual criminal offenders who had three or more felony convictions.  In 1935, the state passed the Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act which allowed for judges to include the sterilization of certain criminals with two or more felonies as part of the offender’s punishment.

               In the Oklahoma City newspaper, The Oklahoman, the 1920’s definition of sterilization was generally used to convey food safety messages about canned products.  However, this changed in the 1930’s, when sexual sterilization of certain members of society became part of the legislative agenda.  This shift also occurred in the minds of many Oklahomans.  Although the law was passed technically as a eugenic and therapeutic proposition, it had a mental punitive connotation attached to it which furthered Oklahoma's class distinction gap by attaching the negative image of being unfit to the victims of the legislation.  This made these people unfit for society, unfit for procreation and therefore unfit to live. 

          When Governor William (Alfalfa Bill) Murray gave his state of the state address in 1935, he promoted the sterilization of the habitual criminals as one of the reasons for the decrease in inmates admitted to the state penitentiary at McAlester from 1933-1935.  He goes on to talk about the necessity of sexual sterilization of the criminals and imbeciles as a means of economic improvement, controlling the population, and most importantly, purifying the white race.

Remember also that the weak mentally and physically in humanity cannot be bred out; and, at the same time, they increase in birth rate over the pure blood of our citizenship, for, alas, you cannot make brains in the human head with all the Universities in the land; and 25 or 50 percent are drones on society that eat up the substance of the other citizens and cause the difference between living in ease and squalid poverty because of necessity through humane feeling of dividing their earnings with the incapacitated.  We have reached that period where the struggle for existence…will increase as the population increases. The method which I suggest of sterilizing will not only solve that question of Birth Control and over population, but give to society a citizenship of pure blood and strong, law abiding citizens.          


The members of society who were deemed burdensome to the rest of the population and who were potentially at risk were the “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded, epileptics, and those with hereditary recurring insanity.”  (The term feeble minded encompassed those with developmental disabilities, alcoholics, drug addicts and promiscuous persons.)    Some of these people were housed at the insane asylums in Norman, Vinita and Supply, Oklahoma.  The youth who were deemed feeble minded were housed at the Institute for the Feeble-Minded in Enid, Oklahoma, and ranged from age five to sixteen.  (One exception to the age rule at Enid was the incarceration of female patients older than sixteen.)  The terminology associated with the law has a tendency to generalize the situation, especially looking at it today.  One would hardly realize the law was calling for the sterilization of underage children at the Institute for the Feeble-Minded in Enid.

The insane asylums often housed society’s miscreants such as those evading prison terms by reason of insanity, those escaping personal responsibilities, syphilitics, alcoholics, drug abusers, mothers suffering from post-partum depression and some elderly suffering from dementia were among the inmates in the asylums.  When the depression struck, many people had family members committed simply because they were no longer financially able to care for them.  A bed in an asylum meant a loved one had food, shelter and medical care – all of which were at a premium in the depression era.

When the law was passed in 1931, the reactions of inmates the Vinita Asylum were chronicled by inmate Marle Woodson, a reporter for the Tulsa Tribune, who had been committed by his friends in hopes of curing his alcoholism.  In his book, Behind the Door of Delusion, Woodson tells of the hopelessness and rage felt by some of the inmates.  “The patients on the receiving ward are in seething unrest.  The two thousand men and women in the institution are in a foment.  I suspect that this is true in every asylum in the state, and to a minor degree in the state school for the feeble-minded, although many of the boys and girls in that institution are not old enough to appreciate the situation.” (Woodson 125).

One man described by Woodson as being “quiet, obedient and likeable” stated “Well if they do that to me I’ll kill the man who orders it done if it takes me the rest of my life.”  The inmates also felt helpless when it came to defending themselves.  An inmate by the name of Borden told Woodson “We are actual or legal paupers and can’t hire attorneys, and either we are insane and can’t look out for ourselves, or everybody who might help us believes we are insane because we are here, which has the same effect.” Another inmate by the name of Whitney mentioned “We cannot use a telephone, we cannot send a telegram without special permission…We are hedged in, practically buried.”  Those who did have financial means to appeal a decision were not able to get to their funds.  Upon commitment to an asylum, an administrator would be placed in charge of their estates, leaving the inmates at the mercy of the administrator and/or the hospital for financial matters.

Another point Woodson made was about the self defeating nature of the law.  He argued there would be an increase on escape attempts which would have the effect of having an inmate at large free to procreate at will and that these attempts would probably not have occurred if it weren’t for the law.   He also mentions “there is another way, far, far more serious in which the law would defeat its purpose.  Many families have members who are idiotic, epileptic, feeble-minded, imbecile or even possessed of mental quirks, and under former circumstances they would not have hesitated to have these unfortunates confined; but now they will avoid having them committed” which would mean the potential pollution of society’s blood line.  And it also meant the people who really needed help from the institutions might not receive it.

Woodson finally challenges the hereditary nature of mental illness which the law was created to fight against.  He makes the logical argument “But if your theory that idiocy is always transmittable is correct, should not the other members of his family have inherited some of the taint from the same source from which he received his.  They come from the same father and mother, the same ancestry.  And shall we sterilize his father and mother?  They have produced one idiot child, hence may produce another.”  He continues this with the atavism or throwback theory of inherited traits skipping generations asking “Shall we sterilize the grandfather? And what about the cousins, second, third and umpty-fourth cousins?  Where does the taint end?” (134)  Woodson had an uncanny ability to ask questions that people were afraid to face.  This accusation alone tends to give the sterilization law a punitive nature because the law didn't address the immediate families of the victims.  How could one member of a family be dysgenic and not another?

The heredity issue at hand also had the effect of causing fear into the minds of some people who were considering having children.  In 1928, a letter was published by an Oklahoma woman inquiring where she could have herself sterilized because of the fear of producing a child that would be dysgenic.  "I wrote the Superintendent of the State Insane Asylum of Oklahoma stating that I have an uncle and a cousin, both on my father's side, that are insane of which he has a record since they are both in that instititution and are hopelessly incurable.  He states in his letter that there is no danger and no need of my being alarmed, but I don't care to run any more risk and aim to have the operation performed if I have to do it myself."  She then goes on to ask where and how she could get the operation completed. 

The stipulation to the law was that sterilization would only be applicable upon parole or release from said institutions.  Any inmate incarcerated for life would not be a candidate for sterilization as they were not considered a threat to the public’s genetic pool.  However, due to the overcrowding of the state institutions, many inmates were offered early release if they would subject themselves to the surgery.  Many people opted for this, as it would possibly mean reunification with their families and the opportunity to be free from the asylums.  Before release however, the superintendent of the asylum would go before the Oklahoma Board of Affairs and give his recommendation of whether the inmate was to be sterilized or not.

When this legislation was amended to include habitual criminals in 1935, there was more objection than any previous legislation.  Inmates at McAlister were far more vocal than their brethren in the asylums.  Prisoners threatened to riot, some attempted jail breaks (and succeeded) and others worked together to present a legal defense for themselves.  The first victim of the new law in Oklahoma was to be Jack Skinner.  Skinner was incarcerated for the third time in McAlister which made him eligible for sterilization under the new act.  His first offence had been chicken stealing, his second was armed robbery and the third conviction was again for armed robbery.

The prisoners who decided to put up a legal defense for themselves first immersed themselves in law books and pooled their canteen money to hire an attorney, Claude Briggs to represent them.  They, along with Briggs challenged the Habitual Criminal Sterilization law due to its lack of equal protection, not because it was a violation to the prisoners civil rights.  The state at the time did not value individual rights as much as they did the rights of the citizens as a whole.  They were able to challenge the equal protection aspect of the law, because not all three time offenders were subjected to the law.  Only the criminals who were convicted of violent crimes were potentially at risk.  The irony in this was that a person could be guilty of stealing millions through embezzlement and not be a candidate for sterilization while Skinner being convicted of stealing $17.00 was, because he was armed when he committed the offense. 

In 1942, this argument was taken to the Federal Supreme Court, where Skinner was ultimately triumphant.  The case was would be a landmark decision that would affect future court cases thanks to the judicial opinion of the Supreme Court.  "The power to sterilize, if exercised, may have subtle, far reaching and devastating effects.  In evil or reckless hands it can cause races or types which are inimical to the dominant group to wither and disappear."  This statement opened the gateway for discourse on race, reproductive rights and equality.

Although Skinner won his plea, the ruling did not over turn eugenic legislation altogether.  It would be 1955 before states ceased sterilizing inmates in mental institutions, although there were federally sanctioned sterilizations until the late 1970's amongst Native American groups.  Furthermore, it was 1983 before Oklahoma removed the sterilization statutes from its laws.


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human genome project us govt.ppt  This power point is a brief explanation of some of the genetic work being done by the government which is mapping the entire human genetic code.  This mapping raises some controversial arguments in regards to human genetic engineering, such as whether to allow a fetus with a known genetic disorder to be born.


Army Testing during WWI


works cited for Oklahoman Sterilization Laws of the 1930's


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