Eugenics, Race and Canada’s First-Wave Feminists: Dis/Abling the Debates

  • Lykke de la Cour York University
Keywords: Eugenics, First-Wave Feminism, Disabling Representations


Using government reports produced by one of Ontario’s pioneering women physicians and leading eugenic crusaders, Dr. Helen MacMurchy, this article interrogates the significance of disability as a central paradigm within first-wave feminism and its promotion of eugenic reforms. I examine how conceptualizations of race were reconstituted through the construct of disability to generate not only inter- but also intra-racial distinctions between differently classed white women. I argue that it was ultimately by leveraging a range of social categories —gender, class, race, and transgressive forms of sexuality—into a disabling paradigm that not only racialized women, but also poor white women were disempowered by eugenics.

En s’appuyant sur des rapports gouvernementaux produits par la Dre Helen MacMurchy, l’une des femmes médecins pionnières et des principales militantes eugénistes de l’Ontario, cet article interroge la signification du handicap comme paradigme central au sein du féminisme de la première vague et de sa promotion des réformes eugéniques. J’examine comment les conceptualisations de la race ont été reconstituées par le biais du concept du handicap pour générer des distinctions non seulement interraciales mais aussi intraraciales entre différentes classes de femmes blanches. Je soutiens que ce fut en fin de compte en rassemblant un éventail de catégories sociales—genre, classe, race et formes transgressives de sexualité—en un paradigme de handicap que non seulement les femmes racialisées, mais aussi les femmes blanches pauvres, ont été marginalisées par l’eugénisme.

Author Biography

Lykke de la Cour, York University

Lykke de la Cour teaches on contract at York University in the Departments of Social Science, Sociology, Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, and the School of Health Policy and Management. Her research interests center on early twentieth eugenics and its contemporary expression in biogenetic technologies.  She is currently working on a book manuscript based on her 2013 dissertation, From ‘Moron’ to ‘Maladjusted’: Eugenics, Psychiatry and the Regulation of Women, Ontario, 1930s-1960s.