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


  • Lykke de la Cour York University


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.


Metrics Loading ...

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.



Adams, Mary Louise. 1997. The Trouble with Normal: Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Bacchi, Carol Lee. 1983. Liberation Deferred? The Ideas of English-Canadian Suffragists, 1877-1918. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Bashford, Alison. 2008. “Population, Geopolitics, and International Organizations in the Mid Twentieth Century.” Journal of World History 19 (3): 327-347.

Bashford, Alison, and Phillipa Levine, eds. 2010. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Baynton, Douglas C. 2001. “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History.” In The New Disability History: American Perspectives, edited by Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, 33-57. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Berrios, G. E., C.F. Goodey, Edgar Miller, and Deborah Thom. 1995. “Chapter 9: Mental Retardation.” In A History of Clinical Psychiatry: The Origin and History of Psychiatric Disorders, edited by G.E. Berrios and Roy Porter, 212-258. London, UK: Athlone.

Brownlie, Robin. 2006. “‘A better citizen than lots of white men’: First Nations Enfranchisement, an Ontario Case Study, 1918-1940.” Canadian Historical Review 87 (1): 29-52.

Carey, Allison C. 2009. On the Margins of Citizenship: Intellectual Disability and Civil Rights in Twentieth-Century America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Carey, Jane. 2012. “The Racial Imperatives of Sex: Birth Control and Eugenics in Britain, the United States and Australia in the Interwar Years.” Women’s History Review 21 (5): 733-752.

Carlson, Licia. 2001. “Cognitive Ableism and Disability Studies: Feminist Reflections on the History of Mental Retardation.” Hypatia 16 (4): 124-145.

Chapman, Terry. 1977. “Early Eugenics Movement in Western Canada.” Alberta History 25 (4): 9-17.

de la Cour, Lykke. 2013. From ‘Moron’ to ‘Maladjusted’: Eugenics, Psychiatry and the Regulation of Women, Ontario, 1930s-1960s. PhD diss. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto.

Devereux, Cecily. 2005. Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism. Montreal, QC and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Dodd, Diane. 1991. “Advice to Parents: The Blue Books, Helen MacMurchy, MD, and the Federal Department of Health, 1920-1934.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 8 (2): 203-230.

Dowbiggin, Ian. 1995. “’Keeping This Young Country Sane’: C. K. Clarke, Immigration Restriction, and Canadian Psychiatry, 1890-1925.” Canadian Historical Review 76 (4): 598-627.

___. 1997. Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880-1940. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

___. 2008. The Sterilization Movement and Global Fertility in the Twentieth Century. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dubow, Sol. 2010. “South Africa: Paradoxes in the Place of Race.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, edited by Alison Bashford and Phillipa Levine, 523-538. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Dyck, Erika. 2013. Facing Eugenics: Reproduction, Sterilization, and the Politics of Choice. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Fiamengo, Janice. 2002a. “A Legacy of Ambivalence: Responses to Nellie McClung.” In Rethinking Canada: The Promise of Women's History, 4th edition, edited by Veronica Strong-Boag, Mona Gleason, and Adele Perry, 151-163. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.

___. 2002b. “Rediscovering Our Foremothers Again: The Racial Ideas of Canada’s Early Feminists, 1885-1945.” Essays in Canadian Writing 75: 85-118.

Finger, Anne. 1990. Past Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy and Birth. Seattle, WA: Seal Press.

Forestell, Nancy. 2005. “Mrs. Canada Goes Global: Canadian First Wave Feminism Revisited.” Atlantis 38 (3): 658-680.

Gelb. Steven. 1989. “’Not Simply Bad and Incorrigible’: Science, Morality and Mental Deficiency.” History of Education Quarterly 29 (3): 375-376.

Gleason, Mona. 1999. Normalizing the Ideal: Psychology, Schooling and the Family in Postwar Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Gordon, Linda. 2002. The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1981. The Mismeasure of Man. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Grekul, Jana, Harvey Krahn, and Dave Odynak. 2004. “Sterilizing the Feeble-minded: Eugenics in Alberta, 1929-1972.” Journal of Historical Sociology 17 (4): 371-373.

Hughey, Matthew. 2010. “The (Dis)similarities of White Racial Identities: The Conceptual Framework of ‘Hegemonic Whiteness.’” Ethnic and Racial Studies 33 (8): 1289-1309.

Iacovetta, Franca. 2006. Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada. Toronto, ON: Between the Lines.

Kallianes, Virginia and Phyllis Rubenfeld. 1997. “Disabled Women and Reproductive Rights.” Disability and Society 12 (2): 203-221.

Klausen, Susanne. 1997. “‘For the Sake of the Race’: Eugenic Discourses of Feeblemindedness and Motherhood in the South African Medical Record, 1903-1926.” Journal of South African Studies 23 (1): 27-50.

___. 2001. “‘Poor Whiteism,’ White Maternal Mortality, and the Promotion of Public Health in South Africa: The Department of Public Health’s Endorsement of Contraceptive Services, 1930-1938.” South African Historical Journal 44 (1): 53-78.

___. 2004. Race, Maternity, and the Politics of Birth Control in South Africa, 1910-39. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kline, Wendy. 2001. Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kudlick, Catherine J. 2003. “Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other.’” American Historical Review 108 (3): 763-793.

Ladd-Taylor, Molly. 1994. Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890-1930. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

___. 1997. “Saving Babies and Sterilizing Mothers: Eugenics and Welfare Politics in the Interwar United States.” Social Politics 4 (1): 136-153.

MacMurchy, Helen. 1920. The Almosts: A Study of the Feeble-Minded. Boston, MA: Houghton.

___. 1934. Sterilization? Birth Control? A Book for Family Welfare and Safety. Toronto, ON: The MacMillan Company of Canada Limited.

McConnachie, Kathleen. 1983. “Methodology in the Study of Women in History: A Case Study of Helen MacMurchy, M.D.” Ontario History 75: 61-70.

McDonagh, Patrick. 2001. “‘Only an Almost’: Helen MacMurchy, Feeble Minds, and the Evidence of Literature.” Journal on Developmental Disabilities 8 (2): 61-74.

McLaren, Angus. 1986. “The Creation of a Haven for ‘Human Thoroughbreds’: The Sterilization of the Feeble-minded and the Mentally Ill in British Columbia.” Canadian Historical Review 67 (2): 127-150.

___. 1990. Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945. Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart.

Menzies, Robert. 1998. “Governing Mentalities: The Deportation of Insane and Feebleminded Immigrants Out of British Columbia, from Confederation to World War II.” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 135: 135-176.

Mooney, Jadwiga E. Pieper. 2010. “Re-visiting Histories of Modernization, Progress and (Unequal) Citizenship Rights: Coerced Sterilization in Peru and the United States.” History Compass 8 (9): 1036-1054.

Mukherjee, Arun P. 1993. “Right Out of ‘Herstory’: Racism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and Feminist Literary Theory.” In Returning the Gaze: Essays on Racism, Feminism and Politics, edited by Himani Bannerji, 131-143. Toronto, ON: Sister Vision Press.

Noll, Steven. 1991. “Southern Strategies for Handling the Black Feeble-Minded: From Social Control to Profound Indifference.” Journal of Policy History 3 (2): 130-151.

___. 1994. “‘A Far Greater Menace’: Feebleminded Females in the South, 1900-1940.” In Hidden Histories of Women in the New South, edited by Virginia Bernhard, 31-51. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.

___. 1995. “Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South.” Journal of Legal History 39 (3): 398-400.

Petchesky, Rosalind Pollack. 1990. Abortion and Woman’s Choice: The State, Sexuality, and Reproductive Freedom. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.

Radford, John P., and Deborah Carter Park. 1993. “A Convenient Means of Riddance: Institutionalization of People Diagnosed as ‘Mentally Deficient’ in Ontario, 1876-1934.” HCS/SSC 1 (2): 379-380.

Rafter, Nicole. 2004. “The Criminalization of Mental Retardation.” In Mental Retardation in America: A Historical Reader, edited by Steven Noll and James W. Trent Jr., 232-257. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Reitmanova, Sylvia. 2008. “Saving the Empire: The Politics of Immigrant Tuberculosis in Canada.” McGill Journal of Medicine 11 (2): 199-203.

Simmons, Harvey. 1982. From Asylum to Welfare. Downsview, ON: National Institute on Mental Retardation.

Smith, Andrea. 2005. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Smith, Susan. 1995. “Whitewashing Womanhood: The Politics of Race in Writing Women’s History.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 22 (1): 93-100.

Stephen, Jennifer. 2007. Pick One Intelligent Girl: Employability, Domesticity, and the Gendering of Canada’s Welfare State, 1939-1947. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Stern, Alexandra Minna. 2002. “Beauty is Not Always Better: Perfect Babies and the Tyranny of Pediatric Norms.” Patterns of Prejudice 36 (1): 68-78.

___. 2005. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Strange, Carolyn, and Jennifer Stephen. 2010. “Eugenics in Canada: A Checkered History, 1850s-1990s.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, edited by Alison Bashford and Phillipa Levine, 523-538. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2001. “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies.” Journal of American History 88 (3): 829-865.

Stote, Karen. 2012. “The Coercive Sterilization of Aboriginal Women in Canada.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 36 (3): 117-150.

Strong-Boag, Veronica. 1979. “Canada’s Women Doctors: Feminism Constrained.” In A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada, 1880s-1920s, edited by Linda Kealey, 109-129. Toronto, ON: The Women’s Press.

Stubblefield, Anna. 2007. “‘Beyond the Pale’: Tainted Whiteness, Cognitive Disability, and Eugenic Sterilization.” Hypatia 22 (2): 162-182.

Thomas, Susan L. 1998. “Race, Gender, and Welfare Reform: The Antinatalist Response.” Journal of Black Studies 28 (4): 419-446.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. 1997. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Tilley, Elizabeth, Jan Walmsley, Sarah Earle, and Dorothy Atkinson. 2012. “‘The Silence Is Roaring’: Sterilization, Reproductive Rights and Women with Intellectual Disabilities.” Disability and Society 27 (3): 413-427.

Tylor, Peter. 1977. “Denied the Power to Choose the Good: Sexuality and Mental Defect in American Medical Practice, 1850-1920.” Journal of Social History 10 (4): 472-489.

Valverde, Mariana. 1992. “‘When the Mother of the Race Is Free’: Race, Reproduction, and Sexuality in First-Wave Feminism.” In Gender Conflicts: New Essays in Women’s History, edited by Franca Iacovetta and Mariana Valverde, 3-26. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

___. 2008 [1991]. The Age of Light, Soap and Water. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Wendell, Susan. 1996. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York, NY: Routledge.

Winston, Andrew, Bethany Butzer, and Mark Ferris. 2004. “Constructing Difference: Heredity, Intelligence and Race in Textbooks, 1930-1970.” In Defining Difference: Race and Racism in the History of Psychology, edited by Andrew S. Winston, 49-75. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Yukins, Elizabeth. 2003. “Feebleminded White Women and Specter of Proliferating Perversity in American Eugenic Narratives.” In Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture, edited by Lois Cuddy and Claire Roche, 164-186. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.