By Julia Purdy
ROCHESTER—The Rochester Public Library hosted its first Vermont Humanities Council-sponsored book discussion in at least a decade Thursday morning, Jan. 18, with Nancy Gallagher’s eye-opening contribution to modern Vermont history, “Breeding Better Vermonters,” a thought-provoking look at the notorious eugenics movement in Vermont, which was housed at UVM in the 1920s and 1930s.
Leading the discussion was Alan Berolzheimer, a speaker, researcher and educator who introduced himself as a “public historian, as opposed to an academic historian.” Berolzheimer has worked as managing editor of the Vermont Historical Society’s publications for two decades as well as an educator with the Flow of History program for public schools in the Upper Valley.
Sixteen people attended, 15 of whom were Rochester residents.
Berolzheimer opened the topic by calling the eugenics survey a “troubling episode in the state and in U.S. history,” saying that it sprang from concerns that are still relevant today: population loss, an aging population, immigration, and white identity.
The national eugenics movement aimed at improving the American gene pool by identifying individuals and families deemed “abnormal,” “defective” or “feebleminded” and either removing them from society or preventing them from having children, through sterilization. The movement was embraced by Progressive politicians, academics, reformers, educators and social scientists and was one of a number of programs to, reform juvenile delinquents, and intervene in dysfunctional families. It happened within living memory of many families who were affected.
Berolzheimer noted that such policies were promoted by elite Progressives who influenced public policy to improve the living conditions of the masses and eliminate abuses such as child labor. But the issue of affordability played a role – specifically, taxpayer support of the needy. Since the New Deal, he said, those costs have been moved to the state and federal level, but early Vermont towns had a common practice of “warning-out,” where they would eject transients and the destitute, who might become a drain on the town revenues.
The eugenics movement in Vermont coalesced around several factors. One was the reaction to what the elites saw as an unraveling of Vermont’s claim as the “seedbed of American exceptionalism and democratic values.” The old Yankee stock was declining and farm abandonment was viewed as a symptom of not only economic but cultural decline.
In addition, the state’s self-promotion as a vacation destination began as early as the 1880s. By the 1920s and 1930s, Vermont was aggressively courting well-to-do professionals. Dorothy Canfield was a major and persuasive writer of such promotional literature.
At the height of the eugenics program, which sent “social researchers” into the hill farms to ferret out signs of genetic degradation, elaborate “pedigrees of degeneracy” were developed, reaching back to the great-grandparental generation.
Anyone living a rebellious or non-conformist lifestyle, or suffering from disease or mental illness, was suspected of harboring degenerate genes. Young, sexually-active single women were disproportionately recommended for sterilization.
Certain ethnic groups were targeted: “gypsies,” Native Americans, French Canadians, those who simply lived away from population centers. The Abnakis schooled their children not to reveal their true origins.
At the time, the notion of developing superior strains of humans by controlling who mated with whom was compared to selective breeding of livestock and found acceptance in higher social circles as beneficial policy for the betterment of society. “Although eugenics as a form of social engineering has been thoroughly discredited, do these notions survive today? The group felt that they do.
One everyday example is how some state marriage laws require blood testing for disease. Another example is how a newcomer to an area is judged by appearance. Evan animals are selective said a person.
Several examples of blaming the victim were mentioned. “It makes us feel better,” and “We tend not to want to think about larger social causes,” were comments.
For upcoming book discussions, visit rochestervtpubliclibrary.com.