The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt by Audrey Clare Farley

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I learned about Farley and her newly published book when I attended a zoom book tour. Farley’s well researched reporting on the popularization of eugenics at the turn of the 20th century is eye-opening. Farley’s work shines a light on very disturbing practices that have been legally supported by the Supreme Court (Buck v. Bell, 1927). Buck v. Bell has never been overturned although there has been subsequent case law arguing against the decision, and there is increased awareness of the need for procedural safeguards to ensure the protection of the privacy rights compromised by sterilization. Even so, we recently saw news reports of refugees held in U.S. custody being sterilized against their will. The practice continues with marginalized women in prisons, disabled women, and substance-dependent individuals. The legal system still uses sterilization as leverage (e.g. prisoners can win lighter sentences). This page turning narrative exploration of the history of eugenics through the experience of a wealthy family is disturbing to read, but absolutely necessary. Knowledge is power. I have been very ill-informed on the topic. I certainly knew vulnerable populations were at risk of falling prey to eugenics in our country’s past, and Nazi scientists were sent here to learn more about how eugenics was being used in the United States to “control” the Black population. I was not aware of the commonly held belief that any women deemed unfit to be a mother could be sterilized. I was shocked that this notion has been well accepted and supported by law including the Supreme Court up until the resurgence of the feminist movement. The author’s ability to make her subject come to life makes the book very readable. It’s a page turner because it highlights the sensationalized news stories about Ann’s mother’s plot to steal Ann’s inheritance by secretly having her sterilized just before Ann comes of age, and her dead father’s will takes effect. The will stipulates that Ann will lose her inheritance to her mother if Ann remains childless. Farley brings to bear her own compassionate understanding of the mother and daughter relationship in her writing as she uncovers the horrors of the cultural norms that dictated their lives. When Ann’s story begins in the 1930’s, all women were vulnerable to laws that supported forced sterilization based solely on a court’s decision concerning a woman’s fitness for motherhood. Eugenics is still quietly—and sometimes not so quietly— being perpetrated. I am grateful to Farley for this compelling narrative exposing the history of eugenics from the turn of the last century to the present.

4 comments on “The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt by Audrey Clare Farley”

  1. Darwinism promotes eugenics in many modern contexts — this is a great find, B. Thanks for your informative review. Our fixation on genetics starting from the Human Genome Project has always been a problematic scientific issue for me.

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