This book critique was written by Nicole Wen in her History 148: U.S. History III course in Spring 2015.
Alexandra Minna Stern’s Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (American Crossroads) exposes California’s surreptitious role as a prominent leader in the eugenics movement in the twentieth century. California led the nation in the most involuntary sterilization operations, with “20,000 sterilizations or one-third of 60,000 total nationwide” in the twentieth century (84). By focusing on California, Stern is able to reveal how racism and gender played profound roles on the eugenics movement. She also sets out to prove that the post-war eugenics movement did not simply vanish but was repackaged and presented in a different way. Stern then successfully avers that the liberation movements of the 1960s brought the true downfall of the eugenics movement instead of the common misconception that the defeat of the Nazis’ did.
Stern uses everyday examples in California to show racial bias. This bias in turn, leads to the promotion of eugenics as a social mindset. She explains how the U.S-Mexican Border Patrol had the intention of eugenically mandating and protecting the white Americans from “dysgenic germs” attempting to cross over to the U.S by creating strict and demoralizing immigration procedures (51). This idea of white superiority created the exclusiveness and discrimination that evident in the eugenics movement. As the movement gained momentum, eugenicists influenced California state laws and the culture of California through environment preservation groups and lobbying. Stern also goes on to disprove the common belief that the movement was terminated after World War II. Instead of dissolving, the movement was revamped to concentrate on sex and gender as opposed to race. As Stern writes, “the racism of the 1920s was rearticulated into the sexism of the 1950s” (154). Using well-chosen examples, Stern proves that the eugenics movement was actually dismantled by the liberation movements of the 1960s, such as the feminist protest against Popenoe’s sexist journal column “Can This Marriage Be Saved.” Stern uses these examples to illustrate how eugenics becomes prominent in the 1900s.
Despite containing insightful analyses of the social and political setup for the eugenics movement, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America promises readers more than is delivered in the book. Stern’s title misleads readers and misrepresents the rationale of the text; instead of providing information about the movement in the nation as a whole, Stern focuses solely on the movement in California. She also only briefly discusses the “feeble-minded” individuals who were targeted for involuntary eugenic sterilizations even though a majority of all the sterilization operations were forced on the “mentally defective.” Devoting much of this book to describing the efforts of influential California eugenicists, it is clear that Stern assiduously researched this highly pervasive and concealed topic. However, because of the evasiveness of the topic, sections of this book are speculative and arguments are suggestive. Despite some speculative sections, Stern’s work is still extremely valuable and helpful in understanding the evolution of eugenics. Additionally, Stern’s chronological ordering of the chapters allows readers to easily grasp the gradual development of the movement. In all, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America successfully depicts the progression and influence of the eugenic movement throughout the twentieth century. Readers will be undoubtedly shocked at the residual effects of the movement on our nation and be left with a deeper understanding of mankind’s struggle with “perfection” through the eugenics movement.
Last Updated June 11, 2015