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Medical History

Fixing the Poor

Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century

by (author) Molly Ladd-Taylor

Johns Hopkins University Press
Initial publish date
Dec 2017
History, 20th Century, Ethics
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Dec 2017
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2020
    List Price

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How state welfare politics—not just concerns with "race improvement"—led to eugenic sterilization practices.

Honorable Mention, 2018 Outstanding Book Award, The Disability History AssociationShortlist, 2019 Wallace K. Ferguson Prize, Canadian Historical Association

Between 1907 and 1937, thirty-two states legalized the sterilization of more than 63,000 Americans. In Fixing the Poor, Molly Ladd-Taylor tells the story of these state-run eugenic sterilization programs. She focuses on one such program in Minnesota, where surgical sterilization was legally voluntary and administered within a progressive child welfare system.

Tracing Minnesota's eugenics program from its conceptual origins in the 1880s to its official end in the 1970s, Ladd-Taylor argues that state sterilization policies reflected a wider variety of worldviews and political agendas than previously understood. She describes how, after 1920, people endorsed sterilization and its alternative, institutionalization, as the best way to aid dependent children without helping the "undeserving" poor. She also sheds new light on how the policy gained acceptance and why coerced sterilizations persisted long after eugenics lost its prestige. In Ladd-Taylor's provocative study, eugenic sterilization appears less like a deliberate effort to improve the gene pool than a complicated but sadly familiar tale of troubled families, fiscal and administrative politics, and deep-felt cultural attitudes about disability, dependency, sexuality, and gender.

Drawing on institutional and medical records, court cases, newspapers, and professional journals, Ladd-Taylor reconstructs the tragic stories of the welfare-dependent, sexually delinquent, and disabled people who were labeled "feebleminded" and targeted for sterilization. She chronicles the routine operation of Minnesota's three-step policy of eugenic commitment, institutionalization, and sterilization in the 1920s and 1930s and shows how surgery became the "price of freedom" from a state institution. Combining innovative political analysis with a compelling social history of those caught up in Minnesota's welfare system, Fixing the Poor is a powerful reinterpretation of eugenic sterilization.

About the author

Molly Ladd-Taylor is a professor of history at York University. She is the author of Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890–1930 and the coeditor of "Bad" Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America.

Molly Ladd-Taylor's profile page


  • Short-listed, Wallace K. Ferguson Prize
  • Runner-up, Disability History Association Book Award

Editorial Reviews

"This is a book that deserves to be read widely, and not only by historians of eugenics. Not only is it informative about a less-studied chapter in the history of sterilization in the USA but it also sets high standards of scholarship and establishes a point of reference for any future discussion of sterilization in the USA and elsewhere."

"Ladd-Taylor's novel and nuanced interpretation and the quality of her research make Fixing the Poor an outstanding contribution to the literature that explores sterilization as it was actually experienced both by agents of the state and their targets."

"Ladd-Taylor's book is an admirable example of the significant insight that local studies can offer. So much of American welfare policy was first enacted at the state level and then, even when federalized, continued to be implemented through the states. Thus, studies like this one can reveal important new dimensions of policy and complicate established narratives."

"While Fixing the Poor highlights the shifts in Minnesota's eugenics policies from the late nineteenth century through the 1970s, the book's conclusion presents a grim, though not entirely surprising, take on the continuity of thinly veiled eugenics policies in the United States. Instruments of control now take the shape of child welfare and criminal justice systems, which often brand welfare-dependent individuals as lazy, undeserving, and in some cases, unfit for parenthood. Fixing the Poor should appeal to historians of eugenics, social welfare, and disability and women's studies, but also readers who are interested in how local, 'ordinary' histories can complicate and broaden our understanding of national and global trends."

"Ladd-Taylor's well-written book offers an excellent argument for Minnesota's sterilization history as showing the value of widening our sets of case-studies on eugenics practices. Her careful research makes Fixing the Poor essential reading for anyone interested in developing a more nuanced, thorough exploration of eugenics."

"Molly Ladd-Taylor has written a superb history of sterilization in Minnesota that has far-reaching implications for the study of both the history of eugenics in the United States and the history of the practice of sterilization throughout the country... I highly recommend this book for use in undergraduate courses in Minnesota history and in the history of eugenics and for graduate students and experts in the field as well as general readers interested in learning more about this deeply nuanced and troubling past."

"Despite its broad title, the book focuses solely on Minnesota and draws from information housed in the Minnesota State Archives. Ladd-Taylor, a professor of history at York University, sees this troubling past as part of Minnesota's efforts to reduce social welfare support for many vulnerable populations."

"Studies the impact of efforts to 'contain' and distinguish the variously and often incoherently defined problems of 'delinquency', 'immorality', 'imbecility', 'waywardness' and 'feeblemindedness'. Poor people, particularly women and girls, were suspected disproportionately of being the source of such conditions. Ideologically, 'treatment' was framed as an issue of public health, but Ladd-Taylor shows that an even greater concern was sparing the public purse."

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