The Historical Line Between Carrie Buck and Britney Spears: Labeling Women "Unfit"Historians in the News
tags: eugenics, womens history, Britney Spears, Carrie Buck, Buck v. Bell
Britney Spears’s father, Jamie Spears, was suspended as her conservator at a Los Angeles hearing Wednesday, ending his control of his daughter’s life and estate after more than 13 years. The decision follows the release of three new documentaries detailing what the pop star’s life has been like under the conservatorship, including claims that her bedroom was bugged and that she was forced to take prescription drugs.
In a June hearing, Spears said that her conservatorship was “abusive,” and that her father forced her to work and to keep a birth-control device in her body so that she could not become pregnant. The claims shocked the public, including many celebrities, who have increasingly voiced their support for her.
But to historians of eugenics, Spears’s ordeal sounds very familiar. It’s a story of control — control of a woman’s labor, civil rights, parental custody, legal representation and even her reproductive system.
Eugenics was a pseudoscience promulgated in the 19th and 20th centuries aiming to improve human genetics. It was used in the United States to justify the forced hospitalization and sterilization of tens of thousands of people based on race, class and perceived “feeblemindedness” and “moral delinquency,” and later by the Nazis to justify the murder of millions of Jews, LGBT people and people with disabilities, among others.
Between 1907 and 1979, more than 64,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized by state and local governments. California, where Spears lives, sterilized at least 20,000 people, far more than any other state. Most, but not all, of those sterilized were poor; most were White, though historians say racism and white supremacy were still driving motivators of these programs.
In the early 20th century, a lot of states were “chasing the white whale” of a eugenics law that would pass constitutional scrutiny, said Elizabeth Catte, a public historian and author of the scorching book “Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia.” Indiana passed a eugenics-based law allowing forced sterilization in 1907, but it was overturned in court, as was California’s in 1909.
Then Virginia gave it a try with its own law in 1924, and went looking for a test case to legitimize it.
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