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Experiences and Voices of Eugenics Field-Workers: 'Women's Work' in Biology

Amy Sue Bix
Social Studies of Science
Vol. 27, No. 4 (Aug., 1997), pp. 625-668
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/285560
Page Count: 44
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Experiences and Voices of Eugenics Field-Workers: 'Women's Work' in Biology
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Abstract

Experiences and ideas of eugenic 'field-workers' offer a new historical perspective on American eugenics, while highlighting terms of women's early twentieth-century scientific education and research employment. To advance knowledge of heredity, the US Eugenics Record Office (ERO), between 1910 and 1924, trained 258 students (85% of them women) to collect information about individuals, families and communities. Though some historians have dismissed eugenic field-workers as careless or uncritical, many had scientific or medical backgrounds, and took research seriously. While gendered expectations and other obstacles limited women's hopes for professional advance, the female field-workers created a strong community and culture of their own. Comparing notes, some recognized that their results did not support eugenic assumptions, and cautioned against letting enthusiasm overwhelm scientific integrity. These women field-workers raised serious questions about methodology and ethics, but the situation of eugenics work at the time undermined chances for such criticism to be acknowledged. After World War I, military-related research and political manoeuvring dominated eugenics, further marginalizing field-workers. Ironically, while ERO head Charles Davenport had wanted students to promote eugenics, some demonstrated more fundamental commitment to scientific ideals - but to little avail.

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