Honors Program


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Provost, Cassandra. Narratives of Reproductive Control in the American Eugenics Movement. Undergraduate Honors Thesis, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2024.


Copyright Cassandra M. Provost 2024


In this paper, I will explore the eugenics movement as a pseudo-scientific political, social, and legal phenomenon which had a devastating historical impact on America’s most vulnerable women, as well as briefly discuss its residual effects on contemporary reproductive rights conversations, through the lens of literature. Using an interdisciplinary discourse and narrative analysis approach, I identify two distinct themes within the explored narratives: (1) the importance of a government’s attempt to override a person’s autonomy by destroying the person’s ability to reproduce, and (2) the impropriety of actions based on a negative attitude toward disabled or undesirable persons. In my first chapter, “Eugenic Feminism and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland”, I provide a background on the intersection of the feminist birth control movement and eugenics, as well as highlight Gilman’s novel Herland (1915) as a hyperbolized conception of reproductive Utopia. In my second chapter, “Carrie Buck and Her Three Generations of Imbeciles”, I narrate the story of Carrie Buck, the appellant of the U.S. Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell (1927) and victim of compulsory sterilization, as well as analyze the contents and the authorial intent of the case’s majority opinion. In the third and final chapter, “Rebelling Against “Racial Uplift” in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand”, I contextualize the eugenics movement with notions of racial betterment within the African American population and use Larsen’s novel Quicksand (1928) to represent the complex experience of many Black women with birth control rhetoric at this time. In my conclusion, I argue for the inextricable link between the history of the eugenics movement and its proponents’ hands in the reproductive choices of Gilded era women, as well as for continuous reproductive justice issues into our 21st century society. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade (1973), the U.S. Supreme Court case which legalized a woman’s choice to an abortion, and the related setbacks to women’s rights to autonomy in 2022, discussions over who controls the narrative of a woman’s body is important now more than ever.