“I really don’t want to sue. I just want them to put me back like they found me.”
—Valerie Cliett, sterilized against her will at age 23 after giving birth to her son
Beginning in the late 19th century, scientists, critical thinkers, and some progressives believed they had discovered the solution to society’s ills: eugenics. A movement that still exists in many elements of our world today, it sought to “breed better humans” through Social Darwinism. These troubling ideas, which saw upper-class white people as the sole model of good genetics in the United States and beyond, transformed into laws that sought to eliminate “undesirable” people through various means, most especially reproductive sterilization.
In 1927, Carrie Buck became the test case for a legal basis of choosing vulnerable, marginalized people who were deemed unfit. Buck was a woman who was raped at age 17 by a member of her foster family and gave birth out of wedlock, which led to her institutionalization for supposed promiscuity and “feeble-mindedness.” This trauma was compounded when she was selected to be the case to take to the Supreme Court. Eugenicists saw their terrible dreams fulfilled at the expense of multitudes after the 1927 verdict. States across the country created eugenics boards, where mostly institutionalized people were subjected to sterilization. These victims were sterilized often for the simple offense of being poor, disabled, or, in the case of women, deemed promiscuous (whether true or not). While cis men were also sterilized during this period, the focus was put on sterilizing cis women as a means of controlling and oppressing certain communities. California, my birth state, is guilty of sterilizing over twenty thousand people through its eugenics laws before 1964. Their state eugenics board was viewed as so successful that other countries, such as Nazi Germany, observed and copied their methods as a means of eliminating entire populations.
Post-WWII did not see an end to these horrific practices or the eugenics movement; rather, various states began targeting specific communities of color as a way to “purify” the country. In the South, Black women were exceptionally besieged, coining the procedures “Mississippi appendectomies;” nationwide, Native women were so methodically selected that the future existence of several Indigenous nations is at risk. Latinas in California were grievously harmed by hospitals who decided they were a population threat, and in Puerto Rico, women were used as guinea pigs in medical testing over birth control medication and summarily sterilized without consent when the side effects were irreversibly harmful. Intersex people were and still are regularly sterilized as infants in order to correspond to the sex assigned to them by doctors. Even large corporations like American Cynamid and Bunker Hill Mining, which habitually exposed their employees to dangerous chemicals, coerced their female employees to be sterilized. It is difficult to obtain precise numbers on how many individuals have been subjected to sterilization—partly because private doctors and institutions would not tell their patients what extraneous surgeries they were performing on them.
Through organizing and several persistent movements that fought for reproductive rights, the era of sterilization boards eventually came to an end, leaving in their wake a wound that never fully heal. Some states, like North Carolina and Virginia, have slowly attempted amends and potential financial reparations, but reprehensibly, they have delayed these efforts as long as possible to avoid payment to the dwindling population of living survivors. Many others have refused any kind of apology, attempting to avoid any real responsibility and consequences for the destruction they caused.
The past is not just present—it never left. As of today, several states still have sterilization laws on their legislative books. Some states that did not formally allow sterilization, such as Colorado, nevertheless had fanatical doctors who disregarded the law in order to seek out their vision of a pure white supremacist population. California was investigated in 2014 for sterilizing incarcerated women without adequate consent from 2005-2013—echoes of their eugenic history. In fact, many judges over the past few decades have recommended sterilization to defendants as a way of decreasing their sentences—a coercion that has affected women whose charge can be as minor as check fraud, as in the case of Summer Creel in 2017. The 45th President of the United States has many times cited his “superior genes” and enacted white supremacist laws and executive orders that have reinvigorated eugenics for the 21st century. Rights around bodily autonomy become increasingly endangered—many have sought to sterilize those who have obtained an abortion or who receive public assistance (neither of which are new practices but have been bolstered again in the mainstream). Even as recently as February 2020, prominent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins declared support for classic eugenics on Twitter.
“Put Me Back Like They Found Me” centers the stories of cis female survivors of horrific, regular practices of forced sterilization in the United States. I embroider the portraits of survivors as a nod to domestic labor, “women’s work,” and thread as a metaphor for life. For living survivors, the work is a collaboration between the women and myself; each portrait is designed to contain a chosen element that has significance in their lives. Hospital gowns display painted text that focus on various survivors and the sufferings they have endured. It is truly impossible to understand the tremendous pain and violation forced upon so many people at the hands of governments, institutions, and doctors in the name of progress and white supremacy. There is a through line that connects eugenics to forced sterilization to loss of liberty and even genocide.
It should be noted that the concept of reproductive justice, a term coined by Black women, has framed how to think about bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. As Dorothy Roberts states, “Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.” These women and their stories are reminders that each eugenicist belief or law has genuine, tragic costs. We as a society owe these survivors and their memories our care and demand for justice, in addition to finally ending these cruel violations for present and future generations.
*Note: I am endlessly grateful to Dr. Virginia Espino and the folks at the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, as well as the family of Mithra Ratne and more for entrusting and collaborating with me on this series. This series is not for sale.