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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Dangerous Love: "Positive" Eugenics, Mass Media, and the Scientific Woman, 1900–1945


In the early twentieth century, the concept of eugenics swept through the American scientific community and lay public. Concerned with the production of "better babies" through "better breeding," eugenics found a place among other Progressive Era social movements, such as public health and home economics, that thought to use science to improve social conditions. Eugenists promoted both "negative" eugenics—the use of coercion, isolation, and sterilization to prevent childbearing among those deemed genetically inferior—and "positive" eugenics—the encouragement of increased or improved voluntary childbearing among those of "superior stock." My research will identify why positive eugenics became so popular among middle-class white women in the United States. By examining newspaper and magazine articles dating from 1900–1945, I argue that many middle-class white women supported positive eugenics because 1) it assured women that they could experience more independence, happier marriages, healthier children, and superior parenthood; and 2) it formed areas in which women could exercise authority and build interpersonal relationships with other women. While scholars have portrayed eugenics as simply a tactic to coerce and subjugate women's sexuality and fertility, I instead contend that some middle-class white women supported eugenics because of its promises for self-empowerment.

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