Thursday, December 16, 2010

Elaine Riddick Jessie



OK Cupid, the free internet dating site that I tried for one month, asks participants all types of questions ranging from social issues, to personality traits, and sexual preferences. They use your answers as a basis for finding your match percentage with other people. One question that I thought was a no brainer was 
"Would the world be a better place if people with low IQ's were not allowed to reproduce?"
No. Easy. Of course not. Terrible. Who would say "Yes"? 

Turns out, most guys. 


Smart, interesting, witty guys would message me and appear to be really great and then I'd peruse their answers to questions and see a big "YES" where there should have been a "No". Worse still, some of them explained their answer with phrases like "Even though it's terrible, it's necessary for the betterment of society." Some even referenced that it was a logical part of evolution. YUCK. 


The irony is that I feel like anyone who would answer "Yes" is dreadfully ignorant. Ignorant not only about what an "IQ" actually is or the controversy behind its relevance but also about what the question is really suggesting. Not being allowed to do something generally requires some type of restriction. Reproductive restrictions can be brutal, morally reprehensible programs that hurt society in a way that is so damaging, the defense that it could be positive for evolution is laughable. 


Eugenics is the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics). 

Throughout the majority of the 20th century, there were dozens of eugenics programs that existed all over the United States.  Individuals who were deemed "feeble minded" and inferior, were involuntarily sterilized to prevent future reproduction.  After the Nuremberg trials, when the horrors of the Nazi regime were exposed, many states abandoned the practice.  North Carolina, however, expanded their program.  

To date, NC seems to be the most open about examining this dark history.  I want to be clear however, that these programs appear to have been extensive, leaving no part of America untouched.  This is a terrible issue that bleeds beyond state lines and should deeply affect the way we all see ourselves and our history as Americans.  

Eugenics, in and of itself, is an incredibly tangled and twisted web of what is and is not moral or right as far as human reproduction is concerned.  It alone is not evil necessarily, however, it can be manipulated into a repulsive misuse of power which is what happened during the tenure of the eugenics program in NC.  

In theory I suppose, eugenics was believed to be a positive tool that could be used to alleviate the sufferings that disease and other ailments can create in the human experience.  However, determining those afflictions is where the line fades to gray.  Mental illness and how it is understood today has changed drastically since the early 1900's.  Therefore, people who were said to be "feeble minded" by yesterday's standards, are probably fine today.  Little was known about postpartum depression as well and women were often sent off for electric shock therapy because they were considered to have gone insane after childbirth.  There was very little tolerance for anyone who did not fit into the rigid and minimal normalized standards of the day.


Elaine Riddick Jessie was a young girl living in North Carolina in the late 1960's.  When she was 13, she was raped by a 20 year old man and became pregnant.  After giving birth, the hospital told her that she needed to stay for an extra week.  She was not told what was going on.  The social worker who had been working with Elaine's family prior to her pregnancy, told her illiterate grandmother that if she refused to sign some hospital paperwork, Elaine would be taken away to an orphanage.  The paperwork was the "permission" the state needed in order to sterilize Elaine.  Neither she nor her grandmother were told about the procedure.


When she was 16 years old she had to be hospitalized for severe bleeding. After the doctor performed his exam he told her that she had been "butchered".  She didn't know what this meant at the time.  Married at 19 and after she and her husband were unsuccessful in their attempts to conceive, it was explained to her that she had been sterilized.


Her husband, who was already abusive, became more so after finding out about what happened to his wife.  Unfortunately, he blamed her for her inability to have a child.  They eventually divorced, but she struggled for years with coming to terms with what was done to her body and found herself in other abusive relationships.


Jessie was not alone.  Thousands of people were targeted in the 50's and 60's.  Towards the end of the program, impoverished black women were targeted intensely.  The Eugenics Board of North Carolina gave the go ahead to sterilizations without interviewing the victims.  Promiscuity, rebellion, untidiness were all grounds for the horrific procedure.


While in its later years the program focused on black women, in the early stages it was aimed at those deemed abnormal.  One particular woman, who is white and middle class,  was sterilized because her second son was born with cerebral palsy and the postpartum depression she suffered after his birth was grounds for her committal to a state mental institution.  Not only was she part of the eugenics program, she was also given electro shock therapy multiple times.  Her husband was never told about her sterilization and was greatly saddened to hear about what had happened to his wife.  Children, both male and female, with behavioral problems or in orphanages were also subjected to castration and sterilization.  Many times, abusive parents, specifically fathers sexually assaulting their daughters, elected to have the procedure done to their children.  Not only did their own parents abuse them, but so did their government.


How this program could have such a violent effect on society's most unprotected individuals seems to stem from a gross misuse of elitist authority.  These people were targeted for situations that were no fault of their own, by the dominant class.  The Eugenics Board of North Carolina comprised of 5 bureaucrats who decided the fates of thousands of people.  Social workers also played a major role in deciding who was unfit to become a parent.  The evils of social conservatism are widely touted by liberals today.  However, when we examine the history of liberalism, eugenics certainly can't be ignored.  Margaret Sanger, the woman who fought diligently for legal birth control rights and the founder of Planned Parenthood was a supporter of eugenics.  While there is a great deal of speculation about whether or not she wanted to see it used the way in which it was used, the programs were never set up to be based on an elected choice of the individual.  It was always forced upon the person due to whatever label was given to them that in someway made their procreation a disadvantage for future generations. When social status and education are used against a person in ways that take away their autonomy and freedom for the purpose of making society "better", injustice can be the only outcome.  Eugenics was an elitist principle in the purist sense.  Those who held power decided that they could use it in anyway they wanted to create a dominant society by eliminating those who they deemed unfit.


Elaine is only 54 years old.  She is the same age as my mom.  That makes her story much more real to me.  She could have a child or children the same age as me.  She is very much a part of our present history, not the past.  We associate terrible systems such as eugenics with a distant age.  One where the theories and intellectual realities we have today were not available at that time.  This is a false ideal that only serves to make us feel better and avoid responsibility; as if we have somehow advanced beyond such dark ages.  Yet it is very much relevant to modern times and can be apologized for which is the only way we can hope such programs can be prevented in the future.


Elaine did try to fight for her rights and refused to be solely a victim.  After obtaining her medical records which stated her "inability to control her promiscuity" as the reason for sterilization, she filed a lawsuit with help from the ACLU.  She lost the case. She went on to earn an associate degree and has a nice life.  Despite this, she cannot get over what was done to her and the stigma she feels.  Physically, she has suffered as well.  She had to have a full hysterectomy because she suffered from pain and bleeding for years.  Depression is something that has plagued her as well. She describes feeling dumb and worthless, as if she should have somehow prevented this from happening to her.  This quote, taken from an article on indyweek.com , sums up her current feelings of despair:


 "Sometimes I think, what is happiness? Am I really happy? I don't think I will ever be happy, because of what they took from me."


I hope Elaine knows what an inspiration she is too many survivors of all sorts of injustice.  It cannot be easy to become the face of such evil mistreatment, however, she is still fighting for her rights to be recognized.  She is speaking up for all of her fellow victims, whose bodies were manipulated in the same grotesque way as her own.  She is forcing all of us to confront the fact that we are not a nation that is free of such evils.  She is forcing us to see her as the human being she is and to make amends for treating her with such abuse.  Her courage is undeniable.  


N.C. State Representative Larry Womble has championed the cause of taking responsibility for the crimes committed during the state's eugenics program.  He is responsible for removing the sterilization law that remained on record until 2003, nearly 30 years after the eugenics system was abandoned.  Against Their Will is the program that was set up in order to educate and shed light on what had happened in the state's history.  Currently, efforts are also being made to make reparations to the victims who are still alive today.


                                                              
At a wedding a few months back some of my guy friends were teasing me about my blog, calling me "Calista Jones" and such.  It was all in good fun.  Then one of them seriously said to me, "I just don't understand the point of feminism.  You are equal, why does it matter?"  Since I was several drinks in (my usual wedding state of insobriety), I decided it wasn't the best time for the discussion so I just said "Well 'it' matters to me."  The conversation was dropped and we went on to have a fabulous evening.


Had I not been drinking, or felt it was a more appropriate place to go off on a tangent about why feminism is important, I probably would have babbled on for a while about how we still live in a patriarchal society, women aren't as prominently represented as men, we still are expected to fall in line on things...blah blah blah.  Honestly, my answer probably wouldn't have made much sense or done a lot of good convincing anyone about why "it" matters.  So I've been thinking about that a lot in the past few months.  Why does feminism matter?  To me or anyone?  Why should the greater society suddenly drop their blinders and say "Oh! We get it now!"  Then I started to think about "it" in relation to Elaine's story.


The eugenics program was aimed primarily at women.  We are so often at the will of society at the expense of our bodies.  Our reproductive rights are in constant threat of being taken away and the very fact that our bodies are an area that is considered appropriate for legislation is terrifying.  This comes down to a much more significant question than when does life begin, conception or birth?  That question being do we trust women?  The answer seems to be a resounding "NO."  


This is a key part of why feminism matters.  Trusting women from all different social groups is essential in granting us our complete and deserved equal rights.  How many lives would exist today if the eugenics program hadn't existed yesterday?  Or, how many lives would have been spared if Roe vs. Wade never needed to exist?  The prevention of women dying or inadvertently becoming barren by illegal and unsafe abortions must be considered when we argue about changing that very important decision.  How many fewer unwanted pregnancies would exist at all if we trusted our youth with appropriate sex education?  Stop telling young women that eventually they WILL want a baby even if they say they don't. Let us think for ourselves because that is the only way the playing field will level.  Trusting women is the most effective way to empower them.  


***This entry has been updated from it's original posting date due to my OK Cupid experience and Elaine's recent attempts to gain reparations for herself and other victims. If I ever use OKC to date again, this will be linked in my profile ;) Fighting ignorance, one date at a time. 

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