Perilous propagation: the origins and growth of eugenics in Montana

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


While Montana is seldom mentioned in broader histories of eugenics in the United States, 'the science of better breeding' appeared in the state in various realms by the early twentieth century, including the legislature, public education, institutions, public health, and the women's suffrage, maternalist, and child welfare movements. Like many states, Montana enacted eugenic laws intended to target 'unfit' persons for policing, segregation, and sterilization. This dissertation examines Montana's multifarious and overlapping experiences with eugenics from the late nineteenth-century to the present. Using various primary sources, including patient records, newspapers, legislative reports, and government documents, this project demonstrates that the origins of eugenics in Montana are much deeper than scientific ideas, faith in scientific expertise, and the tumultuous societal changes of the early 1900s. In Montana, laws intended to regulate, police, define, and separate 'normal' and 'abnormal' bodies predated the arrival of eugenic ideas and policies in Montana by many decades. Investigating this legal foundation allows for a consideration of the topic of eugenics within a larger historical narrative and challenges simplistic notions about eugenic origins. In Montana, a variety of contextual factors interacted to create an environment in which eugenics could at times flourish but at other times diminish. This study of Montana is an example of how to assess the specific political and social factors necessary to implement eugenic practices. Carrying out eugenic actions required a high level of cooperation at the individual, community, state, and federal levels. This project interrogates those different levels and layers of context, demonstrating that a eugenic history of Montana defies any universal 'American' models in terms of origins, growth, development, and decline. Locating Montana's interaction with eugenics in a broader history that accounts for deep origins, continuity, and contextual layers demonstrates the uniqueness and similarity of Montana's eugenic past in relation to other localities. In addition, this dissertation shows that addressing eugenics from a framework based on interconnection helps resurrect 'lost' histories of eugenics in states, such as Montana, where this past is largely forgotten.




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