Unfit for Motherhood: The Involuntary Sterilization and Systemic Reproductive Coercion of Black Women in the United States from 1920 to 1980
Department or Program
Throughout the twentieth century, medical practices contradicted the supposition that Black bodies were liberated from intervention and ownership in the United States with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865. During this century, there remained an institutional claim staked on Black bodies, specifically Black women’s bodies, and their ability to reproduce. Medical, political, and social reform institutions – which ranged from governmental programs to ostensibly grassroots healthcare clinics – would modify their justifications of interventions on Black female bodies to fit changing politics and social norms as the century progressed. The fundamental rationale, however, remained the same – that Black Americans should not have control over their own reproductive abilities. Black women in particular were the cornerstone of Black bodily autonomy, and therefore needed to be controlled. In this project, I investigate the means by which American institutions were able to not only justify but codify the control of Black women’s bodies, and normalize a coercive medical establishment bent on denying Black women informed and empowered reproductive healthcare. Through this work, my study explores the use of eugenics and birth control as mechanisms of social and racial control, which ultimately culminated in the sterilization of Black women, and pinpoints how the public characterization of Black women and their perceived threat to the status quo allowed for the government sponsored denial of reproductive autonomy.
Level of Access
Date of Graduation
Bachelor of Arts
Freedman, Ariel, "Unfit for Motherhood: The Involuntary Sterilization and Systemic Reproductive Coercion of Black Women in the United States from 1920 to 1980" (2023). Honors Theses. 435.
Number of Pages
Available to all.