Britney Spears’s father, Jamie Spears, was suspended as her conservator at a Los Angeles hearing Wednesday, ending his control of his daughter’s life and estate after more than 13 years. The decision follows the release of three new documentaries detailing what the pop star’s life has been like under the conservatorship, including claims that her bedroom was bugged and that she was forced to take prescription drugs.
In a June hearing, Spears said that her conservatorship was “abusive,” and that her father forced her to work and to keep a birth-control device in her body so that she could not become pregnant. The claims shocked the public, including many celebrities, who have increasingly voiced their support for her.
But to historians of eugenics, Spears’s ordeal sounds very familiar. It’s a story of control — control of a woman’s labor, civil rights, parental custody, legal representation and even her reproductive system.
Eugenics was a pseudoscience promulgated in the 19th and 20th centuries aiming to improve human genetics. It was used in the United States to justify the forced hospitalization and sterilization of tens of thousands of people based on race, class and perceived “feeblemindedness” and “moral delinquency,” and later by the Nazis to justify the murder of millions of Jews, LGBT people and people with disabilities, among others.
Between 1907 and 1979, more than 64,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized by state and local governments. California, where Spears lives, sterilized at least 20,000 people, far more than any other state. Most, but not all, of those sterilized were poor; most were White, though historians say racism and white supremacy were still driving motivators of these programs.
In the early 20th century, a lot of states were “chasing the white whale” of a eugenics law that would pass constitutional scrutiny, said Elizabeth Catte, a public historian and author of the scorching book “Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia.” Indiana passed a eugenics-based law allowing forced sterilization in 1907, but it was overturned in court, as was California’s in 1909.
Then Virginia gave it a try with its own law in 1924, and went looking for a test case to legitimize it.
Carrie Buck was born into poverty in Charlottesville in 1906. Her father abandoned the family, and her mother was soon accused of “immorality” and committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded — essentially a work camp for White people the state didn’t like. Buck was separated from her siblings and sent to live with a wealthy foster family, who forced her to leave school during sixth grade and serve as a housekeeper in their home.
When Buck was 17, she was raped by the nephew of her foster mother and became pregnant. Probably to save face, the family accused her of promiscuity and feeblemindedness, and in 1924, she was committed to the same colony as her mother. Her infant daughter was given to her foster mother.
Officials at the colony decided Buck would be the perfect candidate for sterilization. They provided her with an attorney — an avowed eugenicist and friend of the colony director — to file a suit on her behalf. He did a pretty terrible job in court (something Spears’s supporters also allege about her former attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III), and when the case made it to the Supreme Court, he hardly said a thing. Lawyers for Virginia argued the state had a compelling interest in Buck’s ability to have children.
In an 8-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court agreed, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously declaring, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (Many words now used as mild insults, such as “moron,” “imbecile,” and “idiot,” have a long history of being used as clinical diagnoses.)
Buck, along with her mother and her sister, was subsequently sterilized by having her fallopian tubes cut and cauterized. Buck’s daughter died when she was 8.
All told, Virginia robbed 8,000 people of their ability to have children.
Spears’s situation has made Catte “think a lot about women that I write about, even though they are incredibly poor women,” and Spears is not.
“The choice to deprive them of their reproductive freedom through sterilization was only one half of the state’s control over their lives,” she said. “The second half is control over their labor.”
Once Buck and women like her were sterilized, “they were usually placed in some type of parole arrangement, where the state would send them to work in a private home or business, usually doing some kind of menial labor like housekeeping, cooking, cleaning,” Catte said.
They were paid a pittance, and their employers regularly reported back to state authorities. In this way, they could be subjected to overwork and abuse. If they spoke out in any way, employers could threaten to send them back to the colony.
“They would be forced to continue this kind of relationship as part of their treatment, as a way that they could prove to the state that they had rehabilitated their character, their work ethic, that they were able to leave institutions,” Catte said.
While the victims of eugenics were generally poor, that wasn’t always the case.
Ann Cooper Hewitt was born into a wealthy and famous family, but her upbringing, she later claimed, was miserable. Her mother would leave her alone for long stretches, and when she was around she was physically abusive. Her father, the engineer Peter Cooper Hewitt, died when she was a child, leaving her millions. But there was a catch: If Ann died childless, her portion of the fortune would go to her mother.
In 1934, when Ann was 20, her mother had her declared feebleminded, and she was sterilized without her consent or knowledge. She thought she had gotten an appendectomy until she overheard her nurses calling her their “idiot patient.”
She sued her mother and the two doctors who performed the operation — a public scandal that captured headlines across the country. Ultimately, she lost the case, because in California, where she lived, what happened to her was completely legal.
Her story is recounted in the book “The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt,” by historian Audrey Clare Farley.
Even though Ann Cooper Hewitt was White, her sterilization, like the sterilization of thousands of other White women like her, was all about maintaining white supremacy, Farley told The Washington Post. In the trial, Ann’s mother testified that she had caught her daughter having a friendly conversation with a Black man in their household staff. Even the hint of interracial romance supposedly proved she was unfit.
“If you were sexually transgressive, you were assumed to be mentally defective, and vice versa,” Farley said.
There were also plenty of blatantly racist cases. In Mississippi, where civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was surreptitiously sterilized by a White doctor while seeking treatment for a tumor in 1961, sterilization of Black women became so common it was often call a “Mississippi appendectomy.” Hamer only found out about her own sterilization when she “overheard the gossip on the plantation,” where she was a sharecropper, “spread by the wife of the plantation owner and relative of the doctor who performed the operation,” historian Keisha N. Blain, author of the upcoming “Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America,” told The Post.
So when did involuntary sterilization and commitment end?
Well, it didn’t. It is much rarer than it used to be, but “it’s still happening to disabled people, especially disabled people who are confined in some way, be it in an institution or a prison or jail,” Catte said. Between 2005 and 2013, California prison doctors coerced 144 female inmates to be sterilized, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. The state passed a law in July to provide reparations for these women and the several hundred people sterilized during the eugenics era who are still living.
Virginia passed a similar law in 2015.
The conservatorship system has strict guidelines today, but disability advocates say it is still being abused. At the hearing in June, Spears told the judge her case wasn’t an isolated incident.
“We can sit here all day and say, ‘Oh, conservatorships are here to help people,’” she said, “but, ma’am, there’s a thousand conservatorships that are abusive as well.”
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