In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I have taken down the brown "butcher" paper that held ideas, photos, drawings, and my hand-drawn maps and plot outlines for the past five or six books. I've placed all those items into three-ring binders, and cleared the deck for paintings and photographs that involve courage, as I move forward in GHOSTKEEPER, the new novel set in Lyndonville, Vermont. My 1850 Vermont adventure THE LONG SHADOW is under contract with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you a publication date as soon as I know! Scribbling lots of poems, too. And there's a possible route to publication of the "Vermont Nancy Drew" novel I built on Wattpad (see right-hand column). Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mixed Motives: American Eugenics and Women's Campaigns

Discussions with Vermont librarians about the Vermont Eugenics Project -- the bitter historical reality underlying The Darkness Under the Water -- often come, with sorrow, to Vermont author Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Author of Understood Betsy and many other well-loved children's books, Fisher also wrote abundantly for adults. She campaigned for sensible future plans for her adopted home state (like many another "flatlander" turned Vermont taxpayer). In the early 1900s she saw the potential for tourism as a major revenue source for Vermont and urged a program of preparation, including tidying the landscape. Her thinking led her to approve of a Vermont peopled by camera-ready Yankee farmers, making do, polishing kitchens, and speaking in similar dialects. And her influence in the political and social world of her day contributed to the mood in which Vermont legislators finally passed a law that allowed invasive surgery of women who "shouldn't have more children." The point was, to clean up the people -- that's what eugenics means.

With hindsight, we can see what a terrible law this was. And we can see the errors in thinking that led to it. But at the time, many "good people" were clueless about the evil that it authorized.

Today's Boston Globe includes a review of the book America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation by Elaine Tyler May. Reviewer Kate Tuttle points to the book's discussion of Margaret Sanger. Sanger campaigned for teaching "sex education" and for making birth control available to women. She saw it as a way to free women from repeated unplanned pregnancies, with all the serious health effects and limits of life choices that came with those. But like Fisher, Sanger also saw birth control as something to be imposed on the poor, the uneducated, and in a wider vision, on people she saw as undesirable. Although she didn't have a direct role in what happened in Vermont, she worked hard to make sure eugenics laws were discussed and passed in many states. Thirty-one states eventually had some version of eugenics laws.

As I think about these women who worked so hard for social change -- and who also helped make possible laws that are now seen clearly as unjust, creating terror and pain -- I think also about the power of women and their capacity to keep trying. Clearly, we all need to listen to each other, and keep widening our own vision and understanding. Let's resolve to do our best to test our ideas not just among our friends, but out in the wide world of difference. The Internet makes this possible in ways that couldn't have been imagined a hundred years ago.

Photo: Margaret Sanger.

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