Framing Healthy Families

This is a short research prospectus for a graduate seminar that I am currently taking. Over the next few weeks this will develop into a paper that examines eugenics and the “normal (healthy) family” through [the lens of] instructional film. I have revised it very slightly to make it more readable in a digital format. I am interested in feedback and thoughts about the questions posed, the sources, etc.

At once progressive and conservative, with roots in science, medicine, politics and education, eugenics impacted the daily life and everyday worldview of countless Americans (and more around the world). Starting in the 1930s, eugenics took on a new character in the United States. Interested in defining reproduction not as an individual right, but as a matter of far-reaching social import — and a privilege that could be taken away — eugenicists sought to limit motherhood to those with the most to contribute to the betterment of the race (implicitly meaning white and middle class), and to normalize sex and gender roles.

Eugenicists took every opportunity to extol the benefits of careful planning and screening (both psychological and physiological) of marriage partners to ensure the greatest likelihood of marital happiness and compatibility — and thereby reproductive productivity. American high schools and colleges became one focus for the eugenic campaign, as these young adults were cast as the future of America. This research project will examine the ways in which eugenics shaped portrayals of sex, marriage, and family through educational film. The primary question asks to what extent portrayals of healthy relationships and families in educational films had a hand in defining and normalizing sexuality, motherhood, and marriage between 1930 and 1960.

This project will also examine to what extent educational films may have impacted high school and college students’ views of marriage and reproduction. The baby boom of the mid-1940s through the 1950s implies that the eugenic mission may have succeeded, at least among its target audience of white, middle-class, men and women. But the many other potential explanations for the post-war increase in the birth rate makes it challenging to isolate eugenic ideology — let alone its specific manifestation in educational films — as a significant factor. This paper will explore the educational literature, as well as available trade publications and material produced by the many eugenic organizations around the country, in an effort to determine the student response to educational films during this period.

This study will begin by situating the eugenics movement of the late 1920s and early 1930s within its social and scientific antecedents. It will briefly examine the eugenics of the early twentieth century as it grew out of fears of social decline and focused on preventing the “unfit” from reproduction through institutionalization (segregation) and sterilization. This overview will close with a discussion of the challenges eugenic supporters faced by the end of the 1920s.

Discussion of the late 1920s and the 1930s will position this research with recent scholarship by rejecting the notion that eugenics died out in the 1930s. By that time, social scientists found increasing support in academia for the primacy of culture (nurture) over biology (nature), and geneticists had evidence that cast doubt on the ability to eliminate traits by selective reproduction. These developments, combined with increasing opprobrium of Nazi eugenic programs, led many scholars to mark the 1930s as the decline of eugenics in the United States.[1] This paper will contribute to the argument that between 1930 and 1960 eugenicists actually expanded the program that started with segregation and sterilization to include family planning, tests for sexual deviance, marriage counseling, and education programs in sex, hygiene, and home economics with the goal of “family regulation in the interests of the parents, the offspring, and the race.”[2] Scholars refer to this shift as a move from “negative” to “positive” eugenics.

The next section of Framing Healthy Families will examine the ways in which positive eugenics helped to redefine sexuality, motherhood, and marriage in the post-war years.[3] While maintaining support for the effects of negative eugenics (sterilization legislation, immigration restriction, and bans on interracial marriage) eugenicists in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s turned their attention to defining motherhood as a privilege afforded only to those whose reproduction would benefit the future of the race. This opened the door for eugenicists to become increasingly involved in depicting the “normal” in sexuality, motherhood, and the family; and in helping “fit” couples achieve that normality, and thus find fulfillment and happiness.

The next piece will explore eugenicist’s efforts to instruct Americans on the correct path to “normal” relationships. It will examine educational efforts to teach men and women in high school and college the proper behaviors with regard to sex, motherhood, and the family. This portion will begin by looking at more traditional modes of education, such as textbooks, and will continue by investigating the use and utility of instructional film in the classroom.

Discussion of instructional film will lead into examination of educational films focused on topics such as dating, sex, marriage, and parenthood. These films generally run the gamut from social advice, to marriage counseling, to sexual hygiene and the dangers of premarital relations. This research project will explore these films for evidence of eugenically informed discourse, advice, and proscriptions. Additionally, the visual representation of healthy families and relationships as depicted in the films will be analyzed and compared to descriptions of marriages and relationships in eugenic literature. Framing Healthy Families will explore the ways in which instructional films emphasized specific — eugenically defined — concepts of “normal” in gender roles and identities, sexual relations, relationships, marriage, and reproduction to encompass an understanding of the “eugenic family.”

This project will close with an exploration of the impacts of educational film on American young adults between 1930 and 1960. The goal is to determine the potential import of instructional films on the social and interpersonal relationships of men and women who would go on to live through — and possibly participate in — the dramatic increase in the birth rate over the ensuing decades, now referred to as the baby boom.

1. Carl N. Degler, In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought (Oxford University Press US, 1992); Mark Haller, Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1963).

2. Robert Dickinson, “The Birth Control Clinic of Today and Tomorrow,” Eugenics 2 (May 1929): 9-10, quoted in Wendy Kline, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 66.

3. Kline, Building a Better Race, 95-100, 124-156.