Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Klaver, Elizabeth


This dissertation examines how American writers in the 1920s demonstrated the eugenic influence on motherhood through fictional representations of violent resistance. My project charts the ways in which fictional, dramatic, and cinematic texts displayed negative visualizations of maternity as a response to the early twentieth-century preoccupation with eugenics. In this project, I argue that these methods of opposition took place through actions of child abuse, maternal neglect, and infanticide. Part of this dissertation identifies eugenically motivated cultural discourse, including various forms of the media, that used both overt and subliminal messages to encourage pronatalism among the white upper and middle classes while promoting sterilization and the use of birth control for minority populations. By addressing this rhetoric, I draw attention to the pervading dialogue that influenced and shaped the texts used in the dissertation. In addition, to analyze depictions of positive and negative eugenics is to reveal a social policy powerful enough to go beyond issues of class and race and drastically impact American mothers as a united group; instead of being labeled as a problem of race, color, or class, I argue instead that these American modernist writers interpreted eugenic rhetoric as a problem of gender, common to any woman who found herself with child. While many studies exist on eugenics and literature, as well as on motherhood and literature, the combination of the two topics is one that has previously gone unanalyzed. Therefore, addressing the problems raised by this subject also highlights how both male and female writers were compelled to construct situations of subversive mothering. By situating my project in the 1920-1930 time frame, I limit my commentary to how writers approached eugenics during its most popular and influential time period in the United States. My chapters argue that these constructs of subversive motherhood appear through cinematic portrayals of dysgenic children and the negative effects on their maternal figures (The Phantom of the Opera and The Black Stork), unhappiness in the role of mother and outward expressions of anger toward the offspring in question (Edith Summers Kelley's Weeds), decisive participation in the act of abortion and infanticide (Nella Larsen's Quicksand), and daughters who refuse to participate in the act of mothering because of their negative upbringings (Edith Wharton's The Children). By incorporating the genres of fiction, drama, and cinema alongside historical and cultural documents, I inform my audience of the threatening and harmful realities of childbearing during this time period, and will show that the connection between eugenics and motherhood reflects a desire of American writers to reveal the grim repercussions of eugenic practice.




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