Anna Garlin Spencer

Today Anna Garlin Spencer (1851-1931) is remembered as a fighter for women’s rights—especially the right to vote and the right to receive an education—and for world peace.

Recently, however, I came across a quotation that throws a different and less flattering light on her life and work. Its source is a book by David Starr Jordan (also 1851-1931), an ichthyologist by trade, and also founding President of Stanford between 1891 and 1916. Jordan was a skeptic in some areas about what he called “sciosophy” (roughly equivalent to today’s “pseudoscience”), and wrote an influential book criticizing it called The Higher Foolishness. But he was not skeptical about eugenics. Jordan was also a pacifist, and a pacifist because he was a eugenicist: he thought that wars consistently kill off “the flower of youth”—the best young men in every generation—while leaving the morally and intellectually less gifted, in short the more unfit, to survive, to father children, and so to allow their genes to be passed down to future generations. The inevitable result of war, he argued, is that “the race” becomes weaker in every way.

Jordan served on the board of “The Human Betterment Foundation” which advocated forced sterilization of “the unfit”, and he also wrote several essays and books promoting his eugenicist ideas, perhaps the most famous being The Blood of the Nation: A study of the decay of races through the survival of the unfit (1902). In 1915 Starr wrote a book to popularize his ideas, called War and the Breed: the relation of war to the downfall of nations. It is in this book, on p121, that he quotes Garlin Spencer approvingly, as follows:

“Women bear the chief burden of personal care of the young, the undeveloped, the frail and sick, the aged, the feeble-minded, the socially incompetent. They have had to bear that burden ever since social sympathy forbade the strong to kill the weak by fiat of the state. This process of social protection of the incompetent has unquestionably lowered the average standard in human quality where it has worked unmodified by some science and art of race culture. War — and all that makes for war — is the worst hindrance to the attempt to relieve women of this overmastering burden of administering philanthropy, and to give her time and opportunity for her organic function of teaching and developing the normal and super-excellent specimens of the race. Not only does it destroy uselessly all the common wealth of humanity so terribly needed for projecting and realizing the social control that can truly advance individual life, but it deliberately and monstrously aids that ‘breeding downward’ which is the bane of civilization. . . . It is because of women’s peculiar functional relation to the social demand for race integrity and race culture that enlightened women must hate war and all that makes for war. It sinks under waves of bestiality and passion those ideals on which respect for womanhood and tender regard for the child have fibered the later progress of the race.”

This quotation is sourced (in a footnote) to a publication called The Independent, which so far I have not been able to locate. More information, and even the complete article from which the quotation is taken, may perhaps be found amongst Spencer’s collected papers, now housed at Swarthmore College. The pamphlet from which I got this information (published by Scholarly Resources Inc., 2005) also states that these are available only on microfiche. The pamphlet describes Garlin Spencer and her life like this:

“Anna Carpenter Garlin Spencer (1851-1931) was a minister, feminist, educator, pacifist, and writer on ethics and social problems. Perhaps inspired by the examples of her abolitionist mother, Nancy Carpenter Garlin, and her aunt, Sarah Carpenter, a missionary who worked with homeless women, Spencer dedicated her life to social reform. She was the first woman minister in Rhode Island, serving in Providence from 1819 to 1902 at the Bell Street Chapel, a liberal, nondenominational ethical church.

“Anna Garlin was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, in 1851 and spent her youth in that state and in Rhode Island. In 1869 she began writing for the Providence Journal, as well as teaching in the public schools. She remained a journalist until 1878 when she married the Rev. William H. Spencer, a Unitarian minister. From 1902 until her death, Spencer held a series of teaching posts at such institutions as the University of Wisconsin, the University of Chicago, and Teacher s College at Columbia University. She taught on issues of religion, marriage and family, the role of women, sexuality, and philanthropy.

“Spencer was active in the cause of women s rights for more than forty years. She was a friend of well-known feminists, including Susan B. Anthony, Ednah Cheney, Lucy Stone, and Valeria H. Parker. In the 1890s she served as president of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association. An early participant in the National Council of Women, Spencer was also president of that organization in 1920.

“Her interest in pacifism led Spencer to prominent positions in the cause for peace. She was on the Executive Committee of the National Peace and Arbitration Congress in 1907 and was a founding member of the Woman s Peace Party in 1915, serving as vice chairman. In 1919 she also became the first chairman of the national board of the Women s International League for Peace and Freedom.

“Spencer died at her home in New York in 1931.”

Only those phrases ‘writer on ethics and social problems’ and ‘the role of women’ might conceal Spencer’s eugenicist past. I would like to be able to pursue this point, but COVID-19 and my own unfitness make it impossible. Perhaps Garlin Spencer is as well known as a eugenicist as, say, Marie Stopes, who expressed similar opinions not only about the burden placed on women by unwanted children, but also about the burden placed on society by allowing the ‘degenerate, feeble-minded and unbalanced’, ‘the hopelessly rotten and racially diseased’, to have children. If an expert on Garlin Spencer reads this, I would welcome more information.

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