Vermont was one of many U.S. states in the early 1900s seeking to remove, from the gene pool, people that had been deemed ‘undesirable’. A Dartmouth graduate examines in a new book precisely how the Green Mountain State did so.
A since-overturned 1931 Vermont law permitted sterilization for reasons of eugenics — controlled, selective breeding to improve humankind. The measure required written proof that the procedure had been agreed to voluntarily. However, in practice, many sterilizations performed under the law were not consensual.
“You are targeting both children and then, also, people who are considered mentally disabled, so there’s this question of ‘are you actually able to give consent?’,” author Mercedes de Guardiola said. “And we do have records that suggest in many of these cases that it was coercive.”
De Guardiola has spent years researching eugenics in Vermont and documents her findings in “Vermont for the Vermonters”. The findings also include registration, supervision and segregation.
“Under eugenics, it was actually meant to separate out populations that were considered ‘undesirable’ from the normal population so that they could not procreate,” de Guardiola said.
That particular plank of Vermont’s eugenics platform led to mass institutionalization at facilities such as the Waterbury State Hospital.
“We know from several (Waterbury Hospital) superintendents’ records that they intended certain people under their population (to) be kept here for life-long commitments so that they would be prevented from procreation,” de Guardiola said.
The Vermont Historical Society has published the book. A staff member said “Vermont for the Vermonters” presents an opportunity to learn from the past, citing the fact that his own formal education in the Green Mountain State never touched upon the effects of eugenics.
“There’s a tendency when we’re talking about history to sort of glorify the past and to try to imagine better days with nostalgia and rose-colored glasses and whatnot,” VHS public relations and guest services coordinator Andrew Liptak said. “But history is not always pleasant.”
Vermont is also still coping with eugenics. Five years ago, the University of Vermont stripped former school president Guy Bailey’s name from its library because of his role in the eugenics movement. Lawmakers formally apologized two years ago to all Vermonters harmed by eugenics policies.
Last month, the Vermont Truth and Reconciliation Commission met for the first time. The group will document forms of state-sanctioned discrimination, including eugenics, and recommend ways to repair the damage they caused.
In 2021, Middlebury College removed from its chapel the name of former Gov. John Mead, the first known Vermont leader to publicly support eugenics. Mead did so on his final day in office in October of 1912 during his farewell address to the legislature.
Former Gov. Jim Douglas filed a lawsuit against Middlebury in March. Douglas argues the college has violated an agreement to name the chapel after Mead’s family, claiming the 2021 decision is a symptom of cancel culture. The case is pending in the courts.
An extended version of the interview with de Guardiola for this story will form the basis of an upcoming installment of This Place in History, which airs each Thursday on ABC 22 and Fox 44. The installment on eugenics and “Vermont for the Vermonters” is expected to air on Thursday, October 26.