Hopkinsville Community College English instructor and author Elizabeth Burton recently received a $1,000 Kentucky Foundation for Women Artist Enrichment Grant to complete the research for her novel.
The Kentucky Foundation for Women awarded 44 Artist Enrichment grants totaling $164,960 to commonwealth feminist artists and arts organizations committed to creating positive social change throughout the state.
Burton’s novel focuses on the eugenics movement of the 20th Century. Eugenics is the study of improving the qualities of the human population by discouraging reproduction by people with genetic defects or inheritable “undesirable” traits or encouraging reproduction by people with inheritable “desirable” traits. As a result of this movement, thousands of people were involuntarily sterilized.
“It’s such an important topic and I don’t think many people are aware of all of the health issues that women faced in Kentucky,” said Sharon LaRue, executive director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women. “Just the fact that she’s willing to branch out and tackle this really important issue is very important to us.”
The historyBurton first heard about eugenics and the involuntary sterilizations about six years ago while listening to a National Public Radio program.
“I had never heard about it before,” she said. “It was a part of history that had completely escaped me.”
Both men and women who were targeted in this program were deemed “feeble minded,” poor, promiscuous, some were minorities or considered poor students, among other “undesirable” traits.
According to historical records, state and local governments sanctioned eugenics programs before World War II and into the Civil Rights Era. Some women from the Appalachian region of the U.S. were also included in the involuntary sterilizations, Burton noted.
“The thought went through my head that that could be my ancestors. I’m from eastern Kentucky,” Burton said. “I realized I had a personal connection to it. I realized if I had been alive (at that time), it could have been me. I come from generations of poor eastern Kentucky school teachers. We probably would have been considered undesirables ourselves.”
Burton added that her grandmother was a victim of a eugenics doctor.
“He thought my grandparents had too many children,” she said. “They had two children and they were poor eastern Kentucky school teachers. He tried to give my grandmother a drug to abort my mother without telling my grandmother she was pregnant.”
Burton said her grandmother took the drug once, but a relative stopped further doses. As a result, Burton’s mother was born prematurely with pneumonia and suffered with several health issues throughout her life.
“That personal connection just got to me and I knew I had to write about it,” Burton said.
The storyIn Burton’s novel, the protagonist is a fictionalized 14-year-old girl who is wrongfully deemed to be promiscuous by eugenics officials in 1950s North Carolina.
“She is forcibly sterilized … via tubal ligation,” Burton said of her character. “That’s just the start of her story.”
After her fiance rejects her, the teen sells her engagement ring and takes a bus to Hopkinsville, Kentucky.
“That starts the hopeful part of the novel,” Burton said.
Working with an editor Kirby Gann of Louisville, Burton said she is in the editing stage of the first part of her three-part novel. She anticipates the book will fill 280-300 pages.
Burton plans to use the KFW grant to finance a research trip to the areas of North Carolina where the involuntary sterilizations took place in the 1950s.
She hopes to finish her draft this summer.
Social changeRecent news reports reveal that eugenics-influenced practices still may be present in today’s society. The Macon Telegraph references eugenics history in a September 2020 article about allegations of mass hysterectomies of Spanish-speaking women at the Irwin County Detention Center in southern Georgia.
“The idea that some people have better genes than others, that some people are just born better than others, those are very much eugenics ideas,” Burton said. “When those things are coming out again, it shows me that eugenics never went away.”
Burton hopes her novel educates people about eugenics and leads to social awareness and change.
“There’s dangerous ideas out there,” Burton said. “I want to let people know what actually happened in history. Secondly, I want to make sure that people at least have a seed in their consciousness to be able to recognize these ideas in present day society — and reject them.”