“World-Menace”: National Reproduction and Public Health in Katherine Mayo’s Mother India
Abstract

U.S. journalist Katherine Mayo's Mother India sparked protests and debates across three continents when it was published in 1927. An imperialist polemic against Indian self-rule thinly disguised as a journalistic exposé, Mother India claimed to reveal “the truth about the sex life, child marriages, hygiene, cruelty, religious customs, of one-sixth of the world's population.” Mayo's muckraking journalism thus set out to dispel U.S. fascination with Indian culture and Hindu spirituality, exploiting Indian subaltern female suffering to justify both the continued British rule of India and the continued exclusion of Indians from U.S. citizenship. Through readings of Mother India and Mayo’s other writings, this essay suggests that Mayo maps the domestic issue of immigration onto the international terrain of imperialism to solidify a nativist nationalism. She draws on the scientific language of public health to argue that in a new era of global circulation of goods and bodies the United States must strengthen its borders to protect itself from the threat of disease Indian bodies contain. Imagining India as embodying a specifically sexual threat that must be kept in check, Mayo thus fashions a peculiarly U.S. version of imperial containment to segregate populations and police behaviors. By putting reproduction at the center of the question of sovereignty, however, she troubles reproductive practices at home as well as in India: her argument against Indian sovereignty ultimately rebounds upon U.S. women who similarly fail to fulfill their reproductive duties. Mayo's transnational optic thus reveals a United States in peril that can only be saved by a radically isolationist stance.


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