The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (review)
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The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. By Susan M. Schweik. (New York: New York University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 431. $45.00 cloth; $24.00 paper)

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, a rash of municipal governments across the United States passed so-called "unsightly beggar ordinances," laws that prohibited "diseased, maimed, and deformed" persons from exposing themselves to public view. Though seldom and unevenly enforced, the appearance of these [End Page 428] remarkable laws indexed a range of contemporary concerns in a historical moment of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Susan M. Schweik's fascinating account of the cultural context and import of the laws will prove useful not only to those interested in the laws per se, but to anyone with an investment in disability history, labor history, and conditions in post–Civil War American urban spaces.

The Ugly Laws traces the ordinances from their earliest appearance in San Francisco in 1867 through their heyday in Midwestern cities in the 1880s and 1890s. While municipal governments seem to have ceased enacting the laws by World War I, a policeman in Omaha, Nebraska, made an arrest under one such statue as recently as 1974, highlighting Schweik's assertion that we must look to the past not only for the disjunctions but also for the continuities with the present. In the opening sections of the book, Schweik examines two key factors that contributed to the emergence of the ordinances—the growth of the organized charity movement and the fears about labor unrest that coalesced around the figure of the disabled beggar—before opening onto a dazzling array of other important contributors: Foucauldian biopower and the rise of state institutions, the City Beautiful movement, and the development of tort law.

In part 2, Schweik provides a corrective to cultural memory of the law that has rendered the "unsightly beggar" in abstract terms, examining the discourses of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and race that surrounded the ordinances. Drawing on the felicitous connection between intersectional models of identity and the city intersections policed by the laws, Schweik analyzes, for example, their relation to measures banning cross-dressing, prostitution, and other sex and gender transgressions. Pointing out that the peak years of the enactment of such laws coincided with the height of Jim Crow and with massive immigration restrictions, Schweik also reads the unsightly beggar ordinances as imbricated with other spatial regulations, such as segregation and the quarantine. Part 3 traces opposition to the laws both at the moment of their decline and in the contemporary era, when disability activists and scholars have begun to more systematically [End Page 429] dismantle their legacy.

Schweik is clearly at ease in the archive, and the wide range of sources she addresses—from police orders to medical treatises to case law—sheds new light on the category of disability. She productively uses archival idiosyncrasies, such as the ambiguity in the Chicago records surrounding who was arrested merely for begging and who for begging-while-disabled, to argue that "panhandling provoked crises of interpretation" that illuminate "the performativity of disability as a visual practice" (pp. 36-37). Her considerable theoretical sophistication is complemented by an adventurous spirit of inquiry which insists, for example, on taking the possibility of the sham disabled beggar seriously and assessing the implications for such fundamental topics as the social construction of disability.

One of the most important contributions of Schweik's analysis is her attention to the role of the unsightly-beggar ordinances in disability historiography. The disability movement, she contends, has tended to evacuate the beggar from the scene, focusing instead on the anachronistic descriptor of ugliness first used by legal scholars in the 1970s. "The point here," Schweik argues, "is not to allow 'labor' or 'poverty' or 'economic justice' issues to overtake or obscure 'disability' issues. The point is to recognize that it is precisely at this arresting intersection that the subject of the ugly law stands" (p. 61). Indeed, the range of concerns illuminated by Schweik's materialist and historicist focus on the ordinances proves that The Ugly Laws has succeeded, as the book's poignant last words put it, in "show[ing] how much...


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