For the past one hundred years, virtually every generation of Americans has seemed determined to discover a “girl problem.” And the problem—whether cast as precocious maturity, teen pregnancy, or ribald public behavior—has almost always been rooted in girls’ sexuality. In Defining Deviance, Michael A. Rembis uses the State Training School for Girls in Geneva, Illinois, as a case study to examine how Progressive era reformers sought to define, and confine, girls who they believed were a threat to both the state and the “race.” Reformers, male and female, combined middle-class notions of sexual morality with the language of eugenics, which was ubiquitous in early twentieth-century [End Page 320] America, to construct a problematic girl whose sexual delinquency and “feeblemindedness” were mutually constitutive. Illinois was not alone in its anxiety about this “menace”—forty-three states had established institutions for the feeble-minded by the mid-1920s—but it was at the fore, passing one of the nation’s first eugenic commitment laws in July 1915.
Defining Deviance is a slim volume, 130 pages divided into six chapters, leaving the author scant room to flesh out all of the intriguing arguments he raises in the introduction. Although Rembis repeatedly stresses that his is not an institutional history, he has uncovered a fascinating case in the Geneva Training School. Rembis, a scholar of disability studies, brings an admirably ambitious agenda to bear on his story: his work’s stated purpose is “to reveal the centrality of sex, class, gender, and disability in the formation of both scientific and social reform discourse” (3). But such broad concepts are arguably best understood in their particular interrelationships and most clearly revealed when they are articulated by individuals in pursuit of specific social and political goals. Rembis does a fantastic job, for example, in detailing how the administrators and physicians who supported Geneva fused together their judgments about girls’ intellect, character, and virtue, creating a category of sexual, social, and cultural disability that locked girls into a virtually inescapable institutional grip. He also shows that despite a nationwide movement away from belief in a strictly hereditary determinism over the interwar and World War II eras, the staff at Geneva remained convinced of the eugenic underpinning of girls’ alleged sexual misconduct and inferior intellect. Here more of an institutional history would have served him well, as the institution displayed such a unique position.
The first three chapters of the book trace the development and enactment of the 1915 involuntary commitment law, and chronicle young women’s experience as they were classified by new social service agencies such as the Juvenile Protective Association, adjudicated by Chicago’s juvenile courts, and remanded to institutions, including the Illinois Colony for the Feebleminded, later renamed the Lincoln State School. Much of the national backdrop to these chapters, from the doings of Eugenics Record Office field workers and the US Army’s use of intelligence testing on World War I recruits, is familiar historical terrain. But Rembis is particularly interested in the ways in which newly professionalized women took up the cause of eugenic commitment as their own. He is perfectly correct to focus on these women, who while not part of the national eugenic intelligentsia were nevertheless important to the continued commitment to eugenic principles since they served as field workers, administrators, case workers, and judges. Although he carefully documents their presence, Rembis does not fully explain why and precisely how they involved themselves in Geneva. Was it just one more new employment opportunity for newly professionalized Progressive era women? Or did these arguments that linked low intelligence and “deviant” sexuality to a dysgenic heredity among working-class and poor girls somehow help women [End Page 321] to justify their own presence in the professional workforce? Was it a way to exonerate their own daughters, who were being increasingly drawn into a highly sexualized consumer culture? Rembis passes over these questions but does not allot them the space they deserve.
Defining Deviance is at its...