- Intersecting Histories of Gender, Race, and Disability
Over the past few decades, historians of gender and race have become increasingly aware of the interconnections between their fields of study. In keeping with the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of “intersectionality,” they are exploring the confluence of race, gender, sexuality, and class in their subjects’ lives.1 At the same time, the burgeoning field of disability studies has produced fascinating scholarship on the social construction of ability and disability, the pervasive power of normative notions such as “ablebodiedness” to limit citizenship, and American society’s refusal to engage with those whose bodies or minds may not fit the norm. Scholars of disability have examined gender as a category of analysis, exploring how notions of disability play into ideas about weak females, effeminate men, or sex-indeterminate “inverts.” Most scholars of disability in the United States thus far have neglected to take race into account, and scholars of race and gender have not delved into disability theory or histories. Fortunately, the four books under review here make substantive contributions to a more interconnected history.
Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States pulls together the most path-breaking intersectional research to provide an excellent overview of American history through the lens of disability history, highlighting the important ways in which disability history enriches the histories of race and gender. Nielsen explains that while disabilities are real, what people perceive to be “disabilities” changes over time and is socially constructed. [End Page 178] Although some cultures accept and accommodate people with disabilities, more often than not, Americans have feared and stigmatized disabilities, equating them with dependency and incapacity for full citizenship. Not only do many people have what we currently understand to be physical and mental disabilities, Nielsen points out that at various moments throughout American history “African Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, poor people, and women have been defined categorically as defective citizens incapable of full civic participation” (xii). The scope of her study is wide-sweeping and synthetic, beginning with indigenous North America, pre-European contact, and concluding with the post-1968 disability rights movement.
From the moment colonists introduced slavery into North America, they justified it by claiming that “Africans brought to North America were by definition disabled” and unable to care for themselves (42). Captured and enslaved Africans faced the excruciating and perilous middle passage; if they survived, they encountered many potentially disabling situations, from severe punishment to work-related injuries. Although whites viewed all slaves as disabled by virtue of their race and condition of servitude, only those whom they deemed unfit for labor were considered “damaged goods” (46).
Just as ideas about race and disability helped to justify slavery, so too did they inform debates about immigration. The U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1882, for instance, mandating that immigrants be screened and excluded if they appeared to be “unable to take care of [themselves] without becoming a public charge” (103). Nielsen rightly notes that increased immigration from Southern and Eastern European countries made many native-born white Americans nervous about maintaining racial purity, yet she misses an opportunity to highlight the links between white society’s fears of the physically and mentally disabled (a concept that included “sexual perversion,” or homosexuality), and its fears of racial others. Although she mentions the 1875 Page Law, Nielsen does not identify it as the first immigration law to single out Asian female immigrants as probable prostitutes who should...