- Bad Girls at Samarcand: Sexuality and Sterilization in a Southern Juvenile Reformatory by Karin L. Zipf
The long running debate about whether crime results from pressures in society or flaws in individuals, nurture or nature, has given rise to some very cruel and discredited public policies. More specifically, the labeling theory of crime says that an act or behavior is not inherently criminal or deviant but rather is the result of socially imposed meaning or labels. Labels such as "unfit," "subnormal," "menace," "feebleminded," and "scientific" explain as much about the creators as the target population. Karin L. Zipf shows that state welfare officials in North Carolina were so concerned about maintaining white supremacy that they embraced sterilization of "unfit" poor, white girls committed to Samarcand juvenile reformatory. While other historians have shown eugenic policies disproportionately affecting youths of color, this study is about whites implementing policies to control other whites. These eugenics policies reflected a "class-based white purity campaign" to regulate the sexuality of poor girls (3).
In a sign of their desperation to escape the conditions of their incarceration at Samarcand, in 1931 several girls started fires in the dormitories and then also again at their jail cells. These fires prompted the change in institutional rationale away from reforming its charges to more sinister goals. Beginning in 1933 state welfare officials and reformatory administrators took the opportunity to label the inmates "subnormal" because of their outrageous arson attacks and began classifying female inmates in order to determine which ones should be sterilized.
After introducing the public coverage of the fires, the study is organized chronologically but with three key chapters: before the arsons, during the trial, and after the arson trial. In chapter four, Zipf shows that Kate Burr Johnson, the Commissioner for Public Welfare from 1921 to 1930, provided institutional legitimacy for preserving white supremacy and purity by controlling and reforming the sexuality of poor white girls. Chapter six explains the 1931 fires set by inmates at both Samarcand and the local jail and the subsequent very public arson case that served as the example of how truly bad the bad girls were. The intellectual groundwork in place to justify sexual control, combined with the outrageous behavior of the girls, led to the embrace of explicit eugenics policies. In chapter seven, Zipf demonstrates that Grace M. Robson, the Samarcand [End Page 426] superintendent from 1934 to 1944, advocated psychological testing and classification in order to determine who should be sterilized. Between 1929 and 1950, 293 girls at Samarcand were sterilized. Almost three-quarters of those sterilizations at Samarcand happened during Robson's tenure. Of all the state-sponsored sterilizations in North Carolina, 12 percent happened at Samarcand (156).
Due to the sensitive nature of the issues and inaccessibility of case files, Zipf explains "this study required creative use of state records," including official documents from the State Board of Health, State Board of Charities and Public Welfare, the Eugenics Commission, and Public Laws (5). Zipf also used non-institutional sources such as newspapers, movies, and editorial cartoons to explain the cultural context. This study has summary evidence about the social characteristics of the girls. It has direct evidence about sterilization as a desirable policy from those who promoted it. But the author does not have evidence about the sterilized girls. This absence is disappointing since so much juvenile justice research has benefited from the social history approach and empirical use of case files. We know these sterilizations happened, but we do not know what the girls or their families thought of it.
Zipf's findings point the way for more research about both the girls themselves and about the implementation of eugenic policies. The patterns of female juvenile delinquency and characteristics of the girls at Samarcand are consistent with those in other places (Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis). Intelligence testing and classification were routine in many juvenile systems in America. But how widespread was sterilization as a response to female delinquency? Uncovering eugenics principles as...