Laura L. Lovett’s historical work explores the role of family and childhood in twentieth-century American political history. Her 2007 book, Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890-1938, uncovered the role that family and home ideologies played in a number of turn-the-twentieth-century state policies. Seemingly neutral parts of American infrastructure—national parks, water policy, or housing programs—were in fact created to promote the ideal American family, one that was rural, white, and Protestant. I spoke with with Professor Lovett on the sacredness of home and its influence on American attitudes to race and immigration.
—Myrna Perez Sheldon for Cosmologics
Cosmologics: Conceiving the Future explored the political influence exerted by early twentieth-century American nostalgia for home and family. Could you speak to how ideals of family and of home have shaped understandings of the American nation? That is, how has the idealization of the American family shaped the way that the United States responds to immigrant communities?
Laura L. Lovett: Our idealization of family and home created the unquestionable basis of our common ideology. And when we have an ideal that is unquestioned—the home, the family, country life, at the turn of the last century—it creates a weapon for use against anyone who seems to challenge those structures.
…there is something so sacrosanct about how we understand family, and about how we understand home that these ideals are entirely unquestioned and then weaponized.
Cosmologics: Your point about how this is unquestioned and unquestionable seems to reflect something in contemporary culture. The sacredness of family and of home is so strong that, even though some in the public sphere might argue against nativism, they still don’t argue against those ideals. There is never a moment where someone says, maybe we need to question the ethics of security of itself, or the ethics of home itself.
Laura L. Lovett: Absolutely. You can see it in how our immigration policy is rooted in the notion of family reunification. And, in fact, there is something so sacrosanct about how we understand family, and about how we understand home, that these ideals are entirely unquestioned and then weaponized.
Cosmologics: Through so much of American history the issues of race and immigration have been paired together. Do you think that we continue to have the same conversations on these topics as in earlier periods of American history, or has public debate shifted?
Laura L. Lovett: I think the debate is occurring along similar lines. We see it today in the anxiety around “anchor babies,” the anxiety around migration the Sierra Club fostered—related to resources, population, and movement—the discussion right now around Defferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA) (who is eligible, what are the implications). I see all these as rooted in the same logics from the turn of the century; in the very notion that there are only so many resources. The same logic informs the naive notion that Trump is using, that if we close the borders that we’ll fix the job situation. Which is is unfounded. The fact that he came into politics by invoking Obama’s immigrant background, by promoting birtherism, is terrible.
Cosmologics: Your historical work examines American eugenics as a kind of ethos rather than something technical or scientific. Given that, do you see eugenics as distinct from ideologies of American nativism, or as a manifestation of it?
Laura L. Lovett: I absolutely see them paired with one another. In the early twentieth century, for instance, the tools of eugenics coincided with the ideological tools of nativism. Take the emergence of the census. I always talk to my students about how amazing it was, that when the census was created it becomes possible to understand a population in terms of its demographic proclivity; it’s an entirely new moment. It’s like Google Earth—a whole different perspective. This new perspective offered a new site of social control that was taken up by both nativists and eugenicists. Importantly, when we talk about immigration restriction, we usually don’t discuss the way that land and home ownership is supported by the state in the first place, or the way that demographic shifts are created by state policy.
Cosmologics: One of the difficult lessons from the history of eugenics is that women’s rights has often been framed in terms of racial uplift. How do you as a historian interface with the current political situation, knowing the complexity of that history?
Laura L. Lovett: I think we have to begin by acknowledging it. We have to begin with that knowledge and understanding, or we risk reproducing that history. We saw it, for instance, in the controversy that Planned Parenthood was involved with, when a series of anti-abortion billboards came out that highlighted higher rates of African-American abortions. In fact, SisterSong, a women of color reproductive justice collective was targeted by those billboards. Because Planned Parenthood wouldn’t get ahead of the issue, because they wouldn’t acknowledge the relationship between early birth control advocates such as Margaret Sanger and eugenics, they opened the gate for an attack. By ignoring this history, we allow it to be co-opted and to be used against people who really are trying to work for reproductive justice.
But that’s the lesson we have to learn from this history; if we don’t own it, if we don’t acknowledge it, if we don’t recognize it, that both right and left have these uncomfortable, overlapping moments, then we are doomed to simplify and reproduce structures that are discriminatory.
Cosmologics: Something we often now struggle with is that fact that the historical actors who are most active in eugenic policies are scientifically-minded, left-leaning, and liberal reformers. How do you think history should be contended with, given also the reality of reactionary right-wing political movements?
Laura L. Lovett: The history is devastating. Many eugenicists worked in a populist, anti-corporate mode—realizing this can be wholly disappointing, especially for students. But, when I give a big lecture on eugenics in our genetics course, it’s often the students who are interested in disability issues who engaged with this history and really force us to interrogate the assumptions we continue to make about effective health care and reproduction.
At some level, our struggle with this history reflects our discomfort with complex educational processes. My involvement with Sister Song on the billboard campaign was really about the fact that Planned Parenthood had not gotten in front of this issue. It could fuel, especially through a religious lens, attacks on clinics in the South and Midwest that were located in communities of color.
But that’s the lesson we have to learn from this history; if we don’t own it, if we don’t acknowledge it, if we don’t recognize it, that both right and left have these uncomfortable, overlapping moments, then we are doomed to simplify and reproduce structures that are discriminatory. I think that if you don’t have some faith that complex conversations have to (and can) take place, you lose. It’s hard to say this when our president-elect’s tweets are public policies.
Cosmologics: Speaking of presidents, in Conceiving the Future, you discuss Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment to a rural America that was simultaneously a commitment to a white America. How much do you think that he, as the president, was able to influence a vision of America—a vision that rejected racial diversity?
Laura L. Lovett: He really captured a political moment. He tackled these notions—home, family, and so on—right along with policy, creating national parks, funding rural school movements, our basic water policy, etc. He was able to create infrastructure and policies that continue to influence us.
However, as I’m answering you, I realize I am more hopeful that I thought, because something that President Obama has done is to force us to think about how complex our history is and to acknowledge it. I saw that particularly at the end of his presidency, as he moved to the fore on issue of race.
So in fact, it’s encouraging that we have this history to learn from, so that we can call out things in our contemporary setting, and have those needed and complex conversations about immigration, race, healthcare, and climate change.
Laura L. Lovett is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Myrna Perez Sheldon is co-editor of Cosmologics and Assistant Professor in Classics & World Religions and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Ohio University.
Image from Flickr via Rachel Knickmeyer