Commentary Media

‘Philomena,’ A Must-See Film About the Magdalene Laundries and Forced Adoptions

Karen Smith Rotabi

Philomena is another reminder of the vast inequalities between those who adopt children and birth mothers.

Philomena, starring Judi Dench and directed by Stephen Frears, received four Oscar nominations last week. The film is based on a true story chronicled in Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search. Captured is a little known piece of adoption history—the forcible removal of Irish children from their unwed mothers and then adoption by U.S. families. This extraordinary story illustrates the grave injustices of the Magdalene Laundries that were operated under the authority of the Catholic Church. Irish girls and women were forced into slave labor, working long hours cleaning in the laundries. The labor took place in hot, crowded, and generally miserable conditions.

The slavery that took place resulted in a recent legal agreement: The Irish government will now pay €58 million (nearly $79 million) to hundreds of the Magdalene Laundry survivors. Many of the survivors were adolescent girls who were sent to work while pregnant—sent to the Catholic sisters for repentance and remediation. The atrocities were such that Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, made an emotional apology. “Choking back tears,” he said, “This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.” To date, no such apology or financial settlement has yet to be made by the Catholic Church.

As the film adaptation of Philomena documents, the forced labor in the laundries was deemed necessary to pay for room and board as well as other expenses, such as the medical costs of childbirth. Because the documentation was poor and much of it was intentionally destroyed by the guilty nuns—who set fire to some of the records—various facts have been conveniently lost. As a result, the absolute numbers of children sent into illegal adoptions within and from Ireland to the United States and elsewhere is unknown today. However, the evidence is damning, as Magdalene survivors seek justice and document their histories, including their humiliating living conditions. Part of that evidence is being preserved historically while grave markers document the young women who did not survive the harsh treatment of slavery, poor medical care, and heartbreak of forced child removal and adoptions.

Philomena captures how force and fraud interfaced in illicit adoptions from Ireland to the United States, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Spain also has a scandal of child sales into adoption, orchestrated by members of the Catholic Church. Some of these Spanish children were also destined to the United States, and search and reunions are taking place in a handful of cases. In the case of Philomena, the main character’s reunion with her lost son has several twists that create suspense. Then there is the sadness of lost love, and it is undeniable.

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Philomena is another reminder of the vast inequalities between those who adopt children and birth mothers. Globally, this is a largely untold story in which some birth mothers have been exploited for reasons of poverty, social exclusion, and stigma. This has been true in South KoreaIndiaGuatemalaEl Salvador, and elsewhere, using a variety of child abduction techniques, and the consequences have been profound.

As Philomena illustrates, child abduction takes on many forms, and often those involved in the crime present themselves as “saviors” who are above reproach. Almost always those involved in the illicit practices are financially enriched while receiving applause for the “rescue” of a child. All the while, the birth families are left behind mourning for their loss and, in time, many adoptees as well as birth mothers begin a search. In doing so, they risk intensifying the sense of loss, or they may benefit from ultimately “knowing.”

Even if one has not been personally touched by adoption, the story captures the theme of rebirth of the human spirit, contrasted against the entrapments of daily living in which deeper satisfactions are often overlooked. The film also looks at cynicism versus humor; taking a positive approach to living is most certainly a theme of Philomena. While some may dismiss this as just another feel-good movie, the contrasts and contradictions keep the story real in its intensity.

Audiences are presented with a complicated and true story, told elegantly, while exposing the imperfections of the human experience. Philomena is transnational, adding a dimension of a culture lost, and a birth mother’s yearning to understand the differences while unconditionally accepting the results of her search. Human emotion and the need to reconcile are presented head-on. It is impossible for the audience to leave unaffected. Fundamentally, the act of forgiveness is profound—presenting a clearly developed story line about the challenge of acceptance versus justice that inevitably emerges in the truth and reconciliation of past human rights abuses.

Surprisingly, you will laugh before you cry, and both emotions are well warranted. The networks of social relationships are astonishing, reminding the audience of just how close we may be to someone we have lost and yearn to find. Dench’s character in Philomena is a portrait of how finding happiness and acceptance is very much in how you look at life.

Moviegoers will be left to think more about healing and reproductive injustices of the past, underscoring the mean-spiritedness of some who stand in moral judgment of others. And then there is greed—another dimension of the illicit behaviors and practices of those who have scripted these crimes. Philomena boasts a superb cast supporting Dench.

For more information about the Magdalene Laundries, there are a variety of sources online documenting the lives of women who suffered and survived, as well as those who are deceased; oral histories, photographs, and other artifacts are being collected and appropriate ways in which to honor the women are being considered in terms of museums and other celebrations of their lives and losses. Also, other countries are now investigating their own laundries and survivors, as is the case in Australia. In sum, an astounding social movement for truth and justice is clearly underway, and one way to honor the laundry survivors is hearing their stories. For the act of witnessing is sometimes the only thing that we can do as the story unfolds.

Philomena will be available on DVD March 4.

Culture & Conversation Media

TRAP Laws and the Abortion ‘Crisis’: A Conversation With Award-Winning Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Tina Vasquez

Recently, Porter spoke with Rewire about the inaccurate framing of abortion as a “moral” issue and the conditions that have created the current crisis facing providers and patients alike. Her film will air nationally on PBS’ Independent Lens Monday.

Dawn Porter’s documentary TRAPPED focuses on the targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws designed to close clinics. But, as Porter told Rewire in a phone interview, TRAPPED is also about “normal people,” the providers and clinic staff who have been demonized due to their insistence that women should have access to abortion and their willingness to offer that basic health-care service.

Between 2010 and 2015, state legislators adopted some 288 laws regulating abortion care, subjecting providers and patients to restrictions not imposed on their counterparts in other medical specialties.

In Alabama, where most of the film takes place, abortion providers are fighting to keep their clinics open in the face of countlessand often arbitrary—regulations, including a requirement that the grass outside the facilities be a certain length and one mandating abortions be performed in far more “institutional” and expensive facilities than are medically necessary.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this month on a Texas case regarding the constitutionality of some TRAP laws: Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The lawsuit challenges two provisions in HB 2: the admitting privileges requirement applied to Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen, Texas, and Reproductive Services in El Paso, Texas, as well as the requirement that every abortion clinic in the state meet the same building requirements as ambulatory surgical centers. It is within this context that Porter’s film will air nationally on PBS’ Independent Lens Monday.

Recently, the award-winning filmmaker spoke with Rewire about the Supreme Court case, the inaccurate framing of abortion as a “moral” issue, and the conditions that have created the current crisis facing providers and patients alike.

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Rewire: What has changed for the clinicians featured in TRAPPED since the documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January?

Dawn Porter: Now, in Alabama, the legislature has passed a law banning clinics within 2,000 feet of a school. There’s a lot of frustration because the clinicians abide by the laws, and then more are put in place that makes it almost impossible to operate.

Everyone has been really focused on Dalton Johnson’s clinic [the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives] because the clinic he moved to was across the street from a school, but the law has also affected Gloria [Gray, the director of the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama]and that’s not something a lot of us initially realized. She’s afraid this will shut her down for good. I would say this has been a very hard blow for her. I think Dalton was perhaps more prepared for it. He will fight the law.

The good news is that it’s not like either of these clinics will close tomorrow; this gets decided when they go back for relicensing at the end of the year. Right now, they’re in the middle of legal proceedings.

Of course, we’re all also awaiting the Supreme Court decision on Whole Woman’s Health. There’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety right now, for these clinic owners in particular, but for all clinic owners [nationwide] really.

Rewire: Let’s talk about that. Later this month, the Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on that caseEven if the Supreme Court rules that these laws are unconstitutional, do you think the case will change the environment around reproductive rights?

DP: It really depends on how the Court writes the decision. There may be no case in which it’s more important for the Court to have a comprehensive decision. It’s a multiheaded hydra. There’s always something that can close a clinic, so it’s crucially important that this Court rules that nothing can hinder a woman’s right to choose. It’s important that this Court makes it clear that all sham laws are unconstitutional.

Rewire: We know abortion providers have been killed and clinics have been bombed. When filming, did you have safety concerns for those involved?

DP: Definitely. The people who resort to violence in their anti-choice activities areI guess the most charitable way to describe itunpredictable. I think the difficult thing is you can’t anticipate what an irrational person will do. We took the safety of everyone very seriously. With Dr. Willie Parker [one of two doctors in the entire state of Mississippi providing abortions], for example, we wouldn’t publicize if he’d be present at a screening of the film. We never discussed who would appear at a screening. It’s always in the back of your mind that there are people who feel so strongly about this they would resort to violence. Dr. Parker said he’s aware of the risks, but he can’t let them control his life.

We filmed over the course of a few years, and honestly it took me a while to even ask about safety. In one of our last interviews, I asked Dr. Parker about safety and it was a very emotional interview for both of us. Later during editing, there was the shooting at the Colorado clinic and I called him in a panic and asked if he wanted me to take our interview out of the film. He said no, adding, “I can’t let irrational terrorists control my life.” I think everybody who does this work understands what’s at risk.

Rewire: It seems Texas has become ground zero for the fight for abortion access and because of that, the struggles in states like Alabama can get lost in the shuffle. Why did you choose to focus on Alabama?

DP: I met Dr. Parker when he was working in Mississippi. The first meeting I did with him was in December 2012 and he told me that Alabama had three clinics and that no one was talking about it. He introduced me to the clinic owners and it was clear that through them, the entire story of abortion access—or the denial of itcould be told. The clinic owners were all working together; they were all trying to figure out what to do legally so they could continue operating. I thought Alabama was unexplored, but also the clinic owners were so amazing.

To tell you the truth, I tried to avoid Texas for a long time. If you follow these issues around reproductive rights closely, and I do, you can sort of feel like, “Uh, everyone knows about Texas.” But, actually, a lot of people don’t know about Texas. I had this view that everyone knew what was going on, but I realized I was very insulated in this world. I started with Texas relatively late, but decided to explore it because we were following the lawyers with the Center for Reproductive Rights and they were saying one of their cases would likely go to the Supreme Court, and Whole Woman’s Health was most likely. They, of course, were right.

When you’re making a film, you’re emerged in a world and you have to take a step back and think about what people really know, not what you think they know or assume they know.

Rewire: In TRAPPED, you spliced in footage of protests from the 1970s, which made me think about how far we’ve come since Roe v. Wade. Sometimes it feels like we’ve come very far, other times it feels like nothing has changed. Why do you think abortion is such a contentious topic?

DP: I don’t think it’s actually that contentious, to tell you the truth. I think there is a very vocal minority who are extreme. If you poll them, most Americans are pro-choice and believe in the right to abortion in at least some circumstances. Most people are not “100 percent, no abortion” all the time. People who are, are very vocal. I think this is really a matter of having people who aren’t anti-choice be vocal about their beliefs.

Abortion is not the number one social issue. It was pretty quiet for years, but we’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party and conservative Republicans heavily influencing policy. The conservative agenda has been elevated and given a larger platform.

We need to change public thinking about this. Part of that conversation is destigmatizing abortion and not couching it in a shameful way or qualifying it. Abortion is very common; many, many women have them. Three in ten U.S. women have had an abortion before the age of 45. I think that part of the work that needs to be done is around stigma and asking why are we stigmatizing this. What is the agenda around this?

Evangelicals have done a great job of making it seem like this is an issue of morality, and it’s just not. To me, honestly, it doesn’t matter if you’re pro-choice or anti-choice. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs. I can respect different opinions, but I can’t respect someone who tries to subvert the political process. People with power and influence who tamper with the political process to impose their beliefs on other people—I really can’t respect that.

Rewire: There are a lot of entry points for conversations about abortion access. What brought you to focus on TRAP laws?

DP: People often discuss abortion in terms of morality, but that’s not what we should be talking about. The reason why these laws have been so effective is because they successfully harm the least powerful of the group they’re targeting. Who’s getting picked on, who’s suffering the most? Women of color, people who are low-income, people who don’t have health insurance. There’s something so unjust about how these laws are disproportionately affecting these populations, and that really bothered me. I’m certainly interested in abortion as a topic, but I’m also interested in politics and power and how those things take shape to hurt the most vulnerable.

Rewire: In TRAPPED, we get to see a very personal side of all the clinicians and providers. One clinician discusses having to be away from her six children all of the time because she’s always at the clinic. We get to see Dr. Willie Parker at church with his family. And it was amazing to learn that the remaining providers in Alabama are friends who regularly eat dinner together. Was it intentional to humanize providers in a way we don’t usually get to see?

DP: Absolutely. The anti-choice side has successfully painted the picture of an abortion provider as this really shady, sinister person. I spent three years embedded in these clinics, and that couldn’t be further from what I saw. These are passionate, brave people, but they’re also very normal people. They’re not superheroes or super villains. They’re just normal people. It’s not that they don’t think about what they’re doing; they’re just very resilient and courageous in a way that makes me very proud. I wanted people to see that.

Rewire: Honestly before watching TRAPPED, I never thought about the personal toll that pressure takes on providers. Dalton Johnson used his retirement funds in order to continue providing abortion care. In several scenes, we see an emotional Gloria Gray struggling with whether or not to keep fighting these laws. Do you think people generally understand what it’s costing providers—financially and emotionally—to continue operating?

DP: I don’t think a lot of us think about that. People like Dalton are saying, “I would rather cash out my retirement than give in to you people.” We should not be asking people to make that kind of sacrifice. That should not be happening.

We also don’t spend enough time thinking about or talking about all of the things that have happened to create the conditions we’re now dealing with. It’s like a perfect storm. Medical schools are not training abortion providers, and the abortion providers that are around are getting older and retiring. Of course laws keep getting passed that make it more and more difficult to run a clinic. In this kind of environment, can you really blame people for not wanting to be providers? Especially when there’s the added pressure of having to take not just your own safety into account, but the safety of your family.

Anti-choice people target the children of abortion providers. They target them at home. This is a hard job if you want to have a life. I mean that literally too—if you literally want to have your life.

This is why so few go into this field. As the number of providers in some states continues to get eliminated, the burden left on those standing is exponentially greater.

The reason why we have a crisis around abortion care is not just laws, but because we have so few physicians. There are all of these factors that have come together, and we didn’t even get to cover all of it in the documentary, including the fact that Medicaid doesn’t cover abortion [under federal law. Seventeen states, however, use state funds to cover abortion care for Medicaid recipients.] A lot of this is the result of conservative lobbying. People have to be aware of all the pressures providers are under and understand that we didn’t get to this point of crisis accidentally.

Rewire: It can feel hopeless, at least to me. What gives you hope when it comes to this unrelenting battle for reproductive rights in this country?

DP: I don’t feel hopeless at all. I feel like it’s really important to be aware and vigilant and connect these dots. I wanted to help people understand the complications and the challenges providers are up against.

These providers have done their part, and now it’s time for the rest of us to do ours. People can vote. Vote for people who prioritize providing education and medical care, rather than people who spend all of their time legislating an abortion clinic. Alabama is in a huge fiscal crisis. The education system is a mess. The Medicaid system is a mess, and the whole Alabama state legislature worked on a bill that would affect a couple of abortion clinics. Voters need to decide if that’s OK. I think this is all very hard, but it’s not at all hopeless.

Q & A Sexuality

White Southern Girlhood and Eugenics: A Talk With Historian Karin Zipf

Tina Vasquez

The same white supremacy that declared Black men and women to be hypersexual also subjected troubled or abused white girls to incarceration and state-sponsored sterilizations to make sure the teens did not pass on "bad" genes and "ruin the race."

From 1929 to the mid-1970s, North Carolina sterilized about 7,600 people in the nation’s most aggressive program of its kind. It was all in the name of eugenics, a coin termed by Francis Galton to describe efforts to “improve or impair the racial quality of future generations.” The program stopped as opinions began to shift surrounding eugenics—and lawsuits were filed against North Carolina’s Eugenics Board on behalf of those who had been sterilized—but 30 states participated in similar ones targeting a wide range of people, including people with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups.

Seventy-seven percent of all those sterilized in North Carolina were women; about 2,000 were people 18 and younger. Before the 1960s—when Black people became the majority of those sterilized—poor, rural white girls were the primary targets of authorities and women reformers. Girls were punished for engaging in so-called “deviant” behaviors, such as sexual activity or crossing racial lines in their romantic interests. Poor white girls who were sexually abused were also criminalized, labeled “feeble-minded,” and institutionalized.

This is the history explored by East Carolina University professor Karin Zipf in her new book, Bad Girls at Samarcand: Sexuality and Sterilization in a Southern Juvenile Reformatory. Samarcand Manor, North Carolina’s “industrial school” for girls, was a juvenile facility designed to keep troubled girls “in line.” In reality, this whites-only institution in the town of Eagle Springs was a violent place where courts, social workers, and parents committed young white girls for not adhering to social norms or the rules of white supremacy.

Founded in 1918, the institution began sterilizing girls after 16 girls set fire to two Samarcand dormitories in 1931. Officials believed that sterilizing the girls by tubal ligation would stop them from passing on “defective” genes. Though the justifications for the so-called treatments varied among groups in power, the prescription remained the same. Hundreds of girls and young women suffered forced sterilizations before the state sterilization program ended. Samarcand closed in 2011, but it was reborn as a new law enforcement training facility in 2015.

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Author Zipf spoke to Rewire about early 20th-century eugenics beliefs, the dangers of Southern white womanhood, and Samarcand Manor’s legacy.

Rewire: How do you remember first hearing about Samarcand Manor?

Karin Zipf: There were about two or three articles that came out in the late ’90s on institutions, [which] referenced the arson case at Samarcand where the girls burned down their dormitories. The girls at Samarcand were arrested on arson, which at the time could result in a death penalty charge. [The charges were reduced, and some of the girls were incarcerated.] So, historians knew of this case, but few had written on it. One book that was particularly interesting to me is by a historian named Susan Cahn—I have to shout out to her. Her book, Sexual Reckonings: Southern Girls in a Troubling Age, was really inspiring. She wrote one chapter on the fire.

Rewire: What were some of the challenges of tackling Samarcand’s history?

KZ: The research was challenging. I didn’t have any oral history to rely on because everyone I might have interviewed was deceased. State restrictions were hard to get around because we’re dealing with sensitive information here and generally, health records are closed to the public too. It’s a double-edged sword because obviously, policies are put in place to protect people’s privacy. But on the other hand, it makes it very difficult for researchers to go in and see how the state treats children.

Rewire: Often when we talk about white supremacy, the focus is how it affects people of color. But it was very interesting to explore how white supremacy affects white girls and women in particular. In some ways, is Samarcand is a direct result of white supremacy and wanting young girls to conform to feminine representations of it?

KZ: This is what I find to be the real topic here. I teach and research U.S. Southern history, so race is obviously a very important part of that. When I learned this was an institution only for white girls, I knew white supremacy was central to the story, especially because I knew that African-American girls in need at the same time were literally left on the street.

The state and upper-class women reformers believed these young white girls to have fallen from some sort of grace by becoming [sex workers] or choosing sexually active lifestyles. Reformers—those who pushed for the [initial] creation of Samarcand—believed that when [a white girl] falls from grace, she can get back up again. If you were a white girl, it was their job to help you get back up again.

At this same time, there was a white supremacy movement that was impacting how eugenics was viewed. … This wasn’t just in North Carolina, of course, but here eugenics beliefs were on the upswing, especially this idea that there were genetic defects that caused differences in society. Eugenicists believed genetic defects caused poverty, promiscuity, delinquency, etc.

There were people at the time who called themselves mental hygienists, who had a different understanding of womanhood than the Victorian reformers who saw “fallen” girls as disgraced. For example, they saw sexuality as a positive thing, provided it occurred within the confines of marriage. They believed women had sexual desires, that they were sexual beings, but that girls who were “mentally defective”—as they called it—gravitated to promiscuity or delinquency.

Victorian reformers and mental hygienists expressed two different attitudes about womanhood, but both were informed by constructions of whiteness and how that should look or be defined. Mental hygienists believed these girls had become so impoverished, they could not be saved. [Their behavior] was believed to be a genetic impurity that was going to spoil the white race, so they needed to be institutionalized and segregated from society at places like Samarcand—and this often also meant being sterilized.

Rewire: Some of the most interesting areas of your book delved into the historical meaning of Southern white womanhood and how this particular racist brand of womanhood deeply influenced eugenic science, especially in North Carolina. Talk to me about that.

KZ: The concept of Southern white womanhood is very much a multitiered system defined by race and sexuality. White men are at the top, they’re the top tier. They are seen as the protectors, and they are seen as the breadwinners. They believe themselves to be providing law and order, especially when it comes to race.

Next are white women, who are seen as chaste, virtuous, passive, obedient, domestic, and motherly. If they do enter into the public arena, it’s for the purpose of “public housekeeping,” [such as social work and advocacy for children].

Southern white womanhood rests on this ideal these young girls could not really meet. These were girls from the very bottom of the white social ladder; they were in abject poverty. These girls were out in the street hanging out with all kinds of people; they weren’t at home doing domestic chores. The big fear was that these girls were going to have children with Black men. White supremacists saw these girls’ lifestyles as the worst-case scenario for white supremacy; they believed these white girls were going to spoil the race by having children with men of color. This is why these girls were so strictly policed, perhaps more than other demographic group.

African-American men occupy the third tier. According to white supremacist beliefs, African-American men are aggressive. If you look at images from this time, they’re really horrible. Black men are portrayed as beastly, as predators, and what they want is access to white women. I strongly believe that so much of what Jim Crow was about was to separate Black men from white women.

In this system, Black women are at the bottom. They are seen as the opposite of pure, virtuous white women. The word often used at the time was “lascivious,” and African-American women were often referred to as “Jezebels.” The reason why reform efforts were focused on white girls is because white reformers assumed that Black girls and girls of color couldn’t be saved.

Rewire: I assumed that the way we put white womanhood on a pedestal protects all white women, but your book is an example of how that’s not always the case. Upholding Southern white womanhood in particular is also harmful to certain kinds of white women. How much is class responsible for this?

KZ: Around the same time as the early days of Samarcand, there were a number of textile strikes, which [often] involved young women. Some of the girls at Samarcand were cotton mill workers or the children of cotton mill workers. Affluent whites already had negative associations with textile workers because of the strikes, so there’s already a sort of demonization of the working class—and this is part of our history we don’t talk about enough. There were strikes all over the South, but it’s a part of North Carolina history that’s almost been lost.

You have these girls who are wearing overalls with caps twisted backwards, and they’re protesting and yelling in the streets. Today, society views protesters as socially disruptive at best, but back then these young girls were seen as ruining the race.

Rewire: Your book has an entire chapter on Kate Burr Johnson, who is written about rather favorably in North Carolina history, even while promoting eugenics and white supremacist ideals as the first woman state commissioner of public welfare from 1921 to 1930. She emphasized the interplay of culture and biology, which was, at the time, a pretty common stance in the South among intellectuals. Why was this such a popular idea?

KZ: Eugenicists generally agreed with the idea that “cultural” characteristics like juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, and poverty were passed through genes. The belief was that once those genes get into the line, there is no getting them out—and it didn’t matter what race you were.

But Southern eugenicists, such as Kate Burr Johnson, formulated a different theory to protect their belief in “white purity.” Southern eugenicists didn’t want to say that there was something in white people’s genetics that made them defective; that meant whites couldn’t be inherently superior. They had to get around that idea somehow, so Southern white eugenicists adopted a theory from a biologist named [Jean-Baptiste] Lamarck, which said that genes can mutate based on the environment and then those mutated genes can be passed on and introduced into the DNA of offspring.

The way that Southern eugenicists were able to sidestep any contradictions poor whites posed to white supremacy was by explaining that some white people became impoverished, for example, and when their poverty continued for generation after generation, then that environment of poverty affected their genetic makeup. Kate Burr Johnson really believed that poor whites’ DNA became disfigured to the point that they lost their whiteness. Other eugenicists weren’t buying it, but the Southern eugenicists were trying to figure out a way to modify the eugenics argument in order to meet their need of carrying on this idea of the “purity” of the white race.

Rewire: The ableism of the time was also pretty extreme. Young girls who were sexually assaulted were deemed “mentally defective” or “feeble-minded.” How was ableism used to further stigmatize these girls?

KZ: That was a really hard part of this research, honestly. In some instances, we’re talking about girls as young as 10 years old, raped by their own fathers, yet they’re being labeled as “mentally defective.” These girls were forced to take IQ tests designed for 19-year-old World War I-era soldiers. When these girls failed the tests—especially those already labeled as promiscuous—they were classified as “feeble-minded.”

In my reading of these records, so many girls were clearly exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after repeated sexual assaults—and no one thought to question what they’d been through. It created this added layer of discrimination against these girls. The injustice was so deep, and no one called what happened rape or incest or sexual assault. If it was acknowledged that there was a problem at home, rather than address the perpetrator, Samarcand became a place to send the girls who were victims of assault, effectively punishing them for something horrible that happened to them.

Rewire: Was Samarcand an example of how white womanhood is placed on a pedestal and the lengths people will go to uphold and protect this idealized version of white Southern womanhood, or is it more of an example of what happens to young women who don’t conform to very particular ideas of what womanhood should look like?

KZ: I think it’s both. White Southern womanhood is this ideal that so many were desperate to meet because it had huge implications for the preservation of the white race. They would do anything—including isolate, segregate, quarantine, and sterilize young white girls—just to uphold the ideal.

But ultimately what I’m really trying to talk about here is the fluidity of white supremacy. In the effort to defend the “purity of whiteness,” white supremacists often disagreed with one another about the mechanisms for doing so. “Whiteness” appeared to be a fixed category, but Victorian reformers and mental hygienists disagreed sharply on the treatment of poor white girls who did not meet the purity ideals. I hope this encourages more dialogue about the construction of whiteness and the dangers of it.

Rewire: Do you think any of the themes surrounding your book or any themes around Samarcand are present in today’s culture and how we view womanhood?

KZ: I think that our concerns today really revolve around the control of women’s reproductive choices. I hope we can think about the ways white supremacists in the past justified the control of women’s bodies. What we see today is another iteration of that.

Why do states invest so much in attempting to control women’s bodies, and for what reasons? What populations of women are most impacted? These are important questions. Why does the state enforce laws to control women’s sexuality? We see it all the time. We should know the motivations and justifications that people have used in the past to restrict women’s sexuality. The lessons of Samarcand hopefully will empower us to better understand our world today.

This interview was conducted by email and by phone. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.