“Clinging to what they have now”

By Jordon Moorefield

In January of 1963 Jet magazine, a well-known African-American weekly magazine, printed the headline: “Tragedy of Negro Mothers Sterilized in V.A. Town.”[1] In this article, the author John Britten attacks the sterilization practices of the Fauquier County Maternity Clinic in Warrenton, Virginia, which left approximately 100 women sterile in the years since it’s opening. While this framework sets the stage for the illumination of the hardships faced by these women, Britten chose to focus not on these young women but on the overt racial oppression that was occurring at the time. He uses the women who inspired this piece as mere content boosters. While they are plastered across his article and give the article its heart-wrenching name, they are seen but not heard. This article denotes a perfect example of the repeated silencing and repurposing of young black women through the guise of journalistic reporting. This positions Black women and girls into the background of history, reproduces stereotypes connected to women of color during slavery, and removes their existence from the forefront of public caring.

Britten fails to allot any true journalistic space to the women he chose as the poster children for this story. In this short text, he gives space to no less than five prominent male doctors, specialists, and clergymen to state their opinions on what was occurring to these young women. For example, Britten briefly introduces Reverend Randolph Haskins, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Warrenton, Virginia, who states that the sterilization practices occurring at this clinic were a form of “legalized murder.”[2] He follows this with quote from a Norfolk, VA physician who then insinuates that this clinic was practicing a “repugnant” sterilization plan that sought to lighten the economic burden that these women were seen to place on the state. He thus rejected the idea that these practices were done for the benefit of the women.[3]

The women whom these men are discussing, however, can only be seen through the multiple pictures throughout this article. Their voices are never heard, yet Britten strategically places their photographs through this article to impact his target audience. It seems their usefulness is to display their young faces throughout the article while men’s voices validate the injustices they have experience. The aptly placed pictures are followed by purposefully heart wrenching captions such as: “Clinging to what they have now, Irene Pallot (l), (17), and Mrs. Mary Smith (r) face barren life after sterilization.”[4]

Britten uses their faces and selected aspects of their stories to highlight abuses to lower class, under educated, and many times black females, while never truly giving them a voice. The author paints their lives as purposeless with out future reproductive abilities, as a “barren life” now awaits them for the wrongs done to them.[6] This caption furthers the stereotypes that have persistently connected the value of a Black woman’s life and body to her reproductive capabilities.

This link between the value of a young black girls life to her abilities to breed is a concept that has been reproduced and recycled since the decline of the transatlantic slave trade in the late 1700s. Author Colleen A. Vasconcellos details the evolution of this relationship in her study of colonial Jamaica.[7] “Planters linked girls and women, making gender synonymous with reproductive potential” which in turn had devastating effects on the experience of girlhood for these enslaved children and propelled female slaves into the realm of “breeding wenches” whose value was linked to her reproductive capabilities.[8] In Britten’s Jet article, the continued use of language mirrors this conceptualization of these young girls’ worth. While likely unintentional, this demonstrates a lack of progress in how young black girls’ lives are understood three hundred years later. While black women had not held the role of reproductive property for some time, the common social and cultural role of these young women in the twentieth century was often heavily tied to childcare and child bearing. Britten’s linkage of the sterilization clinic to population control and eugenics lends to the high value he places on preserving the “house filling fertility” of these mothers.[9] In this article, his words serve to reinforce the cementation of Black female youths as both voiceless and purposeless aside from reproduction and the continuation of their lineage in contemporary America.

Furthermore, Britten constructed this article with terminology and style that demonstrates a lack of genuine interest in the hardships that these women endured, and instead shows a blatant attempt at co-opting what he titles a “tragic” story and young black faces to further show discrimination against people of color. He does not use his journalistic privilege to empower or give voice to the women he claims have been “maternally hamstrung.”[10] Britten ignored the opportunity to fight the ever-persistent stereotypes that were still circulating, and instead filled this article with the voices of men, validating, speculating, and justifying their understanding of what injustice had occurred.

The importance of Irene Pallot and her sterilization story is not overlooked by all, as it was by Britten. In a recent history of eugenics in Virginia, George Dorr examines in detail the events surrounding her sterilization and tells the true tragedy of what occurred.[11] Whereas Britten frames his article around the loss of reproductive abilities, Dorr demonstrates that the loss of reproductive abilities is a single result of a heavily biased sterilization system that was driven forward by a combination of disturbing realities of young female minorities including lack of access to reliable health care, limited education, and abuse of medical power. While Dorr does not dedicate a significant amount of time to directly quoting Pallot, he does include small quotes such as Pallot’s description of a “white woman doctor” to build a more academic telling of her story that does not rely on damaging stereotypes as Britten’s does to paint Pallot as a victim of a malicious system. Dorr tells her story in detailed manner that presents her unjust treatment in a neutral, yet powerful way.[12]

Co-opting the stories of young Black women for the purpose of fulfilling others’ agendas is not a new practice and this article is not an outlier. Instead it demonstrates the reoccurring theme of silence and invisibility in the documentation and recorded histories of young Black girls. In the specific case of eugenics and sterilization, the low socioeconomic status and poor educational opportunities that were the reality of many subjected to these treatments such as Irene Pallot, does not facilitate the creation of memoirs. Thus, their voices and untainted stories are rarely heard. What is left for contemporary readers to sift through are magazines and texts filled with predominantly co-opted stories, half-truths written by others who have a voice speaking and promoting their own ideas.

[1] John Britten, “Tragedy of Negro Mothers Sterilized in V.A. Town” in Jet 23.13 (January 17, 1963), 46-50.

[2] Britten, “Tragedy of Negro Mothers,” 47.

[3] John Britten, “Tragedy of Negro Mothers Sterilized in V.A. Town” in Jet 23.13 (January 17, 1963). 47.

[4] John Britten, “Tragedy of Negro Mothers Sterilized in V.A. Town” in Jet 23.13 (January 17, 1963). 47.

[5] John Britten, “Tragedy of Negro Mothers Sterilized in V.A. Town” in Jet 23.13 (January 17, 1963). 47.

[6] John Britten, “Tragedy of Negro Mothers Sterilized in V.A. Town” in Jet 23.13 (January 17, 1963). 47.

[7] Colleen A. Vasconcellos, Girlhood: A Global History(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 334.

[8] Vasconcellos, Girlhood: A Global History, 334.

[9] John Britten, “Tragedy of Negro Mothers Sterilized in V.A. Town” in Jet 23.13 (January 17, 1963). 46.

[10] John Britten, “Tragedy of Negro Mothers Sterilized in V.A. Town” in Jet 23.13 (January 17, 1963). 46.

[11] George Dorr, Segregation’s Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia(University of Virginia Press, 2008), 216.

[12] George Dorr, Segregation’s Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia(University of Virginia Press, 2008), 216.