Johanna Schoen, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
As a graduate student conducting research at the University of North Carolina, Johanna Schoen was granted access to records that revealed the disturbing details of North Carolina’s eugenic sterilization program.
She shared her discovery with the media to bring the issue into the public eye. The result was an apology from the state’s governor, increased awareness of the tragedy, and a stronger case for restitution for the victims.
Schoen, a native of Hamburg, Germany, joined the University of Iowa faculty a decade ago to teach women’s studies and history. She sat down with fyi to discuss her discovery in North Carolina and her new work on the history of abortion clinics.
She also opened up about why her dog, Chaos, is her saving grace, the meaning of the fictional verb “feasle,” and how she recently overcame a fear of pie crusts.
Tell us about your important research on North Carolina’s eugenic sterilization program. What did you find out?
North Carolina had a state sterilization program designed to improve the quality of the race. About 8,000 people were sterilized through the program, which wasn’t abolished until 1975. For women, they tied the fallopian tubes; for men, they did a vasectomy. About half of the states had these kinds of programs, but North Carolina is the only one where social workers could recommend clients for sterilization; in other places, it was geared more toward individuals in mental institutions. As a result, the program was much more widespread. In the program’s last 20 years, they mostly sterilized people on welfare so they wouldn’t cost the state more money. Many young victims of rape or incest were also sterilized. Social workers drew up petitions with the social and medical history of the family, and the eugenics board authorized sterilization 95 percent of the time.
How did you come across this information?
I was doing research for my book. On one of many trips to the state archives, which housed the sterilization program’s records, the archivist gave me a roll of microfilm. I didn’t know what it was, but you don’t ask questions in these situations, so I took it to the microfilm reading room and put it in the machine. I was floored at what he had given me: minutes of the eugenics board’s meetings, which included summaries of all case files. People had written about state sterilization before, but no one had gotten access to summaries of the individual files, which allowed me to write about the people who were sterilized and the program in a way that no one had before. I could describe their living conditions, how many children they had, why they were recommended for sterilization, and how they felt about it. The majority did not want to be sterilized. They had to sign a consent form, but most didn’t understand what they were signing, or the social workers coerced or intimidated them into signing. It’s really tragic.
How did you get this information out?
I spent months reading devastating files thinking, “I’m going to write this book chapter, but aside from historians, who will read it? People need to know this happened.” So I called the Raleigh News & Observer; they did a short story. Then the Winston-Salem Journal did an in-depth weeklong series. That prompted the governor’s apology. Last year North Carolina hired me to curate a traveling exhibit on eugenic sterilization. I overheard people talking at the exhibit, and it was clear they were shocked that it ever happened. Now, Lifetime is doing a docudrama on eugenic sterilization and hired me as a historical consultant. An author of popular women’s novels wants to make her protagonist a woman who was sterilized by a eugenics board, and she called to find out how to make it believable. The story is moving into popular culture, which is good. It creates awareness that we need to look critically at what the government does.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book about how the debate surrounding abortion has impacted women’s ability to access abortion and their experiences getting services. I’m also writing a biography of Susan Hill, who has owned and operated 10 abortion clinics since the early ’70s in some of the most underserved areas of the country.
How did you become interested in the history of reproductive rights and the history of sexuality?
At Chapel Hill, a professor mentioned a collection of interviews with female textile factory workers. Some of these women each had 10 children, and no access to birth control, and I was like, whoa. That got me into studying birth control.
Do you have a take-home message you try to instill in your students?
They need to take arguments apart and explain why they believe what they believe. I don’t care where they stand, antifeminist or feminist; pro-life or pro-choice. I just want them to be intellectually honest and to really make their case.
When you do have free time, how do you spend it?
I run and hike, and I cook Indian and Italian food. I just made my first apple pie, conquering my fear of pie crusts. I thought, “I’m 45 years old. I should be able to make a pie crust.” I don’t read for pleasure during the school year because I read so much for work, but over the summer, I love to read short stories.
What would your colleagues be surprised to know about you?
I make up words. I’ve been away from German so long that my comprehension isn’t as good as it once was. I make up words and phrases that don’t exist in either English or German, like the verb “to feasle.” To me, to feasle something out means to figure it out. I didn’t notice for years until my partner finally started laughing and said, “You know, that’s not a word.”
What do you love about your job? What’s most challenging about it?
I get paid to read and think. That’s a total luxury! Stress is a challenge. During the semester, I don’t get a day off, and I work at least 10 hours a day. My dog is my saving grace because she has to go out every day, which gets me out. You just have to learn when to say no and accept that you’ll never get everything done.
What’s one of your main life goals?
I want to educate people to be more tolerant toward positions they disagree with. I try to do that with my teaching and with my writing.
by Nicole Riehl