Historian Farley debuts with an intriguing account of socialite Ann Cooper Hewitt, who filed a $500,000 lawsuit against her mother in 1936 for having her sterilized in order to deprive her of her inheritance. According to Farley, Cooper Hewitt’s lawsuit “spark a nationwide debate on the changing nature of womanhood, the purpose of sexuality, and the merits of allowing doctors to decide who did and didn’t reproduce.” Farley sketches the history of the eugenics movement and fears over the emergence of the “New Woman” in early 20th-century America, but the narrative is at its most immersive when delving into the exploits of Cooper Hewitt’s mother, Maryon, who got rich by marrying well and often. Eleven months before Ann’s 21st birthday, Maryon, claiming that her daughter, who had suffered from “bronchial trouble” as a girl, was “feeble-minded” and “over-sexed,” bribed two doctors to remove Ann’s fallopian tubes during an appendectomy (if she died childless, Ann’s inheritance would revert to Maryon). After Maryon attempted suicide and the doctors who performed the procedure were acquitted of criminal charges, Ann settled the lawsuit for $150,000. Later chapters covering more recent cases of women sterilized without their informed consent feel more obligatory than essential, but Farley sets a brisk pace and persuasively reimagines the dynamic between Ann and Maryon. This is an eye-opening portrait of an obscure yet fascinating case. (Apr.)
"A disturbing yet thought-provoking tale of family strife and ethically unsound medical practice."Kirkus Reviews
“THE UNFIT HEIRESS is a sensational story told with nuance and humanity with clear reverberations to the present. Historian Audrey Clare Farley's writing jumps off the page, as Ann Cooper Hewitt, once a one-dimensional tabloid fixation, is brought into full relief as a complicated victim of her time, standing in the crosshairs of the growing eugenics movement and the emergence of a "over-sexed" and "dangerous" New Woman. But most importantly, this book is a necessary call to remember the high stakes and terrible history of the longstanding fight for control over women's bodies.”Susannah Cahalan, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Brain on Fire
“THE UNFIT HEIRESS is the propulsive tale of a high-society scandal that triggered a high-stakes courtroom battle. It is also an illuminating exploration of America’s long, dark history of eugenics and forced sterilization. By braiding together these narrative threads, Audrey Clare Farley has accomplished the rare feat of writing a book that is as thought-provoking as it is page-turning.”Luke Dittrich, New York Times bestselling author Patient H.M.
“This book is as timely as ever. A gripping tale about the atrocity of systematic reproductive control.”Booklist, starred review
“Farley sets a brisk pace and persuasively reimagines the dynamic between Ann and Maryon. This is an eye-opening portrait of an obscure yet fascinating case.”Publishers Weekly
“Expertly blending biography and history, and using the life of Ann Cooper Hewitt as a backdrop, Farley has created an absorbing biography effectively explaining how the legacy of eugenics still persists today. Hewitt’s story will engage anyone interested in women’s history.”Library Journal
“THE UNFIT HEIRESS is not only a fascinating look at a wildly dysfunctional high society family, it’s also a compulsively readable account of the reproductive myths and bigotry-driven pseudoscience that still shape our world today.” Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Appetites
"THE UNFIT HEIRESS is a triumph of compassion, historical inquiry, and intellectual rigor. In her elegant telling of Ann Cooper Hewitt's story, Farley shines her bright, empathetic light on profoundly imperfect humans and the myriad, often tragic ways we grapple for fulfillment. At the same time, she renders with crystalline precision the history of American eugenics, insisting—gently, yet steadfastly—that we look where we'd rather avert our gaze. This book startled me, seized my attention, and summoned my empathy when I least expected it."Rachel Vorona Cote, author of Too Much
"In Audrey Clare Farley's book, the fascinating and unsettling case—and the worldwide media sensation it caused—is carefully revisited to expose what it meant to be considered an unfit parent and how easily family can become foes."Town and Country
“This well-researched and endlessly readable book is centered on the sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt, deemed too promiscuous by her mother to receive her father’s inheritance. Part biography and part history of eugenics, this one is intriguing and terrifying.”Ms. Magazine
“[Farley] keenly investigates the culture of eugenics that surrounded and pervaded both Ann’s life and court case...The most indicting feature of Farley’s book is not America’s eugenic past but America’s eugenic present.”Lady Science
“In her new book, The Unfit Heiress, Audrey Clare Farley untangles this dark and complex chapter of American history and shines a light on official and medical complicity in a horrifying system. Her book is exceedingly well-researched yet reads with the momentum of a thriller.”Crimereads
“The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt by Audrey Clare Farley, tells the sad and shocking tale of Cooper Hewitt, the daughter of famed engineer and inventor Peter Cooper Hewitt, and how her case reflected a time when eugenics was not only frighteningly common, but widely accepted in the US.”The New York Post
"[G]ripping, unsettling, reading."The Progressive
In this debut, writer and historian Farley recounts the story of heiress Ann Cooper Hewitt (1914–56), who made headlines in the early 20th century. After being taken to the hospital for an appendectomy, Hewitt learned that her mother had paid doctors to also remove her fallopian tubes in an effort to deprive Ann of her father's inheritance; his will stipulated that if Ann died childless, her share would revert back to her mother. While concurrently following the court case and its proceedings, Farley also charts the dark history of the eugenics movement, showing how eugenicists targeted people in psychiatric wards and those considered to be sexually deviant, and also how, in many cases, consent was not required. Chapters on the life of Cooper Hewitt portray a woman who is sympathetic in some ways, especially for her lack of bodily autonomy, and eccentric in others, including her connection to a suspicious suicide of the wife of one of her lovers. VERDICT Expertly blending biography and history, and using the life of Ann Cooper Hewitt as a backdrop, Farley has created an absorbing biography effectively explaining how the legacy of eugenics still persists today. Hewitt's story will engage anyone interested in women's history.—Stacy Shaw, Denver
The shocking story of an heiress who was sterilized without her consent.
In 1936, Ann Cooper Hewitt, daughter of inventor Peter Cooper Hewitt and socialite Maryon Cooper Hewitt, sued her mother for $500,000. She alleged that Maryon conspired with Ann’s doctors to have her sterilized during a scheduled appendectomy in order to deprive Ann of her inheritance since Peter’s will stipulated that Ann’s share of his estate would revert back to her mother if Ann died childless. In this dramatic work of creative nonfiction, Farley focuses primarily on the lives of Maryon and Ann, exploring each of their abusive childhoods, subsequent relationships with men, and, particularly, how they were portrayed in the media. She also chronicles the trials of Maryon and her alleged accomplices and the estranged mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the story and weaves in bits of the history of eugenics. At the time of the trial, writes Farley, “many Americans didn’t know that tens of thousands of individuals had been sterilized in state institutions nationwide.” Due to the social status of the family, Americans from all walks of life followed the proceedings closely, stimulating conversations about medical ethics, especially the use of sterilization for population control and the ability of doctors to perform surgery “without written consent.” The author also sheds light on the number of sterilizations that have occurred more recently, either involuntarily or under false pretenses, in order to selectively control the population. She highlights both instances where federal funds have been used to sterilize low-income, Indigenous, incarcerated, and other marginalized women as well as related lawsuits and legislative amendments. Throughout, Farley maintains the focus on Ann and her family. While she does not provide a comprehensive discussion of eugenics, the eye-opening story of the family is a concrete example of lamentable policies that continue to shape the reproductive rights of women.
A disturbing yet thought-provoking tale of family strife and ethically unsound medical practice.