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The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt

The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt

by Audrey Clare Farley


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For readers of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Phantom of Fifth Avenue, a page-turning drama of fortunes, eugenics and women's reproductive rights framed by the sordid court battle between Ann Cooper Hewitt and her socialite mother.

At the turn of the twentieth century, American women began to reject Victorian propriety in favor of passion and livelihood outside the home. This alarmed authorities, who feared certain "over-sexed" women could destroy civilization if allowed to reproduce and pass on their defects. Set against this backdrop, The Unfit Heiress chronicles the fight for inheritance, both genetic and monetary, between Ann Cooper Hewitt and her mother Maryon.

In 1934, aided by a California eugenics law, the socialite Maryon Cooper Hewitt had her "promiscuous" daughter declared feebleminded and sterilized without her knowledge. She did this to deprive Ann of millions of dollars from her father's estate, which contained a child-bearing stipulation. When a sensational court case ensued, the American public was captivated. So were eugenicists, who saw an opportunity to restrict reproductive rights in America for decades to come.

This riveting story unfolds through the brilliant research of Audrey Clare Farley, who captures the interior lives of these women on the pages and poses questions that remain relevant today: What does it mean to be "unfit" for motherhood? In the battle for reproductive rights, can we forgive the women who side against us? And can we forgive our mothers if they are the ones who inflict the deepest wounds?

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781538753354
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 04/20/2021
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 121,792
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Audrey Clare Farley is a writer, book reviewer, and historian of twentieth-century American fiction and culture. Having earned a PhD in English from University of Maryland, College Park in 2017, she occasionally lectures in history and literature at local universities. Her essay on Ann Cooper Hewitt, published in July 2019 in Narratively, was the publication's second most-read story of the year. Her writing on the eugenics movement and other topics has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Public Books, Lady Science, Longreads, and Marginalia Review of Books, where she is a contributing editor. She lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

Table of Contents

Part I The New Woman and The Rise of Eugenics

1 The Sterilized Heiress 3

2 "Over-Sexed" 12

3 Remaking the World 20

4 Mayhem 31

5 The Newcomer 43

6 The Chrysalis 61

Part II Womanhood and Eugenics on Trial

7 An Accident 91

8 A New Ann 106

9 Fugitive Prisoner 116

10 Plotting 125

11 The Wizard 131

12 Love or the Lamp 150

13 The Criminal Trial 158

Part III The Aftermath

14 Burying the Sterilized Heiress 179

15 Mr. Marriage 204

16 The Inquest 211

17 Operation Lawsuit 227

18 Madrigal v. Quilligan 233

19 Another Reveal 252

20 Remembering Ann 257

Author's Note 263

Acknowledgments 265

Bibliography 269

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