The Right to Procreate: The Montana State Board of Eugenics and Body Politics

Catalog #PAc 95-39.20

The Board of Eugenics approved over two hundred sterilizations at the State Hospital for the Insane at Warms Springs. This photo shows the hospital’s administration building in 1938. Photo courtesy MHS PAc 95-39.20.

In 1924, headlines across the state decried the “butchery of the helpless” at the Montana State Hospital for the Insane at Warm Springs, where eleven inmates were forcibly sterilized. Hospital staff responded that all sterilizations had received the required approval and that eugenics was “necessary to the future welfare of Montana.” Eugenics—the idea that “human perfection could be developed through selective breeding”—grew in popularity in the early twentieth century, including support for forced sterilization. The movement reached its zenith in Montana in the early 1930s, and, despite growing concerns, the practice of forced sterilizations continued into the 1970s.

Montanans’ support for forced sterilization was part of a national trend. Eugenics proponent Albert E. Wiggam, a national lecturer and trained psychologist, helped spread the eugenics gospel in Montana through a column in the Missoulian. “Already we are taxing ourselves for asylums and hospitals and jails to take care of millions who ought never to have been born,” Wiggam wrote. Many Montanans agreed, including the Helena mother who wrote the state hospital in 1924 in support of sterilization polices. “I am a tax payer. That means I wish there was no insane, no feeble minded, and no criminals to support and to fear. . . . The very fact that these people are inmates of state institutions proves that they are morally or mentally unfit to propagate their kind.” Continue reading

“She Really Believed in Families”: The Medical Career of Sadie Lindeberg

109WHM Lindeberg Portrait Custer County As We Recall p 377

Dr. Sadie Lindeberg provided medical care to generations of Miles City women. Photo from “Custer County Area History: As We Recall,” p. 377.

Dr. Sadie Lindeberg of Miles City had an exceptional career by any standard. She became a doctor in 1907, a time when there were perhaps as few as three women physicians in all of Montana. She practiced well into her eighties and delivered, by her own count, over eight thousand babies in a career that spanned more than half a century. These accomplishments alone make Lindeberg a notable figure in Montana history, but her work helping girls and women through unwanted pregnancies—at a time when pregnancy out of wedlock was shameful and abortion was illegal—makes Dr. Lindeberg’s story truly extraordinary.

Born in 1884 to Swedish immigrants Nels and Hanna Lindeberg, who homesteaded a few miles west of Miles City, Lindeberg claimed to have been the first white baby born in the area. Sadie graduated from high school in Miles City in 1901. After working for a few years as a substitute teacher, she enrolled in medical school at the University of Michigan. Graduating in 1907, she took a yearlong internship at the Women and Children’s Hospital in Chicago, then returned home to establish a private practice.

Maternal care was hard to come by in Montana in the early twentieth century, and Dr. Lindeberg’s services were in high demand. For at least one family, she was at the births of three generations: Eleanor Drake Harbaugh, born in 1910; Eleanor’s son Loren, born in 1942; and Loren’s daughter Mianne, born in 1964. Continue reading

Family Planning and Companionate Marriage in Early Twentieth-Century Montana

Faber's Golden Female Pills claimed to be ʺworth twenty times their weight in gold for female irregularities. Never known to fail.ʺ  This coded ad for an abortifacient ran in the Philipsburg Mail, August 17, 1893. Pregnancy was the main cause of ʺsupressed menstuationʺ or ʺirregularityʺ and cures were commonly advertised.

Faber’s Golden Female Pills claimed to be ʺworth twenty times their weight in gold for female irregularities. Never known to fail.ʺ This coded ad for an abortifacient ran in the Philipsburg Mail, August 17, 1893. Pregnancy was the main cause of ʺsupressed menstuationʺ or ʺirregularityʺ and cures were commonly advertised.

Like their national counterparts, Montana women in the early twentieth century generally considered marriage, childbirth, and motherhood to be natural (and expected) elements of womanhood. At the same time, they did attempt to control their fertility. Conservative attitudes about sex, religious prescriptions against artificial contraception, and isolation and scarcity of medical care all conspired to limit Montana women’s access to birth control. Nevertheless, through female social networks and activism, the women of the state were able exercise a degree of control over reproduction.

Montana women had a variety of reasons for seeking contraception. Many could sympathize with the anonymous ranch wife who, when interviewed, said that she limited her family to two children “because when you had so much work to do, you can’t do all of it. So the children were the minor thing.” Other women, struggling with the hard times that hit Montana farmers and ranchers in the 1920s, sought to delay pregnancy until they were on better financial footing.

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“You Had to Pretend It Never Happened”: Illegal Abortion in Montana

Although he was never convicted, Helena homeopath Edwin Kellog, whose 1898 advertisement is shown here, had at least seven encounters with the law between 1893 and 1915 over allegations that he performed abortions. At least two of his alleged patients died from the procedure. Polk's Helena City Directory, 1898, p. 238, MHS Library

Although he was never convicted, Helena homeopath Edwin Kellog, whose 1898 advertisement is shown here, had at least seven encounters with the law between 1893 and 1915 over allegations that he performed abortions. At least two of his alleged patients died from the procedure. Polk’s Helena City Directory, 1898, p. 238, MHS Library

Terminating a pregnancy was illegal in Montana until 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Roe v. Wade that abortion was a constitutionally protected right. Nevertheless, the practice of abortion was still commonplace. The stories of Montana women who obtained illegal abortions reveal the uncertainty, fear, shame, and danger they experienced.

Abortion before “quickening” (fetal movement) was legal in the United States prior to the 1860s, but around 1860 politicians and members of the American Medical Association campaigned to outlaw the practice. During Montana’s territorial period, it was illegal to induce abortions with either medicine or instruments, except in cases where the life of the mother was at risk. By 1895, the woman receiving the abortion as well as the person performing it were subject to prosecution.

The criminalization of abortion did not mean the end of the practice, and Montana women continued to seek professional help, or in some cases, to help each other, when they wanted to terminate a pregnancy. The practice decreased as women had greater access to contraceptives in the twentieth century, but a variety of factors—ranging from fear of complications during pregnancy to the shame of childbirth out of wedlock—meant that there was continued demand for underground abortions. Continue reading

Legalized Midwifery: Montana Leads the Way

The argument over home birth midwifery played out in the newspapers as well as in the court and the legislature. The Missoulian published this article, "Midwifery on trial in Montana," on January 4, 1989.010489

The argument over home birth midwifery played out in the newspapers as well as in the court and the legislature. The Missoulian published this article on January 4, 1989.

Although Montana midwives had a long history of working with doctors to serve the needs of women in their communities, their profession—and especially the idea of home birth—faded from mainstream acceptance as the hospital replaced the home as the “normal” birthing location. By the 1950s, a majority of women across the United States delivered their babies in hospitals. Even as hospital births became more common, midwives continued to assume that pregnancy and delivery were nonmedical events. Physicians, on the other hand, began to insist that medical assistance and access to technology were necessary for safe deliveries.

The conflict crystalized in 1988 when the Montana Board of Medical Examiners, at the request of a Missoula physician, pressed charges against a Montana midwife, Dolly Browder, and initiated a court case, accusing her of violating the Medical Practice Act by practicing medicine without a license.

After a three-day civil trial, the Missoula judge ruled against Browder. He concluded that she was practicing medicine and banned her from assisting pregnant women. The case concluded in January 1989, just as the Fifty-first session of the Montana legislature convened. With the looming threat of additional lawsuits, the Montana Midwifery Association hired a lobbyist, raised funds, and organized supporters. Their goal: To change the Montana Medical Practice Act to exempt home birth midwifery. Continue reading