An Ugly Page Out of California History: Eugenics and the Latino Community

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Today marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. Having lived in San Francisco’s Mission District for a time, I always loved the cultural vibe of its large Latino population. I remember taking a walk one day during Hispanic Heritage Month and seeing the parade on Mission Street with the amazing display of pride and beauty of Latino culture.

Photo Credit: One of the many amazing murals in San Francisco’s Mission District, The Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, San Francisco, CA, taken 23 February 2012 by Wally Gobetz: wallyg/Flickr/ CC BY NC ND 2.0

But in addition to the joy, we also have to acknowledge the shame that those of us who are not Latino share in the history of oppression and persecution. As much as I love California, it is not a state free of this shame. My intention for this blog post was to write about Latina women in the early 20th century (which I will still do at some point). But my research led me down a much darker path in California’s history: When the law of eugenics was embraced in 1909 and led to the sterilization of many Latino women and men.

Eugenics, for those who might not be familiar with the term, refers to the idea that it’s possible to create a perfect society (a super-society, per se) by taking measures and putting in laws to prevent those considered “undesirable” from creating more “undesirables.” If it sounds uncomfortably like something Hitler and the Nazi party would embrace, it’s because this is exactly what they did. To this end, one of the ways the Nazi party put this law into action was by legalizing sterilization. In the courtroom drama Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), there is a heartbreaking scene where Montgomery Clift’s character takes the stand and attests to the trauma and shame of being forced to be sterilized (you can view the scene here). This was a reality in Nazi Germany, but sadly, it was also a reality for the Latino community in California in the first part of the 20th century.

In 1909, the government passed a law legalizing sterilization of “undesirables” and California embraced this law, targeting non-white men and women, but especially its large Latino population. The theory was crime and poverty would decrease if these people were limited in procreation (sounds like something out of a bad sci-fi movie, doesn’t it?) In the first half of the century, nearly 60,000 people were sterilized in the United States, mostly in mental institutions and asylums where doctors had the decision-making power for those under their care. Many of these people were told sterilization was reversible to help persuade them to cooperate. About a third of these were in California and the majority of those were Latino men and women.

The Latino community in California began to fight back. For example, ten women in Los Angeles filed a lawsuit to gain compensation for being manipulated and coerced by hospital staff to get sterilized in 1975, though, sadly, they lost. Thankfully, the law was repealed, though not until 1979. In 2021, California set aside a budget of $7.5 million dollars exclusively to compensate families whose members had fall victim to the eugenics program. 

If you’re looking for more of a glimpse of California history (the good, the bad, and the ugly), check out my Adele Gossling Mysteries series. Book 1 and Book 2 are both out and you can preorder Book 3 (coming out on October 29) here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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The Wage Gap: Is This Still a Thing?

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Today is Labor Day in America, which means it’s a celebration of the working woman and man. Women indeed have a lot to celebrate on this day. Working conditions for women have improved dramatically since the early 20th century sweatshops and job opportunities have opened. Many workplaces recognize women-specific situations and accommodate them (such as maternity leave and daycare). And sexual harassment in the workplace has largely been addressed.

But one thing we can’t celebrate is the wage gap. That is, women are still not being paid equally to men on average for the same or similar jobs. 

Photo Credit: Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, Washington D.C. Kennedy Center, taken 21 August 2019: Edithian/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 2.0

One of my favorite parts in the classic comedy 9 to 5 is the closing (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film). As the three office workers (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) are going around with the head of the company, showing him all the positive changes they’ve made (like flex time and daycare), the head guy tells their boss (Dabney Coleman) that the one change he disapproves of is paying women in the company the same as the men. As the credits close and the women are toasting their success, they recognize the wage gap is still an issue. I love this scene because even though by 1980, the second wave women’s movement had lost a lot of its earlier steam, partly because many women believed they had won the fight, it’s a reminder that the fight was just beginning.

The wage gap has existed for centuries. In the Victorian era, when fewer women were in the workforce and few had careers, women were often paid half or less of what men were paid. The reasons for this were, according to employers, practical, such as the idea that, according to the separate spheres, men were the breadwinners expected to support their families. Hence, they needed more money (a point Coleman makes to Tomlin in 9 to 5 when he tries to justify his reasons for giving a promotion she’s been wanting to a less capable male colleague). Women were at that time not expected to work for long, since their true calling (per the separate spheres) was marriage and motherhood, so employers didn’t want to pay full wages to workers whom they viewed as temporary (even if they weren’t). In addition, women’s work was undervalued because they were seen as “the weaker sex”. The jobs they performed were limited to what employers thought they could do for the most part (read: boring, repetitive tasks, such as in the factories) and therefore, valued less than men’s.

World War I was one period in American history where women earned more or less the same as men. It’s interesting to think employers and government are fine with paying women less for their own (illogical) reasons when they feel they don’t need women in the workforce, but when they do, they suddenly believe in equal pay. During the first World War, when men were scarce and workers were needed for the war effort, government officials agreed to pay women the same as men to entice them into the offices and factories. Sadly, this didn’t stick, not even during World War II when the same situation occurred (women got paid about forty percent less than men during the Second World War).

Just like the ladies of 9 to 5, we’re still fighting the wage gap in the 21st century. As mentioned, mid-20th century women were receiving a little more than half the wages of men on average and that number remained pretty steady after the war. It’s only slightly increased to about eighty-three percent, according to a study done in 2020. So we’re getting closer but we’re not there yet.

I believe in the working woman, which is why there are a lot of them in my Adele Gossling Mysteries series. There are a number of women entrepreneurs (including Adele herself), but there are also women working for employers (such as the young ladies rooming at Mrs. Taylor’s boarding house, whom readers meet in Book 2). The idea of the career woman also takes an interesting turn in my upcoming book. While Book 3, Death At Will isn’t out until October 29, you can grab a copy of it on preorder now.

And as for Labor Day in the early 20th century, you can experience what that was like when Book 4 of the series comes out next year!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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A Survey of Women’s Issues: Revisited

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Today is Women’s Equality Day, so there’s no better time to ask the question: Do we still need feminism?

It seems some of the younger generations would answer a firm “no” to this question. A while back, photos began appearing in my Facebook feed of young women holding up signs reading “I don’t need feminism.” These young women claimed to admit we still need feminism creates a victim mentality and demonizes all men, encouraging man-hating among women. As someone from an older generation who writes about women’s oppression, this was disturbing, to say the least!

Women have had a lot to fight for: in the 19th century and 20th and (dare I say it?) even the 21st. It’s not the fight that has changed but the nature of the issues.

In the 19th century, organized suffragism was born of a group of brave women whose names are branded in history like Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During this time, suffragists focused first on getting society to recognize women were equals to men (with limitations dictated by the separate spheres, of course — no use rocking the boat too much). But later, their focus shifted to one solitary goal: to win women the right to vote. Why was this so important? Suffragists were smart enough to realize that without the right to vote, they would never be able to implement changes into public policy that would carry through to future generations. 

When progressive movements took center stage at the turn of the 20th century, suffragism continued with women such as Jane Addams, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells. Women achieved success when the 19th Amendment was ratified in the United States in 1920. The Progressive Era increased awareness for many women that equality wasn’t just about the right to vote. It was also about psychological freedom and throwing off the shackles of 19th-century femininity limiting what women could and could not do and be. In that light, the New Woman was born: active, athletic, and freer in body and spirit than her mother and grandmother had been.

After the fight for suffragism and breaking the stereotype of the Victorian “angel in the house”, the post-World War” II generation brought back a more modern version of the angel. Betty Friedan labeled her “the feminine mystique”. Magazines, advertisements, and doctors advocated for a woman’s place in the home and her identity became tied to her relationships with others rather than her identity in and of itself. Friedan found these women in American suburbs living a life that fulfilled this destiny, but they were not happy because they suffered from The Problem That Has No Name. These women felt discontented and frustrated as if something was missing from their lives but they couldn’t define what it was.

Friedan’s book inspired others to speak out about their frustration and disillusionment, eventually leading to second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further into the political sphere than their 19th and early 20th century sisters. They zoomed in on social and personal oppressions, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

This meme is from Tumblr site called “Confused Cats Against Feminism” and is meant as a tongue-in-cheek attack against the anti-feminist movement of the 21st century. You can read more about it here

Photo Credit: Meme from the Confused Cats Against Feminism, taken 27 July 2014 by Jym Dyer: Jym Dyer/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

But the question still remains: Do we need feminism in the 21st century? My answer would be as firm as the “I don’t need feminism” movement: YES!

Why? Because many of the issues 20th-century feminists were fighting we are still fighting today. To give one example, 20th-century women fought for women’s reproductive rights, including a woman’s right to choose whether to have a baby or not. Earlier this year, the supreme court overturned the law (Roe vs. Wade) that legalized abortion. Whether you’re on the side for or against it, there is a deeper issue here of taking away women’s right to choose what they do with their bodies. That freedom is one women have been fighting for for years and will continue to fight as a basic human right.

Find out what Adele Gossling and her friends are fighting for in my Adele Gossling Mysteries! Both Book 1 and Book 2 are out now and Book 3 is coming in October.

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Impulses and Madness: The History of the Insanity Plea

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This last month, in honor of the release of my book, A Wordless Death, I wrote a series of newsletters for my newsletter subscribers about the 1914 murder of a New York schoolteacher named Lida Beecher. You can read a little about that case here

One of the fascinating things about this case is that it brought to the forefront the insanity defense in court cases in the 20th century. The insanity defense is when the defense lawyers claim the defendant was insane at the time he or she committed the crime. The caveat is the defense has to prove the accused had no conception of what he or she was doing when he or she committed the crime and had no concept of the moral or legal consequences of that behavior. To put it simply: They have to prove the defendant didn’t know what he or she was doing at the time of the crime and that what he or she was doing was morally wrong with legal consequences.

The insanity plea has actually been around since the mid-19th century. It was first used in Britain when a man standing trial for attempting to shoot the Prime Minister was acquitted when the jury decided he was psychotic and acting under the belief that the Prime Minister was conspiring against him. The insanity plea was used rarely throughout the years until the Leda Beecher case brought it back. In that case, the plea that Jean Gianini was innocent due to criminal imbecility (based partly on his results on the Binet test which found him to have the mental capacity of a ten-year-old even though he was sixteen) was accepted by the jury and Gianini was saved from the electric chair. Not that his fate was much better, as he was confined to a mental institution until his death in the 1980s. 

Photo Credit: Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where Jean Gianini spent most of his days after his trial, ariel view, 1926, War Department, Army Air Forces, National Archives at College Park: Ooligan/Wikimedia Commons/PD US Government

The difficulty of the insanity plea is obvious: Is the defendant really insane with no concept of right or wrong or that he or she had even committed a crime? Or is the defendant just putting on a good show? The controversy over the insanity defense stems from this, as many people believe most are shamming. Take the film Anatomy of a Murder (1959), which was based on a real case that occurred in 1952. In the film, an army lieutenant is accused of shooting a man who had raped the lieutenant’s wife. The defense uses the plea of “irresistible impulse,” a variation of the insanity plea. In the film, we see the defense attorney constantly coaching the defendant on what to say and how to behave to convince the jury of his insanity. And it ends up working. Like Gianini, the lieutenant is saved from the electric chair. 

We see the insanity plea used so much on TV and in films (because it makes for great drama) that we might think it’s used very often. In the early 20th century, when my Adele Gossling Mysteries takes place, it was used quite a bit in court cases. But in the 21st century, we’ve gotten wiser and perhaps more cynical. In fact, the insanity plea or a variation of it is used in less than one percent of court cases. And of those one percent, only about a quarter are accepted. It all boils down to whether juries are buying that someone, even if they are mentally ill or emotionally unstable, could really not comprehend either what he or she is doing or that what he or she is doing is wrong. Those cases where the plea is accepted usually show the defendant as having a long history of severe mental illness. 

Does mental illness or the insanity plea play a role in A Wordless Death? You can find out by getting your hands on a copy of the book. It’s still on sale at a special launch price, but not for long! All the details and links to book vendors are here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Creative License: Sherlock Holmes During World War II

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May is National Mystery Month, so what better way for us mystery lovers to celebrate than to take a look at one of the most, perhaps the most, famous sleuths in history: Sherlock Holmes?

I have to be honest here. I am not a great lover of the Holmes character. I find him too egotistical and woman-hating for my taste. However, there’s no denying Conan Doyle had something when he created this sleuth whose deductive reasoning and attention to detail wove intricate (and sometimes hard to believe) plots. I personally prefer sleuths who appreciate the value of intuition and psychology along with reasoning, such as Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, and, of course, the protagonist of my Adele Gossling Mysteries. 

Last month, I binge-watched the Sherlock Holmes films, but not the contemporary ones. I binge-watched the twelve Universal films and the two 20th Century Fox films. All were made in the late 1930s and 1940s and feature Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. 

The series is pretty distinctive in several ways. Classic crime buffs are familiar with Rathbone playing many villainous characters so the series gave him a chance to play a good guy. Bruce, whose name might not be familiar to you, created the Watson character as the lovable but somewhat bumbling sidekick which set a precedence for the Watson character (and many sleuth sidekicks) for books, TV, and film after that. 

Photo Credit: Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, cropped screenshot from Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, 1943, Universal Pictures: Patrick CecilF/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

But the most distinctive feature of the series is that most of them are not set in the late 19th or early 20th century when Conan Doyle wrote the Holmes books. They are set in the late 1930s and 1940s (that is, in times contemporary to when they were made). The series has an interesting history. Fox made the first 2 films which were actually set in the 19th century like the original books. These films weren’t very successful so Fox dropped the series. Universal picked it up and decided to change the setting to contemporary times. It was then the series became a huge hit and went on for twelve more films. 

Why did Universal decide to change the time period? When the third film in the series (and Universal’s first), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, came out, it was 1942 and World War II was raging. They thought the audience would identify more with a contemporary Holmes than a Holmes far removed from the war’s troubling times by fifty years. Audiences identified with the scenery of London and Europe featuring bombed-out buildings, air raids, and blackouts.

Universal took it a step further. The screenwriters revamped many of Conan Doyle’s plots to make them fit with the war. Instead of London underworld criminals. Holmes was fighting Nazi spies. For example, the fourth film in the series, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is based on a Conan Doyle short story but features a secret code Holmes is trying to keep from falling into German hands. 

Universal’s creative license was very effective not only in making the series more successful than Fox’s version but also in inserting messages to boost the morale of British and American audiences. Many of the films end with Holmes imparting philosophical messages to Watson that are essentially telling audiences not to lose faith and good will triumph over evil in the end. 

I’ll admit I’m a purist when it comes to films based on literature. I initially resisted seeing the series because so many of the films were set in contemporary (relative) times instead of when the books take place. But once I started to watch them, I got hooked on how the films show the life and struggle of citizens living during World War II. I highly recommend giving them a chance. You can find most of them on YouTube here

And if you want more mystery, check out my Adele Gossling Mysteries here. The first book in the series, The Carnation Murder, is out! You can find out all about it and pick up your copy here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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