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 Birth of an Art Form: The Kodak Camera

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This Sunday will mark one hundred and thirty-four years since the birth of the Kodak camera. While it’s an interesting fact for us history buffs, I wouldn’t have thought much about its significance except that several years ago, my brother got interested in street photography (as a hobby). Living in San Francisco gave him plenty of subjects, and some of his photographs are pretty amazing. You can view some of them here

So many of us in the 21st century don’t think of photography as an art form and for good reason. Most of us now have access to a camera at our fingertips, from our phones to our computers to other devices we might not even think of (like my iPad mini). It’s so easy for us to just point and shoot that we do it without thinking. It’s not for nothing the word “selfie” was invented some twenty years ago even though the concept of taking a photograph of yourself existed long before that.

In many ways, George Eastman (the inventor of the Kodak camera) is responsible for many of us overlooking the potential of photography as art. In 1888, he did what Ford would do twenty years later with cars: He made cameras affordable and accessible to the general public.

Photo Credit: The original Kodak camera, 1888, Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company, National Museum of American History, National Treasures Exhibit: National Museum of American History/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

Before then, having your photograph taken (which didn’t really become a thing until the 19th century) was an ordeal. It required a professional photographer to set up the photograph and people had to stay still for a long time to get the picture. If you’ve ever wondered why people look so serious in 19th-century photographs, part of the reason is that it’s hard to keep smiling for that long while you’re waiting for someone to set up the camera and the picture.

But Eastman’s Kodak changed all that. When people could get their hands on a Brownie camera in the early 20th century, for example (which cost only one dollar then – don’t we wish that were true now!) photography became all the rage. People could take pictures quickly and efficiently (so there was a lot more smiling and spontaneity going on). Of course, they had to wait to get the pictures developed, since photo processing labs in places like drugstores didn’t exist until later. People had to send the camera with the film to the Kodak company for development and were sent back the camera with a new roll of empty film along with the developed pictures. 

This was when photography began to get more attention. Photographers like Alfred Stiegler and Walter Evans set the standard in the early 20th century for documentary-style photographic art that captured life in America as people lived it. One of the more famous examples of this was photographer Dorothea Lange, whose documentation of the realities of the Great Depression left its mark in its brutal depiction of life during economic hardship (and makes us shudder when we look at them today, given the more recent post-pandemic economic downturn). 

New inventions characterized the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (as I mentioned in this blog post about the invention of the automobile) and people viewed them with more excitement than we do now. When Missy Grace, the editor and reporter of Arrojo’s only newspaper in my Adele Gossling Mysteries, shows up with her camera, people are all abuzz. She manages to even tame a group of schoolgirls in Book 1 with her camera!

You can read about that in Book 1 here. And don’t forget that Book 2 is also available and Book 3 is now up for preorder!

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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The New Woman and Her New Education

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In the second book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, the theme is education. Millie Gibb, the murder victim, is a teacher for an all-girls school in Arrojo (which readers of Book 1 will know well). She’s a good teacher but she has higher aspirations. She wants to be an etymologist (a word expert) and she even intends to study the subject under a prominent (fictional) professor in the field. Millie is, like many New Women of her time, college-educated. In fact, a fellow occupant at the boarding house where she lives remarks her college education makes her stand-offish to the rest of the boarders.

I’ve always been interested in women’s education but I was reminded of it recently when I found the 1988 mini-series The Murder of Mary Phagan (if you love historical mini-series, you can catch the entire thing, commercials included, on YouTube here) The mini-series is based on a true story of a 14-year-old factory girl in Atlanta who was found murdered in 1913 and the trial that took place. In the film, the prosecuting attorney discredits a character witness from Columbia University who attests the defendant (a young man) treated people with kindness and respect by pointing out that, since Columbia University was not co-ed, the man had no chance of observing how the defendant treated women (which is an important part of the case against him).

Photo Credit: Postcard of Columbia University campus 1903 (a good 80 years before the college became co-ed), New York Public Library: NYPL’s Public Domain Archive/CC0 1.0

It wasn’t only Columbia University that barred women from its ranks (it didn’t become co-ed until 1983) but many other universities in the country. While public schools had been co-ed for a while, colleges in America were much slower in embracing women amongst their ranks. A lot of this had to do with the idea of the separate spheres (remember, a woman’s destiny was home, family, and church – not higher education). It also had to do with the perception that women were “too delicate” for the rigors of college study. It was generally thought if a woman had too much knowledge, she would be less appealing to men in the marriage market. We can write these off as utter nonsense (or whatever colorful word you want to use) today, but back then, it was taken very seriously.

We have only to look at the statistics to see how true this is. In 1900, about 19% of students in colleges across the United States were women. And note that in the 19th century especially, many women might enter college but they weren’t allowed to graduate or earn a degree. They could take classes only. Thankfully, as the New Woman began to advocate for a more well-rounded vision of femininity (one that included education) and women fought for their rights, increased opportunities for education became part of the agenda and that number increased. By 1920, 39% of college students were women. And this year, a whopping 74% of enrollees were women! From 19% to 75% is pretty impressive.

See how women’s education plays out in A Wordless Death, which you can get 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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🥳Release Day Blitz for A Wordless Death!🥳

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Title: A Wordless Death

Series: Adele Gossling Mysteries: Book 2

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Cozy Mystery

Release Date: July 30, 2022

Adele Gossling is adjusting well to small-town life after the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. Despite her progressive ideas about women and her unladylike business acumen, even Arrojo’s most prominent citizens are beginning to accept her. Provided she sticks with the business of fountain pens and letter paper and stays out of crime investigation, that is…

But that’s just what she can’t do when Millie Gibb, the new teacher at the local girl’s school, is found dead and everybody in town assumes the homely, unmarried spinster committed suicide. After all, what enemies could a harmless, middle-aged woman have?

Adele and her clairvoyant friend Nin intend to find out. But can they prove Millie’s death was foul play based on a cigar stub, a letter fragment, and a cigarette lighter before the case is closed for good?

You’ll love this turn-of-the-century whodunit where a sassy and smart New Woman gives the police a run for their money!

“The characters are true to life, and the early methods used in criminal detection are fun to read.” – Amazon reviewer

You can get your copy of the book at a special promotional price at the following online retailers.


Excerpt

After the men had left, both her brother and the sheriff rose, brushing coal dust from their clothes. 

“No glass, I take it,” said Adele.

“No, but something much more interest,” said her brother. “Something in your line of work, Del.”

He showed her what looked like a fragment of a written document. The edges were crisp and charred and written on it was a small dark print she could barely read.

“That explains why there was a fire burning last night even though it’s been rather mild these past few days except for the wind,” he remarked.

“A discouraging lover, you think?” Hatfield raised an eye.

“It wouldn’t be uncommon,” said Jackson. “Though perhaps a little surprising.”

Adele did not fail to catch his meaning. “Miss Gibb might not have been a beauty, Jack, but many men appreciate intelligence and education more than giggles and curls.”

She was rewarded by Hatfield’s deep chuckle of approval.

“Love doesn’t usually go with money, though, does it?” Jackson said. “Whatever this letter contained, it had to do with a lot of money.” He showed the sheriff what he meant.

Here, the croak sounded from Mrs. Taylor and they all looked at her.

“Begging your pardon, sir,” said the woman. “I don’t get into the business of my guests unless —”

“Unless?” Hatfield head went up.

“It’s necessary, of course,” was her resolute answer.

“You know something about this?” he asked.

“Well, no, sir, not that in particular,” said Mrs. Taylor. “But more than once Millie had to ask to delay her payment here. Had a cousin who was rather in a bad way financially.” She looked embarrassed. “I don’t like to go ‘round telling the private business of my guests but —”

“That’s all right, ma’am,” said Jackson. “We’re police, not gossips.”

“Well, now that I see everything is all right —” But she still hesitated and Adele understood the woman’s concern. Her sense of decorum had gotten a jolt at the idea a room she only rented to women boarders was now being trampled over my male footsteps.

“I’ll make sure everything is all right, Mrs. Taylor,” she said in a low voice.

The woman rewarded her with one of her gummy smiles and departed without ceremony.

“Could be this cousin was asking for money again,” Jackson said.

“Why throw the letter in the fire, then?” asked Hatfield. “I’ve had more than one of Ma’s uncles write us for a few gold coins and even when I refused, I never threw the letter out.”

“Perhaps she didn’t want other people in the house to know she had a mercenary cousin,” Adele said.

“A relative that keeps asking for money is not a favorite relative,” Jackson agreed.

“The question is, could he be a relative that kills?” Adele murmured.

About the Author

As soon as Tam May started her first novel at the age of fourteen, writing became her voice. She writes engaging, fun-to-solve historical cozy mysteries featuring sassy suffragist Adele Gossling. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and feature amateur sleuth and epistolary expert Adele Gossling, a forward-thinking young woman whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with her town’s Victorian ideas about women’s place in society. Tam has also written historical women’s fiction. Her post-World War II short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, debuted at #1 in its category on Amazon, and the first book of her Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, The Specter, remains in the top 10 in its category. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in Texas because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting vegetarian dishes in her kitchen.

Social Media Links

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/tammayauthor/ 

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

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