The Weakest Link – Susan Miller

The Weakest Link
Susan Miller

“So you’re back in this dump again,” Doreen said as she stacked the morning’s dirty dishes on the counter next to the big kitchen sink, the rising steam causing her full pink face to shine.

“Yep, here I am again,” Janet said as she continued clearing the tables in the large dining room careful not to let the leftover oatmeal and milk pour down the front of her apron. She carried the trays piled high with the remains of breakfast from the hundred or so girls currently staying at the Northern Colony in Chippewa Falls. She was glad the population had shrunk a little from its height of 140 girls in 1914, just two years ago, since it meant a lot less dishes to wash. She had not had to do this chore in a while and her petite hands ached from the load.

“Well, where did you run off to that they found you so easy?” Eliza chimed in as she started preparing the bread dough for the evening’s meal glad she was not stuck with Doreen’s job of washing the dishes. The newest members always got stuck with the dirtiest of jobs so Janet was back to helping with the grunt work.

“I went to my older sister Mildred’s house on the North side Milwaukee. I know it was a dumb move but I was not sure where to go. I thought I could hide there for a while before going down to my Aunt Helen’s in Chicago. I guess they knew about my sister and were watching for me there.” Janet said, her red-rimmed eyes looking down at the bread crumbs she would have to sweep up after clearing the tables.

“Wow, tough luck,” Doreen said as tried to smooth down her frizzy brown hair with wet hands.

“They caught me in Vizey’s Hall last year – a dance hall in Milwaukee. Here I was trying to get a young gent to pay for my next meal but the bloke turned out to be the law. I guess none of us have much luck.”  At this Doreen emitted her high-pitched laugh that drove Eliza crazy.

“Unlike you I was not trying to solicit men. I was just in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time.”  Janet did not dare to add that she was in an Italian saloon before they found her at her sister’s.

She had hoped to run into handsome Petronius whom she had met there the year before. She knew he had a little money from his chimney sweeping business and hoped he might help her out. Janet was aware that most of the girls looked down on Italian immigrants but she really did not see the point of it since most of them came from families newly arrived from Germany, Ireland and elsewhere looking for a better life.

“Well, la te da!” Doreen chortled. “Miss fancy pants was sauntering down Poor Street instead of Wisconsin Avenue with her parasol.”

“Oh, let her be,” Eliza frowned, “we have all been down a back alley or two to get here.”  Eliza did not hide the fact that she was arrested for prostitution in Madison two years before. She thought it was for the best since she was now getting the housing and food she needed to survive after her parents died penniless in a boarding house fire.

“I heard through the grapevine that you’re supposed to appear before the control board next week to be considered for sterilization,” Eliza said as she continued to punch the rising bread dough.

“That’s true; they’re not done torturing me yet.”   Janet continued sweeping the floor of its crumbs wishing she could dump the dustpan down the front of Doreen’s dress.

“I heard they sterilized ten girls last week when Doc Schultz was up here,” Doreen said.

“Glad they haven’t got around to cutting my innards up yet!  I am still hoping to have a child someday.”

“You with a child – I’d feel sorry for that kid,” Eliza chuckled.

“Hey – watch it – I’m washing the knives now,” Doreen said as she held up a big one.

“How can you laugh about it – I have not done anything to deserve being locked up here and now my right to have children might be taken away from me!” Janet ran out of the room in tears.

She ran back to her dorm room wishing she could just be left alone to figure out her next move but there weren’t too many places one could hide in the grey cement building. After finding other girls lounging in the bunk room, she ended up going to the small library at the other end of the building to gather her thoughts. Before her escape two weeks ago, she had sat in the same chair reading up on eugenics, a term she was not familiar with until then. She had seen demonstrators in Milwaukee holding signs that said things like “I am a burden to myself and the State, should I be allowed to Propagate?” and “Would the prisons and asylums be filled if my kind had no children?” but she did not understand where this animosity towards the poor was coming from. She had heard the term, eugenics, bandied about but did not know its meaning until she looked it up in the dictionary on the library’s corner table. The dictionary said it meant the theory and practice of improving the genetic quality of the human population. Advocates believed that only “fit” individuals should breed creating a “better” human and “unfit” people should be prevented from reproducing.

Thank God my parents can’t see what’s become of me, Janet thought as she looked through the bars of the library window. She missed the staunch assuredness her parents brought with them from Germany. A confidence that America would flow with the milk and honey of happiness and prosperity and all they needed to do was be industrious and unwavering. But when her father died of kidney problems, her mother went back to Germany to take care of her own mother and Janet and her sister were sent to live with her Aunt Alice. That turned out to be a mistake since her aunt had epileptic seizures and had been taken to an infirmary leaving her and Mildred to fend for themselves.

Janet did not think this made her “unfit” as the eugenic movement seemed to describe her. She wanted to marry, have a family and live the dream of modernity. Electricity was changing the lives of so many in the urban environment and she wanted to be a part of that new life. How exciting it would be to have her own house some day with electric lights and a telephone. Next week the Control Board might take that all away.

Janet arrived at the courthouse at the appointed time after a long train ride to Milwaukee with one of the stern guards from the institution. It was another sweltering summer day and the few ladies in the back of the courtroom fanned their faces while the men tried to ignore the beads of perspiration running down their necks making them look like they had just jumped fully clothed into Lake Michigan.

The big clock on the south wall loudly ticked off the seconds while assorted officials arranged paperwork in front of themselves.

Janet sat at the front of the court room examining her hands clenched in her lap. Jacob Brown, her court appointed defender, had warned her to wear a white blouse and a long dark skirt to give an aura of respectability but she just felt hot and immobilized. She had pinned her long, red hair up into a severe bun on top of her head and the tightness of it gave her petite face a pained look.

“The Sterilization Commission has determined that Janet Smith, an inmate of the Northern Colony, is a candidate for sterilization,” boomed Barney Jasper as he finally stood up before the Wisconsin State Board of Control, his voice resembling the big burley man that he was.

“On what grounds does the Commission make this determination?” asked Jacob, quickly rising from his chair next to Janet before the assembled group of men.  Jacob was clearly one of the youngest men in the room, his smooth, hairless face and baby-blue eyes at odds with the bearded men with their monocles in the front of the room.

Barney read out loud from a ledger in his hand, “Janet was arrested for disorderly conduct in 1913 and a year later for vagrancy. After committing her to the institution she tried to escape twice. Her father died from kidney problems, she has one paternal uncle residing in a poorhouse, two maternal aunts in insane asylums and we are unable to locate her mother. Her sister, deemed immoral and feebleminded, had two illegitimate children. Janet is not particular with whom she associates and has been seen with Indians, Italians and Negroes. She is considered quarrelsome and based on her background and behavior, the committee diagnosed her as having congenital mental deficiency and decided that procreation was inadvisable and recommends sterilization.”  Pleased with himself, Barney plopped back down in his chair.

“So based on her family background, her lack of funds and hearsay, you are forbidding this young woman the right to bear a child in her lifetime?” Jacob asked.

“We all know society does not need more of her type reproducing – we are already paying for her room and board at the facility and we don’t need more of her kind on the state’s dole.” Barney countered as if Janet could not comprehend his words.

“This young woman is not mentally deficient; she is merely poor and has made a few bad choices. What decree allows you to take away her God given right to reproduce?”

“The State of Wisconsin gave us those rights in 1913! And, may I remind you young man, this is not the place to argue the merits of eugenics, we are only here to discuss the case of Janet Smith!”

The sweating men at the front of the room nodded their assent at Barney’s comment and a few looked contemptuously in Jacob’s direction. Janet realized with horror that this was not even close to a democratic process; her fate had already been sealed. She slumped in her chair, her face seeming to melt in the heat.

“I am discussing Janet Smith! And, let me know remind you that she has never been formally charged prostitution, only vagrancy. You would be a bit quarrelsome yourself if you had to deal with what this poor woman has been through.”

“I am sure she has had her difficulties – I am not debating that! But you admit yourself – she is a poor woman and the state should not be on the hook for any children she brings forth.”

“How can you believe that the state would have to support any children she has in the future?

Hopefully she has a long life ahead of her where she could potentially marry and become a mother.”

“You don’t understand – it is not just that she is poor.” Barney advised Jacob like he was talking to someone unschooled. “There is ample evidence that her family is genetically predisposed to mental and physical deficiencies. I said we were not going to debate the merits of eugenics but as forward thinking men of more enlightened times we want to improve the future of Wisconsin and the race of men by discouraging unhealthy qualities in the races. Darwin himself proved that evolution is a process of natural selection – the healthiest characteristics are usually those that evolve – and as humans we should naturally select what we want most to evolve – you know, survival of the fittest.”

“Survival of the fittest!” Jacob screeched, “That’s fine on the Galapagos Islands but it has absolutely no bearing on this case!”

The committee chairman, sweating heavily in the front of the room, pounded his gavel and announced, “Here, here – we are not going down this path again. We have already heard these particular arguments twice today for other wayward girls.  We have heard the committee’s recommendations for sterilization and I say we put this to a vote right now. All in favor of sterilization in this case say yeah.”

All ten men in the front of the room gave their assent quickly, looking determined to end the day. They filed out of the courtroom trying to avoid walking near Janet’s table while the guard jangled the handcuff and keys hanging from his belt.

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