In 1942, 18-year-old Iris Lopez, a Mexican-American woman, started working at the Calship Yards in Los Angeles. Working on the home front building Victory Ships not only added to the war effort, but allowed Iris to support her family.
However, before joining the shipyards, Iris was entangled in another lesser-known history. At the age of 16, Iris was committed to a California institution and sterilized.
Iris wasn’t alone. In the first half of the 20th century, approximately 60,000 people were sterilized under US eugenics programs. Eugenic laws in 32 states empowered government officials in public health, social work and state institutions to render people they deemed “unfit” infertile.
California led the nation in this effort at social engineering. Between the early 1920s and the 1950s, Iris and approximately 20,000 other people — one-third of the national total — were sterilized in California state institutions for the mentally ill and disabled.
To better understand the nation’s most aggressive eugenic sterilization program, our research team tracked sterilization requests of over 20,000 people. We wanted to know about the role patients’ race played in sterilization decisions. What made young women like Iris a target? How and why was she cast as “unfit”?
Racial biases affected Iris’ life and the lives of thousands of others. Their experiences serve as an important historical backdrop to ongoing issues in the US today.
“Race Science” and Sterilization
Eugenics was seen as a “science” in the early 20th century, and its ideas remained popular into the midcentury. Advocating for the “science of better breeding,” eugenicists endorsed sterilizing people considered unfit to reproduce.
Under California’s eugenic law, first passed in 1909, anyone committed to a state institution could be…