The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt

Audrey Clare Farley. Grand Central, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-5387-5335-4
Historian Farley debuts with an intriguing account of socialite Ann Cooper Hewitt, who filed a $500,000 lawsuit against her mother in 1936 for having her sterilized in order to deprive her of her inheritance. According to Farley, Cooper Hewitt’s lawsuit “spark[ed] a nationwide debate on the changing nature of womanhood, the purpose of sexuality, and the merits of allowing doctors to decide who did and didn’t reproduce.” Farley sketches the history of the eugenics movement and fears over the emergence of the “New Woman” in early 20th-century America, but the narrative is at its most immersive when delving into the exploits of Cooper Hewitt’s mother, Maryon, who got rich by marrying well and often. Eleven months before Ann’s 21st birthday, Maryon, claiming that her daughter, who had suffered from “bronchial trouble” as a girl, was “feeble-minded” and “over-sexed,” bribed two doctors to remove Ann’s fallopian tubes during an appendectomy (if she died childless, Ann’s inheritance would revert to Maryon). After Maryon attempted suicide and the doctors who performed the procedure were acquitted of criminal charges, Ann settled the lawsuit for $150,000. Later chapters covering more recent cases of women sterilized without their informed consent feel more obligatory than essential, but Farley sets a brisk pace and persuasively reimagines the dynamic between Ann and Maryon. This is an eye-opening portrait of an obscure yet fascinating case. (Apr.)
Reviewed on : 01/26/2021
Release date: 04/20/2021
Genre: Nonfiction
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