Vermont Considers Dumping Dorothy Canfield Fisher Over Ties to Eugenics Movement | History | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Considers Dumping Dorothy Canfield Fisher Over Ties to Eugenics Movement 

Published June 21, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated September 17, 2019 at 9:46 p.m.

click to enlarge Dorothy Canfield Fisher as a young woman
  • Dorothy Canfield Fisher as a young woman

The late author and social activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher was no slouch. The Arlington resident wrote 40 books, spoke five languages and received at least eight honorary degrees. When she wasn't writing, the best-selling novelist was leading World War I relief efforts, managing the first U.S. adult education program and promoting prison reform. Eleanor Roosevelt named her one of the 10 most influential women in the United States. 

Now one Vermonter wants to add "eugenicist" to Fisher's résumé because of the writer's connection to a dark chapter in state history. With support from a number of librarians, teachers and historians, Abenaki educator Judy Dow is lobbying the Vermont Department of Libraries to strip Fisher's name from the popular children's literature award created 60 years ago to honor her. 

Dow points out that Fisher stereotyped French Canadians and Native Americans in her writings, and she claims that the writer was part of the eugenics movement that called for cleansing Vermont of "bad seeds" and "feeble-minded" people in the 1920s and '30s. The state should not enshrine the name of such a woman, especially in a literary program focused on children, Fisher's critics say.

The controversy facing the Vermont state librarian has a familiar ring — it echoes the recent fight over replacing the Rebels mascot at South Burlington High School, as well as the removal of Confederate statues throughout the American South.

It's appropriate to revisit history and reexamine the lessons it might teach through a contemporary lens, said State Librarian Scott Murphy, who has the final say on whether to remove Fisher's name. But he said it's also important to view things in context and take a measured approach when it comes to removing honors in response to changing attitudes and understanding.

"I'm not saying this is an instance where we don't do it," Murphy said about the Fisher awards. "We want to make sure that we make the right decision."

"Some people will be upset," predicted Julie Pickett in an email to Murphy; as the children's librarian at Stowe Free Library, she supports Dow's effort. "Some will say political correctness is taking over. It's all in the eye of the beholder and is a very complicated issue, for sure."

Murphy said he is skeptical about the most serious claim against Fisher. "I haven't seen a smoking gun that says she was a eugenicist," he said during an interview at his Montpelier office last week. Fisher was not among the prominent Vermonters who sat on the advisory board of the Vermont Eugenics Survey, a chilling social-science experiment that ran from 1925 to 1936. But she did serve on a related organization, the Vermont Commission on Country Life, which was charged with revitalizing the state's Yankee roots.

Murphy called that association "problematic." And he said Dow's April presentation to the state library board, in which she cited examples of Fisher's insulting characterizations, was an "eye-opener."

In Fisher's novel Bonfire, one character describes another as "half-hound, half-hunter, all Injun." In her play Tourists Accommodated, a Yankee Vermont farm woman who is renting rooms responds to a potential French Canadian guest "speaking as to a dog she rather fears." In a state tourism pamphlet, Fisher invited families of "good breeding" to consider buying second homes in Vermont. 

Murphy characterized Dow's presentation as "very powerful." The board is expected to make its recommendation to him at its next meeting, on July 11. Murphy plans to make a decision soon after that.

Fisher fans argue that the author, like Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad, was a product of her times. To get hung up on her perceived failings is to ignore countless other things that set this crusading humanitarian apart.

"There were wonderful parts of her," said children's author Katherine Paterson of Montpelier, winner of the National Book Award, the Newbery Medal and other honors — though not Vermont's Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award. "But there were also parts of her, as there are parts of all of us, that were not praiseworthy and perhaps were offensive to other people." 

Judging Fisher by contemporary standards brings up a difficult question, continued Paterson, adding that history serves up plenty such questions.

"Our founding fathers were slave owners. And the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence was definitely a slave owner, who said that all men are created equal," Paterson said, referring to Thomas Jefferson.

"I don't think we can throw out the Declaration of Independence because it was created by a man who didn't live it," she said.

The Perfect Vermonter?

click to enlarge Dorothy Canfield Fisher at home in Arlington - COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF VERMONT SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
  • Courtesy Of University Of Vermont Special Collections
  • Dorothy Canfield Fisher at home in Arlington

Vermont created a reading program to honor Fisher and promote excellence in children's literature in 1957. She died the following year, at the age of 79, in her beloved Arlington. In that small southern Vermont town, she corresponded with American writer Willa Cather, helped Robert Frost find a home nearby and posed with her husband for neighbor Norman Rockwell of Saturday Evening Post fame.

Although she was born in Kansas, Fisher and her family had deep roots in Vermont. After her marriage to fellow writer John Fisher, Dorothy made her home at the old Canfield family farm in Arlington. From the lovely white house with sweeping views of the Battenkill Valley, Fisher wrote prolifically. She popularized Vermont as a rural kingdom of rugged hill farms tilled by self-reliant, sturdy people.

But she also wrote articles and columns about politics, prison reform, domestic life and the need for better education funding that ran in popular periodicals and newspapers of the day. The versatile writer could opine in a scholarly way as well as churn out engaging fiction, from children's stories such as Understood Betsy to the sexually charged novel Bonfire.

State senator and University of Vermont English professor Philip Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) teaches Fisher's The Home-Maker, a fictional story about a father who takes on the primary child-raising role and which incorporates Montessori education principles. A trip to Italy sold Fisher on the preschool method that emphasizes self-direction and empathy, and she became its most enthusiastic proponent in the U.S.

Baruth also praised Fisher's 1912 nonfiction book, A Montessori Mother. "That's a fantastic addition to the literature on child-rearing," Baruth said. "And, again, it was pathbreaking. So, to have her name on the Dorothy Canfield Fisher award makes real sense to me."  

But Bonfire and several of her works were set in Clifford, a fictional Vermont town with pockets of entrenched poverty, including "Searles Shelf." The book portrays this hilly section of town as an enclave of French Canadian and French Indian sloths. Residents from another poor section of town are "irresponsible sub-normals." The central character, the alluring temptress Lixlee, is a "primitive" who comes from mysterious parentage that townspeople speculate might be "southern" or "foreign" or just plain "French canuck."

More unflattering references to French Canadians come in Tourists Accommodated, the play Fisher wrote in 1932 to help popularize tourism in Vermont. When a French-speaking man and woman in "countrified" costumes knock at the door of a Vermont farm that has just started taking in lodgers, Aunt Nancy, the lady of the house, urges them to "go home."

Once she learns that they are merely asking, in French, to rent two rooms, Aunt Nancy agrees in an apparent show of tolerance. The French-speaking characters are nevertheless portrayed as aliens in the Yankee community, even though there was widespread emigration from Québec in that era.

Recruiting the right people to Vermont was a strong theme in a state tourism pamphlet Fisher wrote the same year. With pictures of handsome historic Colonials and unspoiled mountain views, the "Vermont Summer Homes" brochure reached out to "superior, interesting families of cultivation and good breeding" who might not be rich in dollars but were rich in intellect — professors, doctors, lawyers and musicians who used their brains to make a living. "We feel that you and Vermont have much in common," Fisher wrote in her genteel pitch to attract refined second-home owners.

Similar themes and stereotypes are found in other Fisher writings. In a commencement presentation she wrote in 1941 called "Man and the Wilderness," Fisher explains how the residents of Manchester eventually bought a house for an itinerant Native American woman known as "Old Icy" when her "intoe-ing feet" could no longer carry her from local town to town.

While on the one hand the essay attempts to show the community's tolerance, it also downplays the prejudice of the day with the declaration that Vermont was never a real home to Indians and the state did not harbor "ugly racial hatred and oppression."

Breeding Prejudice

In her lifelong fight for social justice, Fisher stood up for vulnerable minorities: illiterate adults, female prisoners, disabled children, conscientious objectors. So it's puzzling that she seemed to have had a blind spot for the Vermont Eugenics Survey, which, in the language of its founder, Henry Perkins, was designed to provide information about "human heredity and about defective and degenerate families in the state."

Perkins pushed for sterilization programs and believed his Vermont research proved that bad genes were destined to repeat themselves in families. "Blood has told," he wrote in his first survey report about the families he studied, in 1927, "and there is every reason to believe it will keep on telling in future generations."

After growing up on South Prospect Street in Burlington, Perkins became a zoology professor at the University of Vermont, where he had big shoes to fill — his father, George Perkins, was a dean on the hilltop campus and a well-known entomologist. 

The younger Perkins began teaching a UVM course in heredity and evolution in 1922, and, as the eugenics movement picked up steam around the country and globe, he made the quest for better human breeding his main academic focus. His targets of study were "degenerate'' Vermont families who were often French Indian and, in some cases, black.

Perkins published five reports between 1925 and 1931 and continued a few more years before the project ran out of steam. The first survey involved long "pedigree" studies, conducted by social workers who interviewed and studied members of three extended families in and around Burlington. They supplemented their research with records from police, various state institutions and old poor-farm reports going back more than a century.

The roots of one family, identified as "gypsies," were traced to an Indian reservation near Montréal, according to the survey. It also references numerous children in the family who had "negro blood" and whose descendants were identified as "colored," "copper toned" and "swarthy." The family was labeled as "gypsies" because in its early history in Vermont, members traveled from town to town by wagon, selling baskets and other goods.

A lengthy chart lists the "defects" of the various members of the extended "gypsy" clan over several generations and uses labels such as "illiterate," "town pauper" and "sex offender." Although the labels were often based on unsubstantiated gossip or personal bias, the identification likely increased the risk that such people would face involuntary confinement in institutions for those with perceived mental illness or cognitive delays.

In the Second Annual Report of the Eugenics Survey, published in 1928, Perkins announced the creation of a comprehensive survey of rural Vermont that would examine racial, "eugenical," hygienic, agricultural, social and mental aspects, among other things. The governor would appoint members, he explained, and the Eugenics Survey would be at "its center and core," Perkins wrote. 

He hired Henry Taylor to oversee the new organization, which was called the Vermont Commission on Country Life. More than 70 people, including Fisher, were recruited to take part and to produce chapters for a 1931 book titled Rural Vermont: A Program for the Future. Taylor explained in the introduction that Perkins and his eugenics questions were the motivation. 

"For more than a century, Vermont has been one of the most reliable seedbeds of our national life," Taylor wrote, adding that conserving the quality of the human stock was a key issue for the state and the Vermont Commission on Country Life. 

But the commission also studied ways to revitalize agriculture, education and the arts. Fisher served on the "traditions and ideals" subcommittee, which suggested strategies to improve the state's image through drama and tourism promotion, as well as ways to preserve its culture and historic architecture. Helen Hartness Flanders, who spent her life collecting and archiving Vermont folk songs, served with Fisher on the subcommittee. Their chapter closes with this encouragement: "The old stock is here still, in greater proportion to the total population than in any other commonwealth of the north." 

Historian Nancy Gallagher documented Vermont's eugenics movement in her book Breeding Better Vermonters. In it, she noted an implicit racism in the commission's overarching ideals. She won't call Fisher a "eugenicist" but concludes from her participation that the author was someone who clearly accepted the eugenic attitudes of the era and "shared the values."

In 1932, Fisher agreed to serve on the commission's executive committee — one year after Perkins successfully pushed a sterilization law through the Vermont legislature and called for more widespread institutionalization of "feeble-minded" people, in part so they would be unable to reproduce and create more "bad seeds."

Although the Vermont sterilization law was voluntary, Gallagher said many people in institutions agreed to undergo the procedure without understanding what it was or as a condition of release — coercion, essentially. About 250 people were sterilized in Vermont institutions between 1933 and 1960, according to Department of Health records, although the statistics might be incomplete.

Meanwhile, some of the language used in the eugenics movement, including the importance of good bloodlines, crops up in Fisher's writings. In some cases, her books stand up against prejudice, yet they also seem to promote softer versions of ugly stereotypes. In Seasoned Timber, a young Vermont headmaster refuses to accept a gift from a donor who sets a condition: that the school must deny entrance to Jews. But later in the book, the same headmaster refers to a prospective student's "awful Jewish mother" and her "New-York-Mediterranean haggling code."   

Eugenics movements — in Vermont and elsewhere — set the stage for the pseudoscience and racist philosophies that gave rise to Adolf Hitler and World War II.

Cons and Pros

click to enlarge Judy Dow - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Judy Dow

Dow grew up in Burlington's New North End in a family with Québec and Abenaki roots, although her parents didn't say much about the Native American part. But her father, a firefighter, was raised on Convent Square overlooking the Intervale. The tight cluster of streets was once known as "Moccasin Village," according to Dow, because so many French Indian families lived there. She views both parts of her heritage as equally important.

As an adult, Dow became interested in Abenaki traditions and studied and began teaching them in Vermont schools through a state-funded artist-in-residency program. She played a pivotal role in the successful effort to move an industrial-scale composting operation out of the Intervale, partly by raising concerns about its impact on a possible Abenaki burial ground in the floodplain along the Winooski River.

Through her activism, Dow met Gallagher, who confirmed that some of Dow's own relatives, including a great-aunt in Colchester, had been identified in one of the Vermont eugenics pedigree surveys. It focused on a family for its supposed high rate of Huntington's disease, a neurological condition.

Today Dow lives in a sunny suburban house in which she recently hosted Gallagher, retired French teacher Kim Chase and a Seven Days reporter. A collection of baskets, some made by Dow, were displayed near the kitchen table.

Dow is determined to get Fisher's name off the award program. She's told the board that "it's a crime that very good authors are receiving this award under the name of an author who's a eugenicist, and they don't even know it."

Gallagher agrees with Dow that the Fisher connection should go. "I think we can find someone else, a better name," she said.

So does Chase, who has Québécois roots. "Holding this person up as an example of wonderful literacy is really painful," she said.

But Fisher's defenders see injustice in the call to rid the award of her name.

"I don't mean to make light of the eugenics movement; it was a horrible thing," said Baruth. "But I've yet to see evidence that Dorothy Canfield Fisher was an active part of that movement or that she campaigned for its goals.

"Having taught her work, having thought a great deal about her work and also having investigated this controversy," he continued, "I just don't see there's the kind of evidence you would need to say this person is a eugenicist, this person is generally neo-Nazi in her views."

Many people served on the Vermont Commission on Country Life, Baruth added, and Fisher's attitudes about the demographics of Vermont were shaped by the era.

"That was extremely typical of the day," he said. "It's not as though she was unique in talking about Vermont as a Yankee place. We brand and capitalize on the idea of the Yankee today."

Fisher's name should stay on the award, Baruth said.

"She was a fantastically important figure in Vermont, and she was a best-selling, groundbreaking female author. I don't think we've got enough important female authors that we can afford to throw one overboard, for the evidence I've seen."

Librarians Are Talking

click to enlarge Scott Murphy - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Scott Murphy

Who knows Fisher better than anyone? Vermont librarians. Murphy asked them for feedback, and the emails are filtering in.

Some urged him not to make a rash decision. Cheryl Sloan, youth services librarian at the Charlotte Library, was not fully convinced by Dow's presentation to the state library board in April.

"I would like to see some balanced investigation into the actual history of Dorothy before we take all of Ms. Dow's information at face value," Sloan wrote. "Some of the books she had piled before her in Berlin were works of fiction by Dorothy. Can we condemn an author on their body of fiction?"

But Catherine Davie, a school librarian at Blue Mountain Union School in Wells River, is ready to see Fisher's name go.

Although she has participated in the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award program "in every possible way," including a sleepover at her library this spring, Davie wrote that now is the time to make a change.

"With deep respect for her skill as a writer and as a social activist, I don't think it's right to ask all of Vermont's students to honor her in this way, when some of her beliefs are so repugnant to some of them," she wrote. 

Pickett of the Stowe Free Library is of a similar mind. "Even though it may seem like Dorothy is being thrown under the bus, I can't abide the fact that she did indeed support a eugenics movement that had a devastating effect on generations of Native Americans and French Canadians," Pickett wrote.

"Do we penalize every racist? Every person involved in eugenics or slavery? We obviously can't. But this small step, in my mind, is a recognition of wrongdoing and is a step toward healing," Picket added. "Maybe in this divisive world we live in right now, it sends a positive message."

Other librarians have different reasons for considering a name change. Youngsters rarely check out Fisher's work and don't have much of a connection to her as readers, said Hannah Peacock, youth services librarian and assistant director at Burnham Memorial Library in Colchester and chair of the Dorothy Canfield Fisher reading committee.

"I just think it might be time for a change of name because they don't know who she is," Peacock said in a telephone interview.

And then there is the unfortunate coincidence of acronyms — the one for Fisher's full name is the same DCF as the state child welfare agency the Department for Children and Families, which investigates child abuse. To avoid confusion, organizers of the book award changed the name of the annual selection of books to Dorothy's List and encouraged librarians not to use the DCF acronym, although many still do.

Paterson, for one, is not convinced by these arguments. If she had to decide, the distinguished children's book author said she'd keep the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award just as it is.

"There are no perfect human beings," she said, "and no perfect heroes."

The Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award

The state-run effort is both a reading program and an award. Librarians, authors and teachers volunteer to read some 100 books a year that are suitable for children in grades 4 to 8. The readers vote on their preferences, and the top 30 are named to Dorothy's List. Vermont public and school libraries stock copies and encourage children to read at least five books. The young readers cast votes for the best book out of the 30, which is then named as the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award winner the next spring. The program is staffed by the Vermont Department of Libraries and volunteers. It receives minimal funding of a few thousand dollars a year, according to Vermont State Librarian Scott Murphy.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Surrender Dorothy?"

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Molly Walsh

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Molly Walsh was a Seven Days staff writer 2015-20.

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