Originally published in the Manchester Journal on June 28, 2017
ARLINGTON — The eugenics movement is a dark chapter of Vermont’s history, and now one local author’s alleged role in that movement is under intense scrutiny.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher was a prolific local writer, and her namesake rests at various institutions in Arlington today including Fisher Elementary School. In 1957 a Vermont children’s literacy program was established in the author’s honor, and the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award has recognized outstanding children’s writers over the last 60 years.
Fisher’s reputation has been questioned in recent weeks, as Essex educator and artist Judy Dow has led the fight for the removal of Fisher’s name from the award. Dow, who has both French Canadian and Abenaki roots, claims that Fisher not only stereotyped French Canadians and Native Americans in her extensive works, but played an active role in the eugenics movement as well.
At a presentation to the Vermont Department of Libraries in April, Dow presented evidence of Fisher’s ties to Vermont’s eugenics movement and argued for the removal of Fisher’s name from the award.
“The reason I started this was because our children are our most precious gift,” said Dow. “To name an award for a children’s book after someone who was a eugenicist is so wrong.”
Now, the decision rests with State Librarian Scott Murphy, who will hear a recommendation from the Board of Libraries on July 11 and make a final decision thereafter.
“It’s a touchy situation and it’s really hard to look at these issues with our current morals and values and to judge history based on that,” said Murphy. “I’m trying to get as much input as I possibly can from citizens before I make any decision; I have to be very careful to make sure we are taking the proper steps for Vermont.”
A Multifaceted Identity
The allegations of Fisher’s eugenicist entanglements stand in stark contrast to the author’s identity as an accomplished female writer and social activist, promoting adult education programs and prison reform alongside her organization of World War I relief efforts. Fisher was honored as one of the 10 most influential women in the United States by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a trailblazer in her own right.
Though Fisher made valuable contributions to society and literature, her ties to Vermont’s eugenics movement raise questions. While some argue that her involvement was tangential, others claim that Fisher was more deeply involved.
The Vermont eugenics movement, led by University of Vermont Professor Henry F. Perkins, insisted upon the reality of a racial hierarchy in which “degenerate” classes of people — including Vermont’s French Canadian population, native peoples including the Abenaki, and African-Americans — were doomed by heredity. These “degenerates,” Perkins insisted, posed a threat to Vermont’s way of life and cultural identity in an era when a declining population and economic stagnation topped the list of challenges faced by the state.
“She was a progressive, but it was the progressive party that was running the eugenics program,” said Dow. “She was a product of the time, and the product of the time was eugenics.”
The eugenics movement resulted in the creation of the Vermont Eugenics Survey, running from 1925 to 1936, as well as the formation of the affiliated Vermont Commission on Country Life (VCCL).
The VCCL was created by Perkins in 1928 to provide a comprehensive survey of the rural regions of the state, with the Eugenics Survey at “its center and core.” Fisher was among the more than 70 individuals recruited to contribute to chapters of the organization’s 1931 publication, “Rural Vermont: A Program for the Future.” In this survey, contributors were charged with answering the question, “What is happening to the old Vermont Stock?”
Fisher was most heavily involved in VCCL’s Committee on Tradition and Ideals, focusing heavily on increasing the number of tourists and second home owners in Vermont. In 1932, just one year after a sterilization law sponsored by Perkins and the Eugenics Survey was passed by Vermont’s legislature (through which at least 250 “feeble minded” Vermonters were sterilized between 1933 and 1960, according to the Department of Health), Fisher accepted a position on VCCL’s executive committee.
“It is not surprising that a writer from an earlier time might have beliefs and opinions that we now condemn,” said State Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington. “This is not just evidence of prejudice: the possible connection to the eugenics movement that had unjust and tragic consequences is of concern.”
Many of Fisher’s writings contain problematic racial stereotypes that may have been a byproduct of her era, though many of Dow’s critics argue that authors should not be judged by their fictitious works. It is not certain that all of Fisher’s representations are pure works of fiction, however.
“Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s book “Bonfire” was based on a study the Eugenics Survey of Vermont did on Sandgate,” said Dow. “You can go through the report and pull out the names, and match the names used in “Bonfire” to the names in the report.”
A 1928 study by the Vermont Eugenics Survey titled “Key Families in Rural Vermont Towns,” featured Sandgate as an example of “rural degeneracy.” Indeed, many of the names mentioned in the “Town Gossip” section of the report can be found in Fisher’s novel “Bonfire,” which is set in a fictionalized Vermont town entrenched in poverty and populated primarily by French Canadians and “French Indians.” In “Bonfire,” residents of this community are depicted as “primitive,” and “irresponsible sub-normals.” At one point, a character is described as, “half-hound, half-hunter, all Injun.”
Outside of her fictional works, Fisher was the author of a state tourism pamphlet produced by the VCCL which aimed to recruit “superior, interesting families of cultivation and good breeding.” Additionally, in a 1941 commencement address, Fisher praised the residents of Manchester for taking in the nomadic Icy Palmer, a Tuscarora Indian abandoned at a local sugar house in 1924. Though her intentions seem valiant, Fisher denies in the address that Vermont was home to any measure of “ugly racial hatred and oppression,” whilst insisting that no Native American populations ever found a true home in the state.
“I am, of course, deeply disturbed by the allegations concerning Dorothy Canfield Fisher. We always hope that those we honor have an honorable past, but almost always they do not,” said Melissa Klick, a native Vermonter with both French Canadian and Abenaki heritage, and the owner of the Icy Palmer Candle Company. “Icy Palmer’s funeral was not allowed to be held in a church, and she bowed to white people as they passed; she was assisted but not socially accepted by the Manchester community.”
Starting point for dialogue
While a heated debate rages on whether Fisher’s name should remain on the book award, Murphy will ultimately rely on the feedback of Vermont’s citizens and libraries to decide the issue.
“The whole point of this award is children’s literacy, and if this name is going to deny a certain group of people that involvement then that’s significant. There’s somebody that’s feeling pain, and I’m cognizant of that,” said Murphy. “On the opposite side is the idea that judging history by today’s point of view can be dangerous, and can sometimes do more harm than good.”
Regardless, Fisher’s complex history has opened the door for a meaningful dialogue on Vermont’s troubling history with eugenics.
“I feel we must use historiography to keep examining our past to improve our understanding of the future,” said Klik. “Let’s move forward to make sure that the ignorance that shaped Canfield’s prejudices no longer has a place in Vermont, nor any other corner of America.”
“We change everything that’s outdated as time goes on, so why wouldn’t we change this if it’s offensive?” said Dow. “It’s time that the oppressor listens to the stories of those that were oppressed, and that’s a good start.”
More information on Vermont’s Eugenics program can be found at http://www.uvm.edu/~eugenics/. The full report on Sandgate can be found at http://www.uvm.edu/~eugenics/primarydocs/ofkfssg090028.xml.