Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Douglas C. Baynton
For the past two centuries deaf people in the United States have faced more or less intense skepticism about their marriages to each other, largely due to fears of inherited deafness. Theses fears, while always present, have waxed and waned over time, becoming most prominent during the eugenics era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At Gallaudet University, they were repeatedly expressed by the faculty and administration in a variety of forms and contexts, and echoed by many its students. This dissertation demonstrates the significant influence of these ideas at Gallaudet University on the wider deaf community over the last century; it traces how skepticism toward deaf marriage was framed in terms of hereditarian and, for a time, eugenic ideals; and it explored other more subtle but similarly effective attempts to influence marriage decisions by deaf people. The idea that deaf people should not marry one another was embraced by faculty in Gallaudet’s early decades, diffused from administration to faculty, from faculty to students (deaf undergraduates as well as hearing students studying deaf education), and ultimately carried to other deaf educational institutions via the alumni. While student responses to these ideas were fluid, their adoption by early administration and faculty had a profound and lasting impact. One result was that, during much of the early twentieth century, deaf people were less likely to marry, and when married less likely to have children.
For generations, deaf people have faced continual skepticism about their marriages to each other, due to fears of inherited deafness. The fear of deaf marriages evolved over time, and became prominent during the eugenics era. At Gallaudet University early faculty and administration embraced these ideals. This dissertation demonstrates the college’s impact on the deaf community’s acceptance of deaf marriage skepticism over the last century. It traces how that skepticism was framed as hereditarian, and, for a time, eugenic ideals; but was also presented in subtle attempts to influence. These ideals diffused from administration to faculty, then from faculty to students and ultimately passed on to other deaf educational institutions via the alumni. While student responses were fluid, the adoption of these ideals by early faculty had a lasting impact. Using primary source research in evaluating over fifty years of the student newspaper at Gallaudet University, The Buff and Blue, the views of early faculty are shown to have had a profound impact on the students’ values in terms of marriage and fertility.
The most striking finding of the research is in the persistence of hereditarian/eugenic ideals over successive generations, even to the present day. Recently a shift has occurred from having it be accepted that deaf people should not seek to have deaf offspring to the exact opposite, a common view on campus today.
publicabstract, Deaf, Deaf Marriage, Edward Allen Fay, Eugenics, Gallaudet University, History
Copyright 2015 William Thomas Ennis