The Curious Case of the Socialite Who Sterilized Her Daughter
Did Maryon Cooper Hewitt want to suppress “bad genes” or steal her child’s inheritance? Their battle over genetics and motherhood riveted the nation in 1936.
Edited by Lynne Peskoe-Yang
Bulbs flashed as the rouge- and fur-wearing socialite took the stand in a trial that would rivet the American public for the next several months. The image of the solemn-faced 22-year-old would appear in newspapers across the country. Some, like The New York Times, would print nearly 50 stories detailing the woman’s private life — her childhood, romantic relationships, drinking and spending habits, even the lingerie she was wearing. (It was imported from France.) It was January of 1936, and heiress Ann Cooper Hewitt was suing her mother in a San Francisco court for $500,000 (roughly $9 million today). The plaintiff claimed that her mother paid doctors to “unsex” her during an appendectomy in order to deprive her of an inheritance from her millionaire father’s estate. The defendant argued that she was merely protecting her daughter — and society — from the consequences of Ann becoming pregnant.
When Peter Cooper Hewitt died in 1921, the inventor and entreprene…
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