Dingus of the Week: Jamie Spears
America’s culture of forced sterilization and, of course, some drinks
Hi! Welcome to the Weekly Dingus, my Friday newsletter, where I round up my internet reads, share a drink, and yell about a dingus. Is that dingus a politician? A boat in a canal? My dog? Or maybe it’s just pants. You can read about past weekly dinguses in the archives.
Settle in. This newsletter is a word from the Lord.
In January of 1936, heiress Ann Cooper Hewitt sat in a witness stand and told a San Francisco court how her mother had her sterilized. Ann was the daughter of Peter Cooper Hewitt, a wealthy engineer and entrepreneur, and his socialite wife, Maryon. When he died in 1921, he left two-thirds of his estate to Ann and one-third to his wife. The catch was that if Ann never had children, the inheritance would revert back to Maryon.
Ann said that during lunch with her mother, her stomach had started to hurt and she’d been chauffeured to the hospital where a doctor had administered an IQ test. She was asked to answer questions like, “How long is the longest river in the United States?” and “What is the term of a U.S. president?” Ann refused to answer.
Days later, she went in for an appendectomy, but instead her fallopian tubes were removed, just days before her 21st birthday.
Maryon had told doctors and teachers that Ann was promiscuous. That as a child she had masturbated and that she was “feeble-minded.” Audrey Clare Farley, the author of the book The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt, wrote in an essay for Narratively that Maryon told the court “her daughter was morally degenerate, referencing Ann’s addiction to masturbation, love letters between Ann and her chauffeur that contained the young lady’s pubic hairs, and Ann’s ‘erotic tendencies’ with men ranging from bellhops to ‘Negro’ train porters.”
The case was eventually settled for $15,000, but not after Ann’s life had been fully vetted by the newspaper and every relationship, every acquaintance, every fashion trend had been held and weighed and judged. A poem in the New York Daily Mirror mocked Ann in verse:
I’m only a sterilized heiress,
A butt for the laughter of rubes,
I’m comely and rich
But a venomous bitch—
My mother ran off with my tubes.
Oh, fie on you, mother, you bastard,
Come back with my feminine toys,
Restore my abdomen,
And make me a woman,
I want to go out with the boys.
Eighty-five years later, on June 23, 2021, Britney Spears took the stand in an attempt to end the conservatorship of her father, Jamie Spears, over herself and her estate. In 2008, Jamie Spears petitioned the court for a temporary conservatorship after Britney had a very public mental health breakdown. But the conservatorship has never ended. And Britney has been involved in a very public fight to regain her freedom.
On the stand, Britney described how her father controls every aspect of her life, from the color of her cabinets to her friendships and her dating life. He’s forced her into a mental health facility and to perform on stage against her will.
She also has an IUD and would like to take it out. Spears wants to have more children, but her father won’t let her.
I reached out to Audrey Clare Farley to ask her for her analysis and she wrote, “Ann Cooper Hewitt and Britney Spears’ tragic cases are similar in that they each involve a parent depriving their child of reproductive rights for their own financial gain. And in each case, parents have at their disposal laws put in place to police certain women’s fertility in the best interests of society. ‘Society’ here means white supremacy. Historically, both ‘promiscuous’ and mentally ill women were perceived likely to cross the color line, thereby diluting the purity of the white race. Such women were also thought to weaken the race by virtue of their heritable ‘defects’ and the economic burden they or their children placed on the state. At a time when officials were paranoid about a dark-skinned takeover (largely due to rising immigration and the Great Migration), these women had to be deemed feebleminded and deprived of the right to reproduce. What this history shows is that even affluent whites can be the collateral victims of white supremacy. That, I think, is the case with both Ann and Britney.”
Forced eugenics is a practice that still happens in America. The practice was so common among doctors in the American South that it was nicknamed the “Mississippi Appendectomy.”
In the 19th News, Barbara Rodriguez reports, “The reproductive justice movement arose out of the history of reproductive coercion facing Black families and communities of color since the very founding of the United States. Enslaved people were forced to carry unwanted pregnancies. Modern gynecology as we know it was born from medical experiments performed on enslaved people with neither anesthesia nor consent. The federal court opinion in the 1974 case of Madrigal v. Quilligan called out the way that Mexican-American women were being coerced into unwanted sterilizations at Los Angeles County USC Medical Center.”
Contrast this with women who would like to have a hysterectomy but aren’t being allowed to by religious hospitals that oppose the practice, or the hospitals require approval from the woman’s spouse.
Forced sterilization is a practice rooted in racism and fears about the female body and mind. Fears that still exist today, as again the Supreme Court takes up challenges to Roe v. Wade and again states pass and attempt to pass laws restricting abortion.
What’s powerful about Britney’s case is that she is the ideal of white womanhood. Beautiful, talented, blonde, and successful, but she committed the sin of being sexual in public, of being a body in public, and she was mocked, ridiculed, demonized, and slut-shamed until she broke down, and she has never, ever been allowed to be a full and free person since then. It wasn’t that long ago I remember people dressing up as Britney the unfit mother for Halloween, mocking the fact that she was just pregnant white trash.
Jamie Spears sounds no different than Maryon Cooper Hewitt, insinuating about her daughter’s indiscretions. The loving protection, just a cover for control and power and, of course, money. But it’s supported by a society that still refuses to see women as fully competent human beings.
Women have never been in control, not of our own bodies, not over ourselves. And Jamie Spears is an embodiment of that patriarchal control dressed up in fatherly benevolence. Telling a grown-ass woman what she can and cannot do for herself, while hand-wringing about her past indiscretions, as if he’s known or done better.
The #FreeBritney movement has caught on at a time of regressive backlash against trans rights, reproductive rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement. So it should come as no surprise that a society of people struggling to simply be allowed to exist in their bodies would be enraged by the fight of a pop star who isn’t allowed to live her life because one time she had a breakdown. This entire fight has given people a voice to talk about how they too have lost autonomy, how they too have been denied the full rights of personhood merely for what? Existing? Having mental health issues? Having sex? Being anything but white?
Power over our bodies begins with consent, and consent begins with choice, and choice is the primary right that is all too often stripped from us first.
What I Have Been Reading:
This week, I interviewed sociologist and University of Iowa professor Victor Ray to talk about laws banning Critical Race Theory in the classroom and putting this moral panic in context.
I also wrote for TIME about what it feels like to have your body always be a battleground. And oh look, the eugenics roots of evangelical culture.
This weekend, I’m teaching a class on essay writing for the David R. Collins Writing Conference, one of my favorite writing conferences. I’ve taught there every summer for four years now. Each year, I teach a different essay and this year I am teaching Alexander Chee’s “Mr. and Mrs. B.” A phenomenal essay. Please read it. Another phenomenal essay is this one by Parul Sehgal about consent and the books that try to grapple with what that word means.
New reporting out of Utah revealed that the company behind Test Iowa, Test Nebraska, and Test Utah is under investigation by the SEC. (And also that Tennessee paid a lot of money to get out of the contract.) I spent the better part of last year writing about Test Iowa and its impact on the state and its problems before I was fired.
I’m adding this to my growing list of bad regional takes.
Along with this essay in Elle about fashion at the Iowa State Fair and Stephen Bloom’s truly trash take on Iowa. Bloom’s article proves that you can live in a place and never understand it because your head is made entirely of low-fat cream cheese. But in GOOD Midwest takes, have you read this incredible short story by Brandon Taylor? He’s an Iowa writer and his book Filthy Animals is out this week. Read it. Buy the book. Make Brandon famous.
Speaking of famous. Big news for me: I learned this week that I am famous enough to be on wikifeet, a website that ranks the feet of celebrities.
And another weird thing is that John McAfee, founder of an anti-virus software, misogynist, and accused of murder…you know, that guy. Well, he once complimented me on my writing and now he’s dead after finally being caught and arrested.
Something that sparks joy in my life is watching Nikole Hannah-Jones absolutely eviscerate UNC after they denied her tenure because a bunch of chinless chuckleheads got mad because she was right about America. She should not have to fight this fight. But watching her mop the floor with them is just a real joy.
What I Have Been Drinking:
This week, I went to George’s. I wasn’t planning on it. But I’d met a friend for an impromptu drink at Goosetown and after she left I needed a burger, so I went into George’s and got an Arms Race and a cheeseburger. George’s, if you don’t know, is a fabled dive bar in Iowa City. It’s been name-checked by all the famous writers who have passed through the town and should be declared a national landmark, not because of the writers, but because they make the most delicious burgers and PBR is on tap. It was so nice to just be in a worn down booth, talking shit with a friend and drinking beer. Nothing fancy. We don’t need anything fancy, we just need cold beer and cheap burgers and a friend.
Relatedly, also this week, I read this hilarious essay about the writer getting kicked out of a bar by playing “The Boys Are Back in Town” too many times on a jukebox. It’s apparently an internet classic essay, which I missed. But here you go.
It’s been a long week. I hope you all find air conditioning and beers and delicious food.
Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email which includes interviews, essays and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics and our bodies and more.