The Tragic and Disturbing Story of Ann Cooper Hewitt, the Heiress Forced to Be Sterilized

As Audrey Farley, the author who wrote about Ann Cooper Hewitt's story explains, the strange and tragic case says a lot about how women’s bodies were regulated in the U.S. And about how that regulation was used to enforce white supremacy.

Ann Cooper Hewitt was one of the wealthiest young women in the world, born into a famous and well-regarded New York family. But shortly before her 20th birthday, she was tricked into a medical procedure that would rob her of her ability to have children.

“Anybody can be subjected to state violence. Even an heiress, even a woman who's wealthy, and white, and prominent can be subjected to state violence,” states Audrey Clare Farley. She is the author of “The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt.”

As Farley explains, the strange and tragic case of Ann Cooper Hewitt says a lot about how women’s bodies were regulated in the U.S. And about how that regulation was used to enforce white supremacy.

In the 1930s, Ann Cooper Hewitt was an heiress whose mother had her declared feeble-minded and then sterilized without her knowledge. The heinous act was done to deprive Ann of the family money. The money, would have come from her father, Peter Cooper Hewitt, a legendary inventor.

“Peter Cooper Hewitt invented the mercury-vapor lamp, but even prior to that, he was well known and came from a very established family, The Cooper family,” Audrey explains. “Peter's grandfather, Peter Cooper, was considered a patriarch of New York City. He was an inventor in his own right. Helped to lay the telegraph cable, and he invented Jello, and a bunch of other operations, including the steam locomotive, and so he was a prominent businessman, inventor, millionaire in New York City.”

Peter Cooper Hewitt died when Ann was a child, which left her in the care of her mother. But as Audrey reveals, the mother treated her horribly. “Her mother neglected her even as she was an infant. She would leave her in the crib all day and go out shopping or out partying, and she would be left with a maid.”

She added, “Her mother abused her physically, verbally. Called her an ugly duckling and an imbecile.”

That lifetime of abuse culminated in a shocking incident. Audrey states that at 20 years old, a few months before she would achieve majority and become an adult, Ann was dining with her mother near San Diego and was suddenly struck with stomach pains.

“And so the driver rushed her back to San Francisco, where they lived, and there a doctor was waiting for her,” Audrey says.  “And he just said, ‘Well, Ann, I understand that you have appendicitis.’ And he never examined her abdomen. He just took her in another room where she was given the intelligence test by the psychologist, and she was told to come back in four days to have her appendix removed. And so she did so.”

Audrey explains that Ann underwent the surgery, but without her knowledge, her fallopian tubes were removed along with her appendix. “She heard nurses talking about how their idiot patient was doing. And she began to get a sense that they thought of her as a mental case. And she was able to put together that her mother had sterilized her.”

After the irreversible salpingectomy, Ann filed a lawsuit against her mother and the two doctors with whom she had conspired.

And although the case riveted the nation and dominated the headlines for most of 1936, Ann lost her case. Because surprisingly, what happened to her was legal.

“At the time of Ann's sterilization, most forced sterilizations were taking place in public asylums. The law authorized the use of sterilization in that setting, “ Audrey said.

“But after Ann's case, they started to shift to private practice, which meant a woman didn't have to be institutionalized and declared insane. And so what that meant is that a lot of sterilizations were going unrecorded, and we don't have any centralized data about exactly how many took place. But some experts have put the figure in the tens of thousands.”

Audrey points out that this was common in many regions of the United States, especially in the South. “African American woman began to fear going into a public hospital for an abdominal procedure because they were afraid of getting a Mississippi appendectomy, which was the word that was used to describe the sterilization that would take place when they went in to have some sort of abdominal procedure.”

According to Audrey, forced sterilization was one of the tools used by a pseudoscience known as eugenics to enforce white supremacy in the U.S.

“Eugenics was a movement to protect the purity of the white race,” she said. “It was about population control. And one aspect of eugenics was forced sterilization, which was preventing people that were thought to be unfit from reproducing. Other aspects included immigration restrictions and anti-miscegenation laws.”

Sadly, versions of that practice may still be in effect today. “Sterilization abuse has also been common in prisons and detention centers. Last year news broke when a whistleblower came forward, claiming that woman had been sterilized without their consent at an ICE facility in Georgia,” Audrey said.

As for Ann Cooper Hewitt, she was able to marry, but what had happened to her impacted her for the rest of her life. Audrey explains, saying, “She always felt that she had to prove herself to the world. That she had to prove that she wasn't a moron and that nobody ever took her seriously again.” And in 1956, she eventually died in Mexico at the age of 41.

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