The Unfit Heiress: Book summary and reviews of The Unfit Heiress by Audrey Clare Farley

The Unfit Heiress

The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt

by Audrey Clare Farley

The Unfit Heiress by Audrey Clare Farley X
The Unfit Heiress by Audrey Clare Farley
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Book Summary

For readers of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Phantom of Fifth Avenue, a page-turning drama of fortunes, eugenics and women's reproductive rights framed by the sordid court battle between Ann Cooper Hewitt and her socialite mother.

At the turn of the twentieth century, American women began to reject Victorian propriety in favor of passion and livelihood outside the home. This alarmed authorities, who feared certain "over-sexed" women could destroy civilization if allowed to reproduce and pass on their defects. Set against this backdrop, The Unfit Heiress chronicles the fight for inheritance, both genetic and monetary, between Ann Cooper Hewitt and her mother Maryon.

In 1934, aided by a California eugenics law, the socialite Maryon Cooper Hewitt had her "promiscuous" daughter declared feebleminded and sterilized without her knowledge. She did this to deprive Ann of millions of dollars from her father's estate, which contained a child-bearing stipulation. When a sensational court case ensued, the American public was captivated. So were eugenicists, who saw an opportunity to restrict reproductive rights in America for decades to come.

This riveting story unfolds through the brilliant research of Audrey Clare Farley, who captures the interior lives of these women on the pages and poses questions that remain relevant today: What does it mean to be "unfit" for motherhood? In the battle for reproductive rights, can we forgive the women who side against us? And can we forgive our mothers if they are the ones who inflict the deepest wounds?

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"[S]hocking..., the eye-opening story of the family is a concrete example of lamentable policies that continue to shape the reproductive rights of women. A disturbing yet thought-provoking tale of family strife and ethically unsound medical practice." - Kirkus Reviews

"Historian Farley debuts with an intriguing account of socialite Ann Cooper Hewitt, who filed a $500,000 lawsuit against her mother in 1936 for having her sterilized in order to deprive her of her inheritance...This is an eye-opening portrait of an obscure yet fascinating case." - Publishers Weekly

"Expertly blending biography and history, and using the life of Ann Cooper Hewitt as a backdrop, Farley has created an absorbing biography effectively explaining how the legacy of eugenics still persists today. Hewitt's story will engage anyone interested in women's history." - Library Journal

"In Audrey Clare Farley's book, the fascinating and unsettling case—and the worldwide media sensation it caused—is carefully revisited to expose what it meant to be considered an unfit parent and how easily family can become foes." - Town and Country

"The Unfit Heiress is a sensational story told with nuance and humanity with clear reverberations to the present. Historian Audrey Clare Farley's writing jumps off the page, as Ann Cooper Hewitt, once a one-dimensional tabloid fixation, is brought into full relief as a complicated victim of her time, standing in the crosshairs of the growing eugenics movement and the emergence of a 'over-sexed' and 'dangerous' New Woman. But most importantly, this book is a necessary call to remember the high stakes and terrible history of the longstanding fight for control over women's bodies." - Susannah Cahalan, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Brain on Fire

The Unfit Heiress is not only a fascinating look at a wildly dysfunctional high society family, it's also a compulsively readable account of the reproductive myths and bigotry-driven pseudoscience that still shape our world today." - Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Appetites

This information about The Unfit Heiress shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

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Author Information

Audrey Clare Farley

Audrey Clare Farley is a writer, book reviewer, and historian of twentieth-century American fiction and culture. Having earned a PhD in English from University of Maryland, College Park in 2017, she occasionally lectures in history and literature at local universities. Her essay on Ann Cooper Hewitt, published in July 2019 in Narratively, was the publication's second most-read story of the year. Her writing on the eugenics movement and other topics has appeared in the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Public Books, Lady Science, Longreads, and Marginalia Review of Books, where she is a contributing editor. She lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

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