Summary and book reviews of The Unfit Heiress by Audrey Farley

The Unfit Heiress

The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt

by Audrey Farley

The Unfit Heiress by Audrey Farley X
The Unfit Heiress by Audrey Farley
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  • Published:
    Apr 2021, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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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?

PART I:
THE NEW WOMAN AND THE RISE OF EUGENICS

1
THE STERILIZED HEIRESS

Bulbs flashed as the socialite, sporting rouge and fur, took her seat alongside her attorney, who had called a press conference in his San Francisco office. The image of the solemn-faced, perfectly coiffed twenty-one-year-old would appear in newspapers across the country. Some, like the New York Times, would print nearly fifty stories detailing the woman's private life—her childhood, romantic relationships, spending habits, even the lingerie she was wearing. (It was imported from France.) It was January 1936, and heiress Ann Cooper Hewitt was suing her mother, Maryon Cooper Hewitt, in court for half a million dollars. The plaintiff claimed that her mother paid two doctors to "unsex" her during a scheduled appendectomy in order to deprive her of an inheritance from her millionaire father's estate.

Ann's father was Peter Cooper Hewitt, whose invention of the mercury-vapor lamp in 1901 earned him more than $1 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

A talented historical storyteller, Farley intermingles Ann's suffering and Maryon's hedonism with cultural details that frame the eugenics era; I imagine most readers will be as enlightened by the specifics of this unspoken time in American history as I was and feel contempt for those who let the trauma continue. However, there are flaws with this strategy. By steering the sterilization trauma lens away from Ann and onto other victims and the men behind eugenics, she alienates readers who have just gotten comfortable with the mother-daughter story. Still, I loved the meat and potatoes of the story in all of its forms: historical trauma, petty revenge, social climbing, racist motivations, legal gamesmanship...continued

Full Review (896 words).

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(Reviewed by Valerie Morales).

Media Reviews

Town and Country
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.

Ms. Magazine
This well-researched and endlessly readable book is centered on the sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt, deemed too promiscuous by her mother to receive her father’s inheritance. Part biography and part history of eugenics, this one is intriguing and terrifying.

New York Post
The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt by Audrey Clare Farley, tells the sad and shocking tale of Cooper Hewitt, the daughter of famed engineer and inventor Peter Cooper Hewitt, and how her case reflected a time when eugenics was not only frighteningly common, but widely accepted in the US.

Kirkus 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.

Publishers Weekly
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.

Library Journal
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.

Booklist (starred review)
This book is as timely as ever. A gripping tale about the atrocity of systematic reproductive control.

Author Blurb Susannah Cahalan, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Brain on Fire
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.

Author Blurb Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Appetites
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.

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Beyond the Book

Sterilization or Genocide? Eugenics in North Carolina

In The Unfit Heiress, Audrey Clare Farley sets the case of San Francisco socialite Ann Cooper Hewitt against the backdrop of the American eugenics movement. In the age of eugenics, which lasted approximately from the 1920s to the 1940s, 30 states embraced laws allowing involuntary sterilization. North Carolina was one of the worst, partly because it continued its eugenics program into the 1970s, while eugenics had fallen out of favor in most states after World War II. The state sterilized over 7,000 people, including rape and incest victims, Black girls and poor white ones.

Latoya Adams, whose aunt, Deborah Blackmon, became a victim of sterilization in 1972, observed, "These people were dehumanized. They treated them like animals." The ...

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