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For listeners of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Phantom of Fifth Avenue, a pause-resisting 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 20th 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 in this book 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?
“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)
“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, number-one New York Times best-selling author of Brain on Fire)
“This book is as timely as ever. A gripping tale about the atrocity of systematic reproductive control.” (Booklist, starred review)
"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)