Lines of Heredity: Eugenics and Gender in European Literature, 1880-1935

deadline for submissions: 
January 31, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
Fatima Borrmann/ KU Leuven

Lines of Heredity: Eugenics and Gender in European Literature, 1880-1935

May 18-19, 2020

MDRN/KU Leuven

First keynote speaker: Prof. Angelique Richardson (University of Exeter).

Second keynote speaker to be announced later.

During the late 19th and early 20th century evolutionary theory and new insights in heredity were becoming increasingly influential in social debates. Theories of Darwin, Spencer, Lamarck and Mendel were used to address anxieties about degeneration across Europe. Eugenicists sought to improve both the individual and the nation by influencing processes of procreation and selection so as to bring about the ‘ideal’ human race. Literary authors too raised their voices in this widespread concern with private and public health, the body and the future of the race. They addressed these concerns in highbrow modernist writings, social stories, courtship plots, family sagas, bildungsroman or art novels and used eugenic discourse and biological theories in doing so. The result is, of course, not a homogeneous body of eugenic literature. To the contrary, eugenic and genetic theories were deployed, commented on and disseminated in a variety of ways. Male and female authors used eugenic theories to take radically different stances within the woman question, but women writers too were often divided as to how eugenic insights could best be used for feminist purposes.

This conference aims at a better understanding of the different ways in which eugenic theories were used to address questions related to gender and sexuality in European literature from 1880 to 1935. Eugenic theories circulated across Europe, but the reception and response by literary writers was often very different. Similarly, the woman question that emerged at the end of the 19th century, was debated in different ways in different European countries and this also shaped literature’s intervention in these debates. By bringing together these different perspectives, the conference hopes to achieve a more nuanced and comprehensive picture of the intersections between eugenics and literature around the turn of the 20th century.

We invite papers about all European literary traditions that address such questions as the following:

  • How is the new biological and genetic knowledge presented and mediated in literary texts?

  • How is the discourse of eugenics deployed in literary texts?

  • How are eugenic theories used to serve the emancipation of women in society or, conversely, how are they used to argue for traditional gendered divisions and roles? 

  • How did evolution and eugenics shape feminist ideas in literature?

  • How did the use of eugenic theories change across the period?

Topics might include (but are not limited to)

  • Debates on motherhood, reproductive health, pregnancy, breast feeding, birth control, family planning and abortion

  • Representations of illness, feeblemindedness, degeneracy and insanity

  • Atavism, Hereditary diseases, family health and genetics

  • Evolution and sexual difference

  • Biological essentialism

  • Representations of  women doctors and nurses

  • Depictions of female ancestry and lines of heredity

  • Degenerate masculinity and ‘fit’ manhood

  • Eugenic partner choice

This symposium is organized in the context of a large comparative research project, Literary Knowledge, 1890-1950: Modernisms and the Sciences in Europe,by the research lab MDRN at the University of Leuven in Belgium. Please send an abstract (350 words) and a short bio to Fatima Borrmann (fatima.borrmann@kuleuven.be) by 31 January 2020. The presentation of papers should not exceed 20 minutes.