1920s - Marriage counseling to save the white race
1961, “Julie” and “Arthur” were having marital troubles. Before they had children, the couple had worked together to build a business. But now, Julie found herself listless and unfulfilled as a housewife and mother. Her husband remarked, “It seems to be beyond Julie’s talents to drop clothes that require no ironing in a washer-drier combination and then to lift them out and put them away.” Had they been members of an earlier generation, they likely would have trudged along through their unhappiness, steadily accruing a hearty plaque of marital resentment until they were parted by death. But now, they and people like them had a new option: marriage counseling.
Marriage counseling is so ubiquitous in the United States that it’s hard to believe that the practice could be traced to a single human source. In the 1920s, amidst rising divorce rates, Paul Popenoe began researching Austrian and German methods of marital therapy. However, he wanted to bring marriage counseling to America for one reason: to save the white race. Popenoe was a eugenicist and when eugenics fell out of favor, he successfully rebranded himself as a marriage counselor, all the while spreading the gospel of marital improvement for the white cause, though less explicitly. For P;openoe, marriage counseling was a way to practice eugenics, but without the pesky tube tying. He would make sure that the “right” couples stayed together and had kids.
Popenoe kicked off his career as an editor for the Journal of Heredity. He was a staunch proponent of sterilization for the mentally ill and argued that “waste humanity” should be organized into labor colonies. In the journal, Popenoe wrote admiringly of Hitler’s eugenics practices, and lamented that the Führerwas a bachelor.
His eugenics theories were bound up with marriage from the beginning. Between 1870 and 1920, divorce rates in the United States increased 15-fold. Popenoe worried about the implications for the American gene pool. “Unfit” people would have children regardless of whether they were married, he figured. But “fit,” a.k.a. middle class or higher white people, would never dare have children out of wedlock. The result would be a lot of brown babies, and fewer white babies. In 1930, he founded a counseling center, the American Institute of Family Relations in Los Angeles, which the media referred to as “the Mayo Clinic of family problems.”
Popenoe had no formal psychological training, though this didn’t stop him from going by “Dr. Popenoe.”
In his 1918 book Applied Eugenics, he argued, “The marriage of superior kin should produce children better than the parents; the marriage of inferior kin should produce children worse than their parents … In passing judgement on a proposed marriage, therefore, the vital question is not, ‘Are they related by blood’ but ‘Are they carriers of desirable traits?’” He was explicit about what he considered desirable: “It must be admitted not only that the Negro is different from the white, but that he is in the large eugenically inferior to the white.” For this reason, miscegenation was “biologically wrong” and he argued that it should be made illegal.
Inthe years after the Holocaust, when eugenics fell out of favor, Popenoe cloaked his racist ideologies behind the façade of “family values.” By the 1960s, the American Institute of Family Relations had grown into a mammoth organization training hundreds of counselors and giving 15,000 consultations per year.
Popenoe had authored numerous articles and books, had a syndicated newspaper column, a radio program, and was a judge on a television show called “Divorce Hearing.” He even spearheaded computer dating in 1956, on a univac. It seems that there is no area of marital improvement that Popenoe didn’t have a hand in.
To make his message palatable to wider audiences, Popenoe had scrubbed his discussion of marriage of obvious racism, though a discerning eye can still make out the traces. “One of the important factors in marriage is to marry someone who has as much as possible in common with yourself,” he told a radio host. He could just as easily be referring to a shared passion for badminton as he could to race. But behind the scenes, his eugenicist agenda was more obvious.
Popenoe is perhaps best known co-founding and editing the the wildly popular Ladies Home Journal column, “Can This Marriage be Saved?” The Atlantic would later call it “the most widely known column, ever.” The basic premise was this: A problem was presented, the wife and husband gave their versions, then a counselor weighed in.
Popenoe carefully cultivated the pool of subjects selected for marital salvation. His institute would submit cases to the the Ladies Home Journal for consideration for the column. Unsurprisingly they were almost always white, educated, “middle of the road” couples. Jews were excluded too. Popenoe was not just refusing help to non-white Americans, but also shaping the American conception of the institution of marriage.
Popenoe retired in 1976, and a few years later he died. His institute closed not long after. Today, it is tempting to dismiss Popenoe’s story as the case of a positive practice’s unfortunate origins. After all, married people sorting through their problems seems unabashedly a good thing. But the dark aspects of Popenoe’s legacy are still visible in the “family values” movement, which has always been the province of straight, white people enacting xenophobic agendas under the guise of protecting family.
For proof of this, we need look no further than Popenoe’s own son, David. David Popenoe has distanced himself from the most obviously xenophobic aspects of his father’s agenda, but he is working very much in his father’s wheelhouse. He founded the National Marriage Project, a “nonpartisan” organization at the University of Virginia with a mission to “provide research and analysis on the health of marriage in America, to analyze the social and cultural forces shaping contemporary marriage, and to identify strategies to increase marital quality and stability.” David Popenoe has been a staunch opponent of same-sex parenthood. His work was invoked in a suit contesting the constitutionality of California’s Marriage Protection Act. He has spoken vehemently against single motherhood and argued that divorce and the absence of fathers leaves the nation at risk “of committing social suicide.” Many have compellingly argued that criticism of single motherhood is a thinly veiled attack on black women, poor women, or women in general.
In a New Yorker story, Jill Lepore is generous with David Popenoe, arguing he “is no eugenicist, and he certainly isn’t responsible for anything that his father said or did. He has also wrestled, genuinely and openly, with his father’s legacy.” His politics are complicated, The New York Times argued. His daughters are career-driven feminists, so he “is anything but a barefoot-and-pregnant man.” He supports abortion — though a discerning mind can’t help but wonder, abortion for whom? If Paul Popenoe’s legacy taught us anything, it’s that xenophobic ideas will always seek out the path of least resistance and dress themselves in the finer clothing of “public welfare.”