The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt

Grand Central. Apr. 2021. 304p. ISBN 9781538753354. $28. BIOG
In this debut, writer and historian Farley recounts the story of heiress Ann Cooper Hewitt (1914–56), who made headlines in the early 20th century. After being taken to the hospital for an appendectomy, Hewitt learned that her mother had paid doctors to also remove her fallopian tubes in an effort to deprive Ann of her father’s inheritance; his will stipulated that if Ann died childless, her share would revert back to her mother. While concurrently following the court case and its proceedings, Farley also charts the dark history of the eugenics movement, showing how eugenicists targeted people in psychiatric wards and those considered to be sexually deviant, and also how, in many cases, consent was not required. Chapters on the life of Cooper Hewitt portray a woman who is sympathetic in some ways, especially for her lack of bodily autonomy, and eccentric in others, including her connection to a suspicious suicide of the wife of one of her lovers.
VERDICT 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.
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