The 20th-Century Marriage Debate at Gallaudet University

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 4:10 PM
Williford B (Hilton Chicago)
William Thomas Ennis III, Gallaudet University
For the past two centuries deaf people in the United States have faced more or less intense skepticism about their marriages to each other, largely due to fears of inherited deafness. These fears, while always present, have waxed and waned over time, becoming most prominent during the eugenics era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At Gallaudet University, they were repeatedly expressed by the faculty and administration in a variety of forms and contexts, and echoed by many of its students. This paper demonstrates the significant influence of these ideas at Gallaudet University on the wider deaf community over the last century; it traces how skepticism toward deaf marriage was framed in terms of hereditary and, for a time, eugenic ideals; and it explored other subtle but similarly effective attempts to influence marriage decisions by deaf people. The idea that deaf people should not marry one another was embraced by faculty in Gallaudet’s early decades, diffused from administration to faculty, from faculty to students (deaf undergraduates as well as hearing students studying deaf education), and ultimately carried to other deaf educational institutions via the alumni. While student responses to these ideas were fluid, their adoption by early administration and faculty had a profound and lasting impact. One result was that, for much of the early twentieth century, deaf people were less likely to marry, and when married less likely to have children.
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