“Dull Babies Made Normal By Feeble-Minded Girls’ Care: Increase of as Much as 40 Points in IQ Reported,” a science magazine headline trumpeted in 1939, describing an experiment led by psychologist Harold Skeels in which orphanage toddlers were transferred to the State Institution for “the Feebleminded” in Glenwood, Iowa to be nurtured one-on-one by women incarcerated there. They flourished; a contrast group of “normal” children left at the overcrowded orphanage dramatically failed to thrive. This experiment came under scathing scholarly attack, but later Skeels’ work, which depended on these women, was credited as inspiration for Head Start and the American notion of learning disability. But the systematic forgetting of what actually happened at Glenwood eroded the effectiveness of the various projects Skeels was praised for inspiring. Raising the children in tandem with the low-wage women workers who were their attendants, the women of Glenwood developed a radically interdependent kinship model that profoundly (but very briefly, and under conditions of domination) called the usual terms and stratifications of “intelligence,” “normal,” and “cure,” of “care,” even of “research” itself into question.
In 1934, the orphanage school paper also ran a headline: “New Deal Is Provided Orphans.” Similar New Deal talk appeared in in-house memos between administrators at the Glenwood State institution. Of course the New Deal’s benefits were spread unevenly, jaggedly, and for some, as Ibram X. Kendi puts it, “they seemed more like the Old Deal.” Still, though the Skeels-Dye experiment was not a federal New Deal project, the stamp of the New Deal was all over it. This paper will explore what it meant (and did not mean) for women designated feebleminded to be promised a New Deal, and to seize the rhetoric of the New Deal, inside the wards of a state institution.