Contested Capacities, Contested Citizenship

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History and the Society for Military History

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Disability Studies; Medical History; Social Welfare and Public Health


Perceived capacity has determined one’s access to citizenship rights, social benefits, and legal protections throughout U.S. history. This panel of four scholarly papers examines different groups of people making claims for benefits and rights by claiming of deservedness and (in)capacity. For some populations, capacity substantiated their deservedness; for others, incapacity substantiated deservedness. This panel includes multiple and varying populations of study: early nineteenth-century young adults trying to get into asylum schools, adults charged with legal incompetency, disabled Afro-Caribbean-American WWII veterans, and Vietnam veterans experiencing the consequences of Agent Orange. By covering a long period of time—the early national period through the twenty-first century—the panel explores evolving questions of (in)equalities, deservedness, activism, and citizenship over time and community.

While these papers focuses on disparate populations and analyses, the themes of (in)capacitated citizenship weaves throughout all. Individuals and activist groups seeking access to various opportunities and benefits often justified doing so through claims to citizenship. Conversely, legislators, medical experts, local legal officials, educational leaders, and others defined proper citizenship by all they did—and did so imbedded in ideologies of race, disability, gender, and family. By enacting and implementing citizenship ideals institutionally, such institutions generated, affirmed, reinforced, and sometimes challenged (in)equalities. All of these papers exemplify the use of disability as an analytical tool, and its inseparability from other structures of power.

Organized chronologically, this panel begins with Laurel Daen. Daen examines disabled and impoverished young adults who made claims about their “capacity” for citizenship as they sought education. Kim Nielsen’s paper explores the claims and criteria by which adults under guardianship contested this legal limitation, and how ideologies of identity and power influenced such resistance. Leslie J. Reagan examines how Vietnam War veterans struggle in the 1970s-80s for recognition of the damaging health effects of Agent Orange has become focused on obtaining a “disability ranking” from the VA. Winning a disability ranking has become a veteran identity which brings with it respect and significant financial benefits. Whether those veterans identify as disabled or as part of a community of people with disabilities, however, remains a complicated question.

The papers of this panel use a variety of primary sources, allowing for further deeper analyses of panel themes. These include legal, medical, activist, educational, and governmental sources.

Building from these papers, this panel will explore questions such as: How have ideals of capacity and citizenship changed over time? How have social, governmental, and legal institutions defined capacity? How has individual and group resistance impacted standards of capacity and citizenship? How can these examples help us understand current debates regarding the capacities required for U.S. citizenship?

Papers Presented

Resisting Incompetence: Adults under Guardianship and the Claiming of Capacity

In 1888, after several years of living with the legal status of a child, thirty-some year old Marie Hacker returned to her local court to have her guardianship overturned. The white woman, a divorced mother of five children, contested her legal standing of incompetency. She sought to establish her capacity. In support of her case, a local storekeeper testified that Hacker “bought goods always independently and carefully, not getting unnecessary things.” U.S. democracy is built on the premise that citizens have capacity, and such is the foundation for equality claims. Since the founding of the nation, however, eligibility to claim the mantle of citizenship and its accompanying rights has been debated vehemently. Courts and legislatures have used factors such as race, ethnicity, property ownership, gender, physical or intellectual ability, age, education, and criminal history to determine capacity for rights. Numerous scholars have examined the historical expansion of democracy, rights, and civic fitness.

This paper counters and enriches current historiography by instead examining adults determined legally unfit. Specifically, I examine adults who contested a prior legal determination of their incompetency and thus made explicit claims about their civic capacity. Across the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the management of money and other property in ways considered gender, age, and racially appropriate served as a primary criterion. Analyses of contested incompetency deepen contemporary and historical understandings of how inequalities are created via varying access to rights, and they reveal the often-hidden relationship between embodiment/body-mindedness and rights.

Presented By
Kim E. Nielsen, University of Toledo

“I’m 75–80 Percent Disabled”: Vietnam War Veterans, the VA, and Agent Orange

Unlike the war stories told by Hollywood movies, the war stories that Vietnam War veterans often tell are about the Veterans Administration (VA). Since World War I, the goal of the  VA has been to return veterans to employment and has focused on lost limbs as the source of unemployment or lost wages. The wounds of war were turned into a system to measure how much “ability” to labor had been lost as a result of wartime service. That system has produced a language and shared identities among veterans. “I’m 75–80 Percent Disabled,” is how one Vietnam War veteran introduced himself. The number is a disability ranking, a subtraction from “the 100% able-bodied” whole person, the VA explains. Veterans compare percentages—“I’m 10%”; “60%”; “Finally, I’m 100%.” They compare, complain, exult. They fill out forms, gather evidence, consult lawyers. Percentages equal disability rankings equals dollars. Vets identify as percentages of disability. But when they receive these rankings—and monthly checks—do they see themselves as a person with disabilities?

This paper investigates the VA’s system of denying, then addressing the health effects of Agent Orange and what that bureaucratic system meant(and means) to veterans. Successfully obtaining a desired disability ranking apparently represents respect—as men, soldiers, and citizens. For some Vietnam veterans, disability benefits also appear to serve as just compensation for the social rejection they felt at war’s end.

This paper places the VA disability compensation system within the histories of the welfare state, medicine, disabilities.

Presented By
Leslie J. Reagan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Capacity for Education: Disability, Schools, and State Support in the Early Republic

In the early nineteenth century, many American states awarded financial scholarships to impoverished young adults who wanted to attend one of the recently-established schools for the deaf and the blind. Hundreds of young adults, together with their parents and guardians, applied. They sent petitions to their state legislatures describing their experiences, desire for learning, financial limitations, hearing and visual incapacities, and, ultimately, their deservingness of support.

This paper draws on approximately three hundred of these petitions in Massachusetts and New York (dating from 1819 to 1850) as well as extensive state-level administrative records and correspondence between state officials, applicants, and school directors. These materials reveal that state and school administrators carefully selected applicants for scholarships based on their perceptions of their “capacity” for citizenship. Despite legislation specifying that candidates would be chosen randomly, or “by lot,” bureaucrats selected young adults who they believed might effectively remedy their disability and poverty by becoming laboring, economically self-sufficient citizens following graduation.

Young adults, meanwhile, actively negotiated their cases, mobilizing their own claims to citizenship. Some argued that they deserved support based on their residency, patriotism, or academic aptitude. The determination and creativity that these young adults showed in contesting their cases ultimately forced administrators to clarify the meanings of disability, capacity, and labor in their selection processes. The requirement, adopted by many states in the early 1830s, that candidates submit medical evaluations as part of their petitions was just one of many new policies intended to identity and distinguish these deserving students.

Presented By
Laurel Daen, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Audra Jennings, Western Kentucky University
Audra Jennings directs the Office of Scholar Development and serves as Associate Professor of History at Western Kentucky University (WKU), where she teaches the history of disability, medicine, and modern United States history. Her first book, Out of the Horrors of War: Disability Politics in World War II America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), analyzes the ways in which the U.S. state at mid-century defined citizenship around notions of ablebodiedness by examining the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped, a national, cross-disability social movement organization that emerged during the war. She is currently working on a book project, Insecurity: Disability, the Great Depression, and the New Deal State, that examines disability during the New Deal. As a transformative moment in the history of U.S. welfare policy, the New Deal propelled momentous state growth. Disability informed that growth, helping to define notions of insecurity and delineate divides between work and relief, while also serving as an object of state growth. The project explores how notions of disability informed New Dealers’ approaches to social security, work and relief, citizenship, labor standards, civil works, and children. Insecurity focuses on the driving forces, ideas, and people behind the New Deal, policy formation, and its consequences for the people who were the objects of these policies—disabled and non-disabled alike. The project has earned funding from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Harry S. Truman Library Institute, the Roosevelt Institute. Jennings is the recipient of the 2013 Disability History Association Outstanding Article Award and the James Madison Prize from the Society for History in the Federal Government for her article "‘An Emblem of Distinction': The Politics of Disability Entitlement, 1940-1950," which appeared in The Politics of Veterans Policy: Federal Policies and Veterans in the Modern US, ed. Stephen R. Ortiz (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012). She has served three terms as Secretary of the Disability History Association and is a member of the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History.

Presenter: Laurel Daen, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture
Laurel Daen (William & Mary Ph.D., 2016) is the 2018–2020 NEH Postdoctoral Fellow at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Her research focuses on disability, sickness, medicine, and health in the early Atlantic World. She has articles published or forthcoming in the Journal of Social History, the Journal of the Early Republic, and Early American Literature. She has also received several fellowships, including long-term awards from the NEH, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Association of University Women, William & Mary’s Office of the Provost, and now the Omohundro Institute.

Presenter: Kim E. Nielsen, University of Toledo
Dr. Kim Nielsen is Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo, where she also teaches courses in History and Women’s & Gender Studies. Her scholarship explores disability, gender, and citizenship throughout U.S. history. Nielsen’s latest book is A Disability History of the United States (Beacon Press), the first analysis of disability throughout United States history and covers the period prior to European arrival through the present. Other books include Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller (Beacon, 2009) and The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (NYUP, 2004). Nielsen holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Iowa.

In 2010 the Organization of American Historians honored Nielsen by appointing her a Distinguished Lecturer. Other awards include a Fulbright Specialist appointment, the 2007 A. Elizabeth Taylor Prize of the Southern Association of Women Historians, a Founders Award for Excellence in Teaching, an Organization of American Historians lectureship in Japan, a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Fellowship, and a Fulbright Scholars Award to the University of Iceland. Nielsen was founding president of the Disability History Association. She arrived at the University of Toledo in 2012 after fourteen years at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Presenter: Leslie J. Reagan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Leslie J. Reagan is Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she has affiliations in the Departments of Gender and Women’s Studies, Cinema and Media Studies, and the College of Law. She is currently completing a book on the history of the health effects of Agent Orange in the U.S. and Vietnam. Recent publications include “Monstrous Births, Birth Defects, Unusual Anatomy, and Disability,” in The Oxford Handbook on Disability History (2018) and “‘My daughter was genetically drafted with me’: US-Vietnam War Veterans, Disabilities and Gender” in Gender and History (Fall 2016).
She is the author of Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America (California, 2010), which has received several major book awards, including the Joan Kelly award from the American Historical Association, the William Welch medal from the American Association for the History of Medicine, the James Visiltear Award from the American Public Health Association, and the Eileen Basker Memorial Prize from the American Anthropological Association. Her first book, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (California, 1997), won the Willard Hurst book award among others. She is co-editor of Medicine's Moving Pictures: Medicine, Bodies, and Health in American Film and Television (Rochester, 2007).
Reagan has received numerous grants, including the National Institutes of Health, National Endowment for the Humanities, Mellon, the American Bar Foundation, Rockefeller, the Schlesinger Library. She was elected to the Governing Council of the American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM), has served on the editorials boards of Gender and History, the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Journal of Women’s History. She has been interviewed by National Public Radio, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico, and others.