Institutions, relatives, respond to Dorothy Canfield Fisher controversy

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ARLINGTON — While Arlington residents have come to the defense of author Dorothy Canfield Fisher's reputation, her granddaughter has affirmed that Fisher had indeed supported the state eugenics movement, but was convinced otherwise by her son -in-law later in life.

At a presentation to the Vermont Department of Libraries in April, artist and educator Judy Dow presented evidence of Fisher's ties to Vermont's eugenics movement and argued for the removal of Fisher's name from the award.

A heated debated later occurred on July 11 at the Vermont Board of Libraries' quarterly meeting, which opted to delay making a decision. The board is expected to present its recommendation on the award to State Librarian Scott Murphy.

"Knowledge of the larger context is important," said Vivian Hixson in a letter to the Vermont Board of Libraries. "At that time, Dorothy Canfield Fisher was actively working to assure greater rights to contraception for women, and it was primarily on that basis that she was temporarily drawn into the eugenics movement."

Though Fisher was drawn to the movement, says Hixson, her perspective soon shifted.

"Dorothy Canfield Fisher's temporary support for the sterilization of people with severe mental and physical handicaps stopped in the early 1930's, when people like my father, a researcher in the developing sciences of genetics and psychology, convinced her that the eugenicists had no good evidence for the simple genetic inheritance of these conditions," said Hixson in the letter.

Hixson's mother, Sarah "Sally" Fisher, was the daughter of the prolific author. Her father was geneticist John Paul Scott, author of "Social Control and Social Change," and co-author of "Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog," alongside John Fuller.

"She was temporarily convinced that eugenics had a good case, considering the terrible conditions people had at that time with generations suffering from these things," said Hixson. "The reason my father got involved talking to her about this is because when my parents first married in the early 1930's my father was already involved in the much more advanced understanding of genetics."

Scott used this understanding to sway the opinion of Fisher, according to Hixson, who heard the tale recounted by her mother.

"It didn't take long, because she was very respectful of legitimate authority; she knew she was not a scientist," said Hixson. "She listened, and she realized that she had been mislead to some extent by people who had misrepresented their knowledge."

Considering Fisher's contributions to literature and her community, as well as her charitable work, Hixson feels that the author should not be castigated for her temporary ties to eugenics.

"I think it's been blown way out of proportion," said Hixson. "I suspect there are other political forces involved here that have gotten people excited."

Institutions in Arlington are also beginning to discuss the debate over Fisher's legacy, with many voicing support for the local author.

"The Board of Directors is dismayed that Dorothy Canfield Fisher's name may be taken off the book award," said the Board of Directors for the Arlington Community House in a letter to the Board of Libraries. "We recognize that historically, while many of our early Presidents were slave owners, and we deplore that aspect of their lives, we do not think that totally takes away from their vast contributions to the growth and development of our democracy."

The Arlington Community House, built in 1829, was the homestead of the Canfield family and was deeded to a Board of Directors in 1948 by Fisher to serve the communities of Arlington, Sandgate, and Sunderland.

"The town of Arlington recognizes Dorothy Canfield Fisher in that the elementary school is named after her. We doubt that should be changed," continued the letter from the Community House. "We are proud of Dorothy Canfield Fisher not only as a Vermont author, but also for her many societal contributions. Therefore we believe she should remain connected on the book award."

"You can't denigrate someone completely for a mistake they make in our eyes; they were a product of their time just as Dorothy Canfield Fisher was," said Board president Charles Webster, a former history teacher at Mount Anthony Union Middle School. "The woman who brought this up has somewhat of a point, but I dont think its to the extent where Fisher's name should be removed from the award."

Though the Martha Canfield library, named after Fisher's aunt, has not solidified their position on the issue at this point, it will be discussed at the next meeting of the Library's Board of Directors on Monday, August 7 at 7 p.m.

"All of the people that I met when I first started at the library, who knew Dorothy, always talked about the contributions she had made to this community," said Library Director Phyllis Skidmore. "She was a product of her time; I'd hate to see her name removed."

"Many of the leaders of that movement were racists," said Hixson. "Dorothy Canfield Fisher was not."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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