Elspeth Wilson

Ph.D. Candidate in Public Law, American Political Development, and Political Theory

Dissertation Title: The Reproduction of Citizenship: How the U.S. Government shaped Citizenship during the 20th century by Regulating Fertility, Procreation, and Birth Across Generations. 

Committee: Rogers Smith (chair), Nancy Hirschmann, Anne Norton, Adolph Reed

Summary: How does the United States reproduce itself across generations?  Like all modern nation-states, the American government erects and maintains various types of legal and geographic boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, aimed at regulating the intergenerational transmission of civic membership within its polity.  The literature in political science tends to focus on the ways in which immigration law structures citizenship over time, but I argue that this is only half the story. By examining federal court cases in the United States pertaining to domestic population control during twentieth century, my dissertation demonstrates that a similar political process also occurs through governmental regulation of the actual birth of citizens from one generation to the next.  I introduce the concept of a ‘civic lineage regime’ as the domestic counterpart to the ‘immigration regime,’ when it comes to structuring civic membership in the United States (and other nations).  These state-building policies have the ability to redefine the meaning and scope of U.S. citizenship across time by shaping the future “face” of the American polity.  Precisely because they play such a fundamental role in structuring political communities over time, governments have never failed to construct a civic lineage regime of some sort, nor are they likely ever to do so.

To bring visibility to this deeply constitutive yet largely unexamined dimension of American political development, my dissertation relies upon actual cases of state and national laws targeting civic lineage heard by the Supreme Court during the twentieth century.  Noteworthy examples are: the scope of “birthright citizenship” under the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; involuntary eugenic sterilization during the Progressive Era; birth control and abortion laws selectively encouraging and discouraging motherhood; discriminatory marriage restrictions; and the coercive regulation of fertility in federal welfare policy.  I argue that the U.S. government and the state governments regulate the intimate lives of Americans for many of the same reasons governments seek to control immigration. In both realms, the state makes legal distinctions between who can and cannot become a member by coercively privileging certain visions of American identity over others, which tends to entrench various types of group hierarchy (e.g. gender, race, disability, religion, ethnicity, class, and sexuality). And though many older inegalitarian conceptions of civic membership are now discredited, the dissertation shows that the conflictual politics involved in constructing an American civic lineage regime continue today.  After using qualitative methods and judicial interpretation to analyze the contested trajectory of the 20th century civic lineage regime, the final chapter of my dissertation applies my findings to emerging questions about the reproduction of citizenship in our contemporary “Human Genome Era.”  

University of Pennsylvania
The Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics
133 S. 36th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6215
Phone: (215) 898-7641

Nicholas Sambanis Chair
Alex Weisiger Graduate Chair
Daniel Hopkins Undergraduate Chair