“Gender, Race, and Dangerous Mothers in the Old and New Bioscience”

Dorothy Roberts
George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology
Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights
University of Pennsylvania


Biosocial science, including eugenics, evolutionary explanations for gender inequality, and biological definitions of race, historically has supported unjust social hierarchies by claiming they are biologically determined. Under this biosocial paradigm, mothers have been blamed for transferring inequality to future generations by passing defective innate traits to their offspring.

Casting mothers as dangerous reproducers reinforced patriarchal and racist ideologies and justified surveillance, control, and punishment of women’s childbearing. Rather than explain social inequality as biologically predestined through inheritance, an emerging biosocial science, including epigenetics and the neuroscience of poverty, investigates how social inequality produces disparate biological outcomes. But does the new biosocial science replicate or contest the role of dangerous mothers in justifications for social injustice?