Music History #12: "Vagabond Ways"
Written by Marianne Faithfull and David Courts (1999)
Performed by Marianne Faithfull
Marianne Faithfull has had many lives—60s-era folk singer, Swinging London swinger, girlfriend of Mick Jagger, and sadly, in the 1970s, drug addict and street person. But in the 80s, she made a comeback, reinventing herself as a jazzy cabaret singer. On the title track of her 1999 album Vagabond Ways, Faithfull was inspired by a news article about the enforced sterilization of undesirables in Sweden. The song was never a chart hit, but it remains a powerful part of Faithfull’s live set.
Between 1935 and 1975, over 60,000 people living in Sweden were sterilized against their will. That may come as a shock, especially since Sweden has long been known as a bastion of liberal idealism and sexual freedom.
But in the early part of the 20th century, Sweden fell under the spell of “eugenics,” a scientific idea concerned with improving human population by controlled breeding. Or to give it a more chilling phrase: racial hygiene.
The word eugenics was coined by English anthropologist Francis Galton. A cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton had taken a cue from a chapter on variation in breeding in Darwin’s Origin of Species. He then devoted his professional life to studying genetics and their effect on behavior and abilities. He believed that breeding within one race between healthy individuals created stronger, more eminent offspring.
In Sweden, two laws were signed regarding eugenics. The first, in 1934, allowed sterilization of the mentally ill and mentally retarded without any legal procedure. In 1941, a second law was enacted, setting forth grounds for sterilization for eugenic, social, or medical reasons. While in theory these laws were meant to prevent the transmission of mental illness, they soon became perverted into a different idea—to prevent the propagation of racially mixed people.
By the early 1940s, that meant that gypsies, vagabonds, deviants and anyone who didn’t fit into the Swedish mainstream. Even single mothers were soon obligated to sacrifice their reproductive freedom if they wanted to remain in Sweden. The pressure was severe. It was a case of “Sign this or you’ll get no social benefits, no vacation, no apartment. Sign this or we’ll take your kids away.” Basically, legalized blackmail.
Sweden was not alone in this. Norway, Denmark, and even the United States had their own sterilization programs. And of course, in the twisted hands of Germany’s Nazi Party, the eugenics idea was carried to massively tragic ends.
The issue resurfaced in the news in early 2012, when Sweden was criticized for refusing to update a 1972 law that requires all “transgender people to become sterilized before their gender reassignment will be formally recognized by the state.” Activist groups are currently fighting to have it overturned.