Of all the books I have ever read, THE MISMEASURE OF MAN, by Stephen Jay Gould, has been one of the most influential. It’s the history of intelligence testing, showing how scientists turned honest inquiry on its head to “prove” that affluent white males were at the top of the heap for a reason. These men—affluent white males to a one—started with the conclusion that all was right in the social order, and assumed that it would be a simple matter to find the scientific data to support such a view.
In the early twentieth century, an American eugenicist named Herbert Henry Goddard became famous for his work adapting the new intelligence tests of Alfred Binet to prove the heritability of low intelligence, and to gather support for institutionalizing “morons” (he invented the word). But what about new immigrants? Many Americans feared that the new class of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (many of them Jews) were inferior to earlier groups Wouldn’t it be great to identify quickly which ones were likely to become public burdens or nuisances? “Idiots” and “imbeciles” were easy to pick out and deport, but it was the “morons,” who looked normal and even acted appropriately in simple situations, who really needed catching.
In 1913, Goddard received permission to take a group of female “intuitives” to Ellis Island, to see if they could pick out “morons” on sight. More than eighty percent of the people the “intuitives” selected failed the intelligence tests, and Goddard appeared to be vindicated in his belief in feminine intuition. Later, when Goddard’s test were normed on average Americans, it turned out that the majority of them were “morons” by Goddard’s standards. By then, of course it was too late for the several thousand immigrants who had already been deported for failing the tests.
THE INTUITIVE is a fictional telling of the story of one of Goddard’s prescient women, Zorah Baldwin, whose experiences at Ellis Island open her eyes to a challenging, exciting, and troubling world beyond the genteel boundaries of her life of privilege on New York’s Washington Square. No time in American history is more turbulent than the first decades of the twentieth century, and through Zorah the reader learns not only about immigrants and high society, but about the passions affecting women of the time—labor unions, birth control, and the right to vote.