Ugly Law

From the late 1860s until no later than the 1970s, municipal laws targeting ‘unsightly beggars’ sprang up in cities across America. The legislation sought to criminalize disability and thus offering a visceral example of discrimination. The goal of these laws was seemingly to preserve the quality of life for the community.

“What’s the whole point of being pretty on the outside when you’re so ugly on the inside?” – Jess C. Scott

These so-called Ugly Laws or Unsightly Beggar Ordinances have become a sort of shorthand for oppression in disability studies, law, and the arts. Shockingly, many US states’ ugly laws were not repealed until the mid 1970s.

“[M]en, though they know full well how much women are worth and how great the benefits we bring them, nonetheless seek to destroy us out of envy for our merits. It’s just like the crow, when it produces white nestlings: it is so stricken by envy, knowing how black it is itself, that it kills its own offspring out of pique.” – Moderata Fonte, The Worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men (1600)

The most commonly cited ugly law is that of the City of Chicago, Illinois which dates from 1911. Namely, an ordinance from the Chicago Municipal Code, sec. 36034:

‘No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offence.’

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