book review

When America imprisoned ‘promiscuous’ women

A pamphlet created by the American Social Hygiene Association and pubished by the US Public Health Service.
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries
A pamphlet created by the American Social Hygiene Association and pubished by the US Public Health Service.

It was known as the American Plan.

Under a patchwork of federal, state, and local laws, as many as hundreds of thousands of women suspected of having sexually transmitted infections were detained, subjected to invasive gynecological exams and unreliable tests, treated with painful, dangerous, and ineffective drugs, and confined to hospitals or prisons for weeks or months without trial.

Some were beaten or sterilized; others died in fires or escape attempts, or from the toxicity of their treatments.


Never heard of any of this? You’re in good company. Just a handful of historians have chronicled aspects of this mostly forgotten mass-quarantine policy, Scott W. Stern writes in “The Trials of Nina McCall.” Stern breaks new ground by offering persuasive evidence of the plan’s breadth, persistence, impact, and evolution from the World War I era into the 1970s.

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It’s a shattering story. In his detailed, occasionally dense narrative, Stern (a 2015 Yale graduate who began his research in college) inculpates not just sexism and puritanical sexual policing, but racism, classism, xenophobia — and capitalism itself. “Cities locked up women in part to make money,” with state funding flowing to detention hospitals and local chambers of commerce spearheading the cleansing of red-light districts, he writes.

The emotional heart of the book, drawn in part from trial transcripts, is an account of how McCall, a small-town Michigan woman of Canadian and Scottish heritage, transformed herself from victim to resister. Nonwhites and immigrants, as well as working-class women, were more likely to be targeted by the American Plan, Stern says. But so rabid was enforcement that in 1930 the wealthy widow of the Broadway producer Oscar Hammerstein (the lyricist’s grandfather) was mistakenly arrested on prostitution charges, sparking an outcry and investigations.

The philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. bankrolled the American Social Hygiene Association, which devised the plan. Backers included such liberal icons as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Earl Warren and, to an extent, Eleanor Roosevelt. The fabled Eliot Ness vigorously rounded up prostitutes. Even the American Civil Liberties Union was reluctant to mount a challenge, and ineffective when it did.

The tentacles of the program also wound around the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, in which black men with the disease remained untreated even after the discovery of life-saving penicillin so scientists could track the course of the illness. The study’s founders and leaders helped promulgate the American Plan.


And Stern suggests the program laid the groundwork for calls for quarantine during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and for mass female incarceration.

Though its roots are older still, the main impetus for the American Plan (so named to distinguish it from similarly repressive European plans) was the desire to protect US servicemen in World War I from diseases allegedly spread by prostitutes. Although the 1918 federal Chamberlain-Kahn Act was gender-neutral, enforcement was not: Most detainees were women — some of them sex workers, but others merely suspected of being sexually active or arrested for unrelated crimes.

At 18, McCall maintained that she was sexually inexperienced. Nevertheless, she was forced to submit to a gynecological examination by a public health officer, Thomas J. Carney. He diagnosed her as “slightly infected” with gonorrhea (assuring her “[t]here were other ways to get it’’) and pressured her to sign commitment papers to the Bay City Detention Hospital.

There she washed dishes, scrubbed floors, and received toxic injections of mercury and other drugs prescribed for syphilis. She mostly avoided medicated douches for gonorrhea. After nearly three months, she was found “free from the diseases in the infectious stage” and released.

But a social worker, Ida Peck, continued to harass McCall at home, bullying her into receiving more painful, purposeless injections. She sought escape by marrying and leaving town. (Her husband was a scoundrel who may have sought to prostitute her, Stern writes, and McCall quickly left him and remarried.)


In 1919, with the help of a woman friend and a trio of lawyers, McCall sued three of her tormentors — Carney, Peck, and Mary Corrigan, a hospital matron. She won on appeal, with the Michigan Supreme Court holding that Carney had not had “reasonable grounds” to detain her. But Stern notes that the decision “blessed the laws and practices that resulted in her imprisonment.”

Stern emphasizes the variety of strategies women used to resist — from setting fires to hunger strikes — and notes that many of the elite women who initially supported, and even administered, the Plan turned strongly against it. Yet as late as 1965, a young Andrea Dworkin, who would later become an influential feminist writer, was arrested during an antiwar protest in San Francisco and subjected to a brutal jailhouse gynecological examination.

It took the advent of penicillin and changing attitudes — not just the slow burn of the sexual revolution, but its public acceptance — to kill enforcement. Many of the laws enabling the American Plan remain on the books. “The Trials of Nina McCall’’ suggests that, in the face of misogyny and fear, the Constitution’s civil liberties and due process protections are flimsier than we dare acknowledge.


Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women

By Scott W. Stern

Beacon, 368 pp., $28.95

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Julia M. Klein’s reviews have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Nation, Slate and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.