Historical survey of an early-20th-century initiative to control “promiscuous” women through forced quarantines.
In the 1910s, citing venereal disease as one of the largest culprits of military disability, the U.S. government created what was called the American Plan, which resulted in thousands of women being incarcerated for their perceived contraction and transmission of sexually transmitted infections. Stern adapts his prizewinning Yale University graduate thesis on the subject for general readers. The result is a dramatic re-enactment of the plight of these involuntarily quarantined women, personified through the life of Nina McCall, a teenager who was targeted by health officials as a disease carrier (she was declared “slightly infected” with gonorrhea) and coerced into admitting herself into a women’s detention hospital. Bolstered by the advent of neoregulationism, whereby health officials—not police—would filter, outlaw, and imprison women for disease and suspected prostitution, officials held the mass-arrested women for months on often sketchy evidence. Eventually, after simmering resentment turned to sheer outrage, a resistance movement began to develop, and dozens of women escaped, rioted, enacted hunger strikes, or set fire to their facilities in protest. According to Stern’s meticulous research, others, including McCall, took the legal route and sued government officials for the torturous and barbaric “curative” treatments they had endured in the detention facilities. Using letters, diaries, articles, and archival records, the author intricately re-creates McCall’s world and brings much-needed attention to the struggle of these persecuted women and their fight for justice. The author spotlights McCall’s trial testimony, where she became a radical voice against female oppression and abuse and an inspiration to others. The book’s academic tone is direct, informative, exacting, and well-suited for the grim subject matter it addresses, and it puts a face on the treacherous, sexist injustices committed by a misguided government.
A powerful report on a relevant women’s movement deservedly brought to light over a century after it occurred.