THE TRIALS OF NINA McCALL
Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades- Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women
By Scott W. Stern
356 pp. Beacon Press. $28.95.
One October morning in 1918, an 18-year-old named Nina McCall walked out of the post office in St. Louis, Mich., where she lived with her widowed mother. Waiting for her on the sidewalk was the town’s deputy sheriff, who ordered her to report to the local health officer for a medical exam. Why he singled out McCall we may never know, but the exam left her bleeding, traumatized and outraged. When the officer declared her to be infected with gonorrhea, McCall protested that she had never been intimate with a man. At which point, as Scott Stern writes in his impressively researched book, “The Trials of Nina McCall,” the doctor “turned on her and thundered, with all the authority of his position and his gender, ‘Young lady, do you mean to call me a liar?’”
Stern’s is the first book-length account of the “American Plan,” a government-sponsored “social hygiene” campaign under which thousands of American women between the early years of the 20th century and the 1960s were forced to undergo gynecological exams, quarantine and detention, all in the name of protecting the country’s citizens from sexually transmitted infections. Stern was a freshman in a lecture course at Yale when his professor mentioned that government efforts to combat sexually transmitted disease had included confining prostitutes to concentration camps. As Stern recounts, he stopped taking notes and turned to Google: “I typed in ‘concentration camps for prostitutes.’ Nothing. I went to Wikipedia and entered the same search. Nothing. This was strange.”
Stern, now a law student at Yale, went on to spend years examining records, including administrative notes, century-old news stories and social workers’ field reports. The book he eventually pieced together, which in earlier form earned him an undergraduate thesis award, is startling, disturbing and terrifically readable. Using McCall’s saga as a narrative spine, Stern chronicles the nationwide network of laws and policies targeting prostitutes and any other woman whose alleged sexual activity made her a potential carrier of venereal disease.
No proof that a woman was selling sex for pay was required in order to haul her in for testing. Local police and health officials targeted women who in their view acted too flirtatious, enjoyed themselves too much around soldiers or simply worked as waitresses. In one Louisiana town near an Army installation, a woman was forcibly examined because she’d been spotted dining in a restaurant alone. Women of color were rounded up in especially high numbers; Stern cites officials who “enthusiastically warned that nonwhite women were less moral, intent on infecting soldiers and that blacks in particular were a ‘syphilis soaked race.’”
On paper, the laws of the American Plan were gender-neutral, applicable to “any person reasonably suspected by the health officer of being infected with any of the said diseases.” In practice, the laws targeted women, and those judged to be infected were quarantined in jails, converted hospitals and former brothels fitted out with barbed wire-topped walls. Breakouts and rebellions were common: In Los Angeles, women hacked through a fence with a stolen butcher knife; in Seattle, they tied up the guards in sheets and busted through plate glass. “In one wing of the horribly overcrowded Louisville jail,” Stern writes, “quarantined women staged a riot about once a week.”
American authorities didn’t invent the blame-loose-women approach to stamping out venereal disease; they imported it from Europe. In 19th-century Paris, Stern reports, under what was known as the French Plan, prostitutes were made to bare their genitals before health inspectors. Those found to be infected could be jailed and compelled to undergo mercury injections, then the standard, if mostly ineffective, treatment for venereal disease. (“Throbbing pain, kidney damage, inflammation or ulceration of the mouth and terrible skin rashes” were typical side effects, Stern writes.)
It wasn’t until the 1940s that doctors understood that penicillin could knock out syphilis and gonorrhea. When Nina McCall was quarantined in 1918 — bullied into three months inside a Michigan “detention hospital” — she was injected with the toxins then still in fashion: mercury and, Stern surmises, remedies based on arsenic. Her teeth loosened. Her hair started falling out. She pleaded to go home. She insisted she’d been falsely suspected of consorting with “soldier boys”; Stern found evidence suggesting that she may never have had a sexually transmitted infection.