An Enduring Shame

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
‘Because She Was Susceptible’; aquatint by Francisco Goya from Los Caprichos, 1797–1799

There are currently at least 2.3 million people detained and confined in the United States and its territories. Many thousands are held without having committed a crime, including nearly 11,000 children locked away for “technical violations” or “status offenses” such as running away or skipping school. And since at least 1978, the number of women and girls removed from society and locked up for extended periods of time has been growing at more than double the rate of men and boys.

According to The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women, a new book by the law student Scott Stern, a shocking number of American girls and women were also locked up beginning in the 1910s as part of the now completely forgotten “American Plan,” a governmental effort to combat venereal disease. Stern happened upon this unnerving piece of history largely by accident when he was an undergraduate poking around the stacks of the Yale libraries. His curiosity piqued, he spent almost a decade digging into archival collections, visiting decaying rural towns, and interviewing people in their living rooms, trying to understand what this program was and what its human cost might have been.

Stern’s research not only uncovered many details about this nationwide attempt to control women suspected of spreading syphilis and gonorrhea, but also rescued from obscurity the story of an eighteen-year-old girl named Nina McCall, who experienced the program firsthand. For those of us who decry today’s internationally unparalleled carceral crisis and wonder how we ended up here, Stern’s beautifully written account of the American Plan and the life of Nina McCall offers some needed but uncomfortable answers.

Attempts to control the spread of disease have nearly all originated in moments of economic or social crisis, and virtually all of them have targeted society’s most vulnerable members. At the turn of the century, when antibiotics had yet to be discovered, syphilis and gonorrhea were rampant in American cities. Notably, concern among reformers and government officials over venereal diseases (as sexually transmitted infections—STIs—were called at the time) was fueled by a more general rise in white anxiety over changing ethnic and racial demographics across the nation: 14.5 million people immigrated to the US between 1900 and 1920, and half a million African-Americans moved to northern cities from the South during World War I.

Efforts to slow these diseases often took the form of targeting women, particularly black and brown women, for persecution—some white middle-class reformers rallied around the criminalization of prostitution. Others pushed for the legalization and accessibility of contraceptives. The Comstock laws, in place since the 1870s, effectively outlawed the circulation and in some cases the use of contraceptives, including condoms, in part to discourage extramarital sex. When Margaret Sanger…

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