Online Exhibits@Yale

"The American Plan: The U.S. Government's Forgotten Plan to Lock Up Women and Free the Country from the Scourge of Disease" by Scott Stern

Circular of Warning to women arrested by Morals Squad

Circular of Warning to women arrested by Morals Squad, 1918.

My research examines the story of the “American Plan,” a program managed by the federal and state governments that led to the arrests of tens of thousands of women on “suspicion” of having venereal disease. Officials subjected these women to invasive gynecological examinations. If the women tested positive for venereal disease, the officials imprisoned them, with virtually no due process, in detention hospitals and reformatories. Most of these facilities had barbed wire, armed guards, or both.

Once imprisoned, the women were treated with painful and ineffective injections of mercury; some were beaten or forcibly sterilized. They were imprisoned for “indeterminate sentences”—that is, until they were “cured,” though no treatment for gonorrhea existed at this time, and there were only limited options to care for syphilis.

To tell this story, I examine the Plan from a national perspective, tracing its rise in the mid-1910s through the early 1920s. I also tell the story of Nina McCall, one woman who was arrested and imprisoned under the Plan. When told at all, the story of the American Plan has always been told from the top—never from the bottom, and never in its survivors’ own words. In my research, using McCall’s trial transcript, I attempt to correct this. 

McCall was incarcerated in late 1918 and remained imprisoned until early 1919. Officials took McCall from her Michigan home, examined her without consent, imprisoned her, released her, stalked her, and abused her. Then, the most unkindest cut of all: they forgot her. McCall, however, refused to take her treatment passively. She fought back in many ways, finally in a lawsuit that remains important precedent to this day.

"The American Plan: The U.S. Government's Forgotten Plan to Lock Up Women and Free the Country from the Scourge of Disease" by Scott Stern