America’s Forgotten Mass Imprisonment of Women

In the mid-1900s, hundreds of thousands of women were examined for STIs such as syphilis and gonorrhea, often with little to no evidence. Many were also thrown in jail against their will.

The 20th century was a rough one: war after war, genocide after genocide, millions of deaths, poverty, topped off with a world depression- people lived a miserable life for much of the 1900s. We all learn in history class about the big human rights violations and war crimes, such as the Holocaust and the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII. However, so much of history’s bad is hidden. One of these hidden topics is a widespread government program that locked people, mostly women, up simply for having sexually transmitted infections — and then forced them to undergo dangerous poisonous “treatments” during 20th century America.

Nearly two dozen women were rounded up by authorities in Sacramento, California in 1919. Margaret Hennessey was one of the women who was apprehended while walking with her sister to the meat market. As the two women walked to the market, they were approached by officers and other members of Sacramento’s “morals squad” — a unit formed that very morning, tasked with cleansing the city of vice and immorality. The police told the two women they were under arrest as “suspicious characters.”

Mrs. Hennessey tried to explain who she was and what she was doing in Sacramento. She offered to show the officers identification. The officers, Hennessey later told the press, “paid no heed, but took my sister and I to the hospital.” The morals squad delivered Hennessey and Bradich to the “Canary Cottage,” the city’s isolation hospital. There, a doctor probed and prodded the two women’s genitalia, examining them for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). “At the hospital, I was forced to submit to an examination just as if I was one of the most degraded women in the world. I want to say I have never been so humiliated in my life,” Mrs. Hennessey told the local newspaper. “My reputation means something to me and I am going to defend it.”

Margaret Hennessey’s experience was far from unusual. She had been detained under a program called the “American Plan.” From the 1910s through the 1950s, tens of thousands — perhaps evenhundreds of thousands — of American women were detained and forcibly examined for STIs. The program was modeled after similar ones in Europe, under which authorities stalked “suspicious” women, arresting, testing, and imprisoning them. A pattern was emerging across the globe.

If the women tested positive, U.S. officials locked them away in penal institutions with no due process. While many records of the program have since been lost or destroyed, women’s internment could range from a few days to many months. Inside these institutions, records show that the women were often injected with mercury and were forced to ingest arsenic-laced drugs, the most common treatments for syphilis back then. If they misbehaved, protested, or failed to be “ladylike”, these women could be beaten, doused with cold water, thrown into solitary confinement, or even sterilized.

The American Plan began during World War I as the result of a federal push to prevent soldiers and sailors from contracting STIs. In 1917, federal officials were horrified to learn that a huge percentage of men in the military were infected with syphilis or gonorrhea. Suddenly these diseases presented not just a health threat , but a national security threat as well. As a result, officials passed a federal law that outlawed sex work within a five-mile radius of every military training camp in the country. When they learned that most infected soldiers and sailors actually contracted their STIs back in their hometowns, they worked to expand this prohibition to cover the entire nation. And when they discovered that most of the women who supposedly infected the men weren’t professional prostitutes, they expanded the program even further.

Beginning in 1918, federal officials began pushing every state in the nation to pass a “model law,” which enabled officials to forcibly examine any person “reasonably suspected” of having an STI. Under this statute, those who tested positive for an STI could be held in detention for as long as it took to render him or her noninfectious. On paper, the law was gender-neutral; in practice, it almost exclusively focused on regulating women and their bodies, a huge violation of both their privacy and their dignity.

The Plan shockingly enjoyed complicity, if not outright support, from highly-ranked officials. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia gave speeches lauding the Plan; then-California Governor Earl Warren personally spearheaded its enforcement in his state. In 1918, the attorney general personally sent a letter to every U.S. attorney in the country, assuring them this law was constitutional and he also sent a letter to every U.S. district judge, urging them not to interfere with its enforcement. During World War II, the American Civil Liberties Union not only failed to oppose the Plan- its founder, Roger Baldwin, sent a memorandum encouraging its local branches to cooperate with officials enforcing it.

Governors and state legislatures responded to the federal government’s “model law” with enthusiasm. STIs were a hated epidemic, and sex workers, often incorrectly blamed for spreading most STIs, served as popular scapegoats. By 1921, every state in the union, as well as hundreds of municipalities, had one of these statutes on their books. Cities and states enforced these laws, off and on, for the next half-century.

One such city was Sacramento. Margaret Hennessey and her sister were not

The STI examinations showed that Hennessey had an STI, and officers released her at about 8:00 pm, with orders to appear for court the next morning. At 9:30 a.m., Hennessey stormed into court — ready, she declared to the Sacramento Bee, to “defend myself,” but “I would have no chance.” She was informed the charges had been dismissed. Nonetheless, the arrest left a mark. “I dare not venture on the streets,” she told the Bee later that day, “for fear I will be arrested again.”

In fact, of the 22 women arrested for suspicion of STIs, 16 were released later that day. Six were held overnight, not allowed to speak with or contact anyone. In the end, only one of the 22 women tested positive for STIs. “In other words,” the Bee reported, “out of twenty-two suspects subjected to an examination, the police were justified in arresting but one woman,” showing the hysteria around these accusations and how there was virtually no proof behind how these women were arrested, similar to the Red Scares of the 1920s and 1950s.

It is clear to modern observers that the American Plan was a stunningly sexist program and one that made no sense from a public health perspective. Nearly every person examined and locked up under these laws was a woman. And the vague standard of “reasonable suspicion” enabled officials to pretty much detain any woman they wanted. Records exist in archives that document women being detained and examined for doing normal, everyday things, and often, for no reason at all.

Enforcement of the American Plan ended by the 1970s, amid the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s liberation movement, and the sex workers-rights movement. It had lasted in many places for half a century; but today, half a century later, few people have ever heard of it. Even fewer are aware that the American Plan laws — the ones passed in the late 1910s, enabling officials to examine people merely “reasonably suspected” of having STIs — are still on the books, in some form, in every state in the nation. Some of these laws have been altered or amended, and some have been absorbed into broader public-health statutes, but each state still has the power to examine “reasonably suspected” people and isolate the infected ones, if health officials deem such isolation necessary.

The American Plan is sadly just another tragedy that has not made it into history books, just like so many others. It angered me greatly to know that this Plan is very widely unknown, as it was terribly unjust and immoral to have women examined with no evidence and have them detained for suspicions fo STIs. Even if it was considered okay back then, it would definitely not be okay in today’s world, as women have become trailblazers in expressing their rights and voices. However, this awful event happened, whether we like it or not. People should know about it, so we can do better for the future and ensure something like the American Plan will never happen in America again. It’s extremely disgusting to know that things like this Plan are covered up and not spoken about in society. The women who were victims of the Plan deserve so much more than what America gave them. We must do better in the future.

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Injustice from the eyes of a high schooler. Activist. Lover of history. Here to educate and inspire.

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Amy Zhang

Injustice from the eyes of a high schooler. Activist. Lover of history. Here to educate and inspire.