Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'The Trials' Chronicles Un-American American Plan

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'The Trials' Chronicles Un-American American Plan

Article excerpt

Scott W. Stern's book "The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison 'Promiscuous' Women" (Beacon Press; $28.95) is a piece of historical detective work that unearths a horrifying facet of America's past.

Nina McCall was a young working-class woman from small-town Michigan who in 1918 was taken in by police on suspicion of having a sexually transmitted infection. If that sounds bizarre, it should - but for Ms. McCall, it was a life-altering event, and she wasn't alone.

The blame was something called the American Plan. Over several decades starting during World War I, Mr. Stern believes, the Plan resulted in the detainment of more than 100,000 women, in every state, in big cities (including Pittsburgh) and small towns alike. The nominal reason was to prevent the spread of venereal disease, especially among soldiers. In practice, this meant mass deprivation of civil liberties - including mandatory STI testing and (highly questionable) medical treatment, forced labor and, in extreme circumstances, forcible sterilization.

The book weaves the Plan's complex story with that of Nina McCall, one of its victims. The Plan's weird parentage includes philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., a key funder of the American Social Hygiene Association, the nonprofit group that laid much of the groundwork for the Plan.

STIs were rampant in the early 20th century, but Victorian morals, pseudoscience, racism, classicism and misogyny turned this attempt to confront the problem toxic. Lawmakers passed broadly worded statutes that permitted suspects to be detained on the flimsiest of pretexts, including wearing "provocative" clothing or dining alone. Then they'd be tested for gonorrhea and syphilis and threatened with "Scarlet Letter"-style shaming (literal red-lettered signs posted on their homes) if they refused treatment. …

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