Lock Her Up

The decades-long U.S. government plan to imprison “promiscuous” women

A missionary and the group of sex workers she wants to save in Chicago. (<em>Horrors of the White Slave Trade</em>,  Clifford G. Roe, 1911/courtesy Scott W. Stern)
A missionary and the group of sex workers she wants to save in Chicago. (Horrors of the White Slave Trade, Clifford G. Roe, 1911/courtesy Scott W. Stern)

There’s a dark chapter in American history that gets left out of the history books: the American Plan, which detained tens, and possibly hundreds of thousands of women from the 1910s through the 1950s. Conceived in World War I to protect soldiers from “promiscuous” women and the diseases they possibly carried, women were surveilled, picked off the street, detained without due process, imprisoned sometimes for years, and forcefully injected with unproven mercury treatments for sexually transmitted infections they were merely suspected of having. The American Plan laid the groundwork—and sometimes, the literal foundations—for the women’s prisons and mass incarcerations of today. Progressive luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and Earl Warren endorsed the plan, so its victims, more often than not women of color, were often forced to fight back on their own. Historian Scott W. Stern joins us to tell the story of Nina McCall, one of the women who defied a system that locked her up even though she was a virgin, experimented on her, and then tried to silence her.

Go beyond the episode:

  • A detention hospital for infected women in Leesville, Louisiana. (From a 1943 article in Collier’s magazine/courtesy Scott W. Stern)

A selection of anti-STI propaganda posters, some more tasteful than others, produced by the U.S. government while the American Plan was in effect:

  • Government poster, circa 1940 (NIH, History of Medicine)

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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