The Chamberlain-Kahn Act


From "In Defense of the Nation: Syphilis, North Carolina's 'Girl Problem' and World War I" by Karin L. Zipf

"North Carolina had a 'girl problem', state authorities and officials insisted. To solve it, they constructed state policies based upon Victorian ideals of morality. In these terms, women fell into only two categories, virgins and fallen women. Legislation and rules endorsed by the State Board of Health characterized delinquent girls not as wayward juveniles (a third category inconceivable by Victorian standards) but as potential prostitutes who required segregation, quarantine, and study to protect potential enlisted men….[t]he ideal woman was chaste, virginal, and the ideal man was a family provider. Venereal disease disrupted these sentimental ideals of clean and pure husbands and wives by drawing attention to extramarital sex and by threatening the health and sanctity of the family. Furthermore, it upended gender roles…Venereal disease terrified progressive reformers not only for its physical manifestations but also for the threat it posed to the moral purity of the manly American."

Episode: File 0121: More Than a Hiccup in Justice

Release Date: Jan 12 2024

Researched and presented by Halli

World War I was causing big problems. One, it was a war on a scale America had never seen before. Two, it was causing turmoil in American towns and cities, particularly in small places like St. Louis, Michigan and nearby, where soldiers were encamped for training. These towns were suddenly overwhelmed by young men, many far away from home for the first time, who were bored and lonely and looking for fun before being shipped off to a war that would likely make corpses of most of them. And three, the upheaval was forcing more women into the workplace to take the spots abandoned by men. The ideal gender roles - the male breadwinner, hardworking, who sacrificed for his family, and the female homemaker and caretaker, who spent her entire day tied up with children and cleaning and cooking – was now in question. It was a new century, on top of that, and sin and vice were being nailed to the proverbial cross of social scrutiny. Prohibition – the outlawing of liquor and spirits – was only a few years off, but rumblings of the idea were already stewing. People could travel further and faster because of the automobile. Industrialization was churning out mass-produced items and capitalism was king. Motion pictures showed dewy starlets in skimpy outfits. Women's suffragists were in the streets, loudly proclaiming that women were equal to men and deserved the right to vote.

Things were suddenly, frighteningly quite different in the span of a few decades. A lot of people in the US didn't like that.

What became known as the American Plan didn't start in the 1900s. The fear of sex and women started decades before, with local communities "arresting women suspected of sexual impropriety, subjecting them to examinations and forcibly treating those found to be infected with syphilis or gonorrhea" eventually became more than just a local effort, but a nationwide one that allowed for sweeping changes and abuses.

"The American Plan always operated first and foremost on a local level – and it varied from region to region, city to city, year to year – but without the federal government and the nation's entrance into the Great War, the Plan would have never been as massive or as pressing an imperative."

And at the center of all of it were the beguiling devils themselves – women. "Loose" women, in particular. They tempted soldiers into dens of vice and sin, they bedded down with single and married men, and infected them with terrifying diseases that caused rot and ruin. Infecting soldiers was considered a threat to national security – how could America fight in World War I if its soldiers were feebleminded and diseased? Of course America needed to crack down on the source of these infections…so it did.

"Though it is remembered by a handful of historians, most people have simply never heard of the American Plan. That the US government instituted a system of surveillance to watch women, that officials arrested these women, often denied them due process, and then imprisoned and abused them, that this went on for decades – these facts are simply not widely known. The American Plan has been forgotten."

The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison "Promiscuous Women" by Scott W. Stern is an impressive academic work, one that shocked me at almost every turn. Stern learned of the story of 18 year old Nina McCall, who lived in St. Louis, Michigan with her widowed mother. Her story is that of the American PlanNina left the house one October morning in 1918 to go to the post office, and waiting outside on the sidewalk was the town's deputy sheriff, who "ordered her to report to the local health officer for a medical exam". There is no concrete evidence as to why Nina was singled out – she was a free spirit, the daughter of a widow, and poor. That might have been enough. But Nina wasn't one to stand by while being abused, and abused she was after the health officer declared she had gonorrhea – after the exam left her bleeding, traumatized, and outraged.

"…McCall protested that she had never been intimate with a man. At which point…the doctor 'turned on her and thundered with all the authority of his position and his gender, 'Young lady, do you mean to call me a liar?'"

"On paper, the laws of the American Plan were gender-neutral, applicable to 'any person reasonably suspected by the health officer of being infected with any of the said diseases'." But of course, in practice, the laws targeted women, particularly poor women and women of color, and any woman not following the staid morals and expectations of the time. You grew up, got married, had children, and obeyed your husband; that was the plan. But in a country at war, in a time of upheaval, women were angry and empowered. And as we know, when change comes rushing in like high tide, those who have always been in power cling to it even more, and use their authority to abuse.

When we talked about Nellie Bly, I gave a brief outline of institutions that were proliferating across the US; they were commonly called reformatories and women could be locked up for any reason an official could think of. If you had "fallen" from a moral path in life, you could easily find yourself in a cell. This thinking was used as one of linchpins for The American Plan - women had a proper place in American society, and it wasn't to run around town with soldiers and threaten national security by infecting them with their dirty, dirty genitals. But The American Plan wasn't solely an American invention, just like reformatories for women weren't; they were "imported from Europe…19th-century Paris was under what was known as the French Plan, [where] prostitutes were made to bare their genitals before health inspectors. Those found to be infected could be jailed and compelled to undergo mercury injections, then the standard, if mostly ineffective, treatment for venereal disease."

When Nina McCall was bullied into a 3-month quarantine in 1918, doctors were still using mercury as the main treatment for venereal disease (penicillin wouldn't come along until the 1940s). Nina was injected several times with mercury and, as Stern writes, remedies based on arsenic. The side effects? Loose teeth. Losing hair. Kidney pain. Ulcers in the mouth. Terrible, itchy, unsightly rashes on the body. This happened to thousands and thousands of women across the country – imprisoned, held without due process, told they were ill (when often they weren't) and accused of helping the enemy by infecting those precious soldiers. The men were never at fault. EVER. I don't know what's more infuriating, but the very idea that a woman had to go through pain, humiliation, imprisonment, and sometimes forced sterilization because of a moral panic makes me want to start lighting things on fire.

Nina McCall was infuriated, too. After leaving quarantine, she was stalked and harassed for years – a story many women of the time told to their friends and loved ones, and a story that was horrifyingly true.

Known as the CTCA, or The Commission on Training Camp Activities, it "promoted a form of cultural nationalism intended to remake American manhood into a national standard that…defined manhood in middle-class terms. Under the aegis of the War Department, the new American man would be sexually pure, self-controlled, physically fit, and ready to accept broad responsibilities at home and abroad." And of course with this came ideas on womanhood…"CTCA posters, advertisements, and policies represented women as sexualized objects, either as chaste virgins or fallen women. The dichotomy ensured that most CTCA and War Department policies defined women in terms of their relationship to men…those policies regulated women's bodies, leisure, and health solely to facilitate the physical and moral fitness of men."

So when the CTCA tried to tackle venereal disease in the soldier encampments, it focused heavily on the red-light districts nearby. Prostitutes were the main source of infection of these "innocent young men". The CTCA then joined forces with anti-prostitution crusaders, and focused on social purity in an attempt to stem the tide. Anti-vice legislation was passed. But the CTCA found itself thwarted by the lack of power it had over prostitutes themselves - the women would simply abandon the red-light districts, and the men would follow. Clearly there was more work to do.

In 1918, the same year Nina McCall was locked up, Congress enacted legislation that strengthened the CTCA, and then on July 9, 1918, it passed the Chamberlain-Kahn Act.

"The act created the Interdepartmental Social Hygiene Board (ISHB) and provided the board funds to distribute to the state for the purpose of controlling the spread of venereal disease. Congress intended the act to preserve the 'man power' of the United States by protecting soldiers from diseased civilians. In its manual the board regarded prostitutes, 'both female and male'; as a national liability and blamed them for the spread of venereal disease. Every soldier with venereal disease, the army concluded, had contracted his infection from a civilian source. Thus, the national government was obliged to help the states prevent, treat, and control such infections. The act specifically empowered the secretary of war and the secretary of the navy to assist states in identifying, isolating, quarantining, treating, and institutionalizing any civilian who presented a threat to the armed forces."

The ISHB manual discussed the problem of "camp-girls" at length, so the War Department began to build detention houses and detention hospitals "where all women and girls (except hardened cases) who are arrested may be held while awaiting trial, to be studied and treated medically." And then another act of Congress made it a crime to prostitute within a five-mile zone of the training camps, with a conviction bringing a fine of $1,000 (now almost $18,000) or imprisonment for one year."

And all of this was happening while the world was at war. The US spent time, money, and effort to imprison women they thought were infecting soldiers, instead of using all of that to bolster the war effort. Seems totally rational.

"Over 80,000 cases of venereal disease were recorded in the U.S. Army between September 1917 and June 1918. Incidences of venereal disease were highest in newly enlisted men; 85 percent of the incidences came from the civilian population, and only 15 percent were contracted after enlistment. Army officials insisted that venereal disease kept more men from the trenches in Europe than battle wounds."

I find this disturbingly telling and hypocritical on a number of levels. According to Stern's book, many women who were locked away were falsely accused, and I don't trust the Army numbers and reporting from this time, saying that 85 percent of newly enlisted men were infected. The numbers were very likely higher then than today - we know much more about STIs, from how they are contracted to how they are prevented and treated. So I take their supposed numbers with a grain of salt. But also, if only 15 percent of enlisted men were infected, then "camp-girls" weren't as big of a problem as claimed. There's also this fun little factoid:

"...[it was presumed that] the sexual impulses of men [were not] a moral character fault in them, but [an] expected though undesirable consequence of war."

Those silly men, so easily swayed by a pretty face. But then doesn't that mean they also have fault in this situation?

Clearly logic plays no role here.

And the numbers simply don't add up.

Then there's the issue of autonomy within communities to tackle venereal disease. "State law provided a minimum of oversight, but it largely affirmed the authority and autonomy of local officials", and this was the case across the country. While the Chamberlain-Kahn Act was federal, the US has always had a fever called "state's rights", where states are given a lot of leeway to do what they want. Local officials began papering campaigns, from subtle to blatant, and gave talks around their communities about the dangers of syphilis and called prostitutes and loose women "worse than the enemy".

Ads in places like North Carolina said, "Diseased prostitutes are the most dangerous carries…they must be quarantined and the community safeguarded against their return as prostitutes first by means of permanent segregation of the feebleminded, and second, by medical treatment and industrial education for others".

"Ideally, state hospitals and reformatories for women and girls would serve the purpose of permanent segregation…nothing in the ad mentioned anything about quarantine or treatment of the pimps and johns."

And in the middle of all of this were plainclothes "agents", employed to "find and deal with prostitutes"; requiring "physicians and druggists to report all incidences of venereal diseases and all drug sales intended for treating the afflictions", which decimated anonymity and protection for patients. In towns across the country, local health officials employed these agents, many of them "moral, society women" to first shuffle supposed prostitutes into reform houses, then, if they kept up their loose ways, into permanent segregation.

Jail. That's what it really means. They were permanently jailed with no trial, no due process, no chance at escape.

This went on even after World War I ended, and like usual, it was the women at the bottom, the ones victimized, who never let up the fight. Nina McCall was one of these women. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Chamberlain-Kahn Act was still on the books, so local communities were still rounding up women, examining them, forcing treatments into their bodies, and then jailing them.

"Throughout the 1920, police officers [in New York]...had continued to arrest and examine thousands of women every year, quarantining hundreds of infected ones…the police engaged in widespread entrapment and framing, often to settle a personal grudge, and the Women's Court magistrates convicted nearly everyone who went before them, usually on the word of a single cop.

Then the New York police made a mistake: they arrested a rich, prominent white woman. On May 12, 1930, a plainclothes vice squad officer detained Emma Swift Hammerstein – widow of famous Broadway producer Oscar Hammerstein – on charges of prostitution. Well-off society women immediately denounced the arrest of one of their own…this led to a series of exposes in the New Republic, which in turn led Governor Franklin Roosevelt to order an investigation into the Women's Court….[it was revealed] that hundreds of crooked cops and court officials had framed thousand of women on various morals charges, targeting black women from Harlem in particular."

Hints of reform spread, but the Great Depression made many cities backtrack. The Plan continued in many cities without the guiding hand of the federal government, leaving local officials as the be-all, end-all of authority. "Few cities locked up more people than San Francisco, where thousands of women were detained and examined every year, and hundreds of infected ones were locked away without due process in Ward L of the San Francisco Hospital, the iron-barred, overcrowded, police-guarded detention hospital wing the city had used for a decade and a half."

"Inarguably the most detailed records of the enforcement of the American Plan reside in Kansas…[which] enforced the Plan nonstop throughout the 1920s and 1930s (and beyond). Between 1918 and 1938, Kansas officials imprisoned 4,938 women without due process, solely for violating the state's American Plan law. (Kansas population at the time never breached the 2 million mark.) These women were all sent to the Kansas State Industrial Farm for Women…the farm did not have running water or internal plumbing; it was crowded; there was little space for recreation…the farm's superintendent [introduced] locks and heavy steel screens on the residential cottages and erected 'punishment cells'...women [there]...were pumped with endless rounds of mercury and arsenic-based medications. In 1931, women from across Kansas flooded the governor with letters railing against the farm's injustices. In 1933, a government commission condemned the farm as punitive, poorly run, and full of infected women who had been unjustly 'railroad[ed] by police. Nonetheless, the Plan continued there."

And just when letter writing campaigns began to have some effect, World War II came along and the Plan started all over again in many places that had tossed it to the side. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the American entrance to World War II "dispelled any reluctance to enforce the American Plan as vigorously as possible. In January [1941], New York police began partnering with military men to arrest even more women. In February, San Francisco officials began holding all suspected women for seventy-two hours, to ensure that STI examinations were sufficiently thorough….squadrons of G-men partnered with local police officers [in Tennessee] find young women", and these FBI agent actions were all overseen by the bureau's legendary director, J. Edgar Hoover. (This was under the May Act, which "empowered the feds to suppress prostitution" and brought the fight against vice and sin back to a federal level.)

Cities began to run out of space for incarcerated women, which had happened during World War I as well. In 1942, abandoned CCC camps (Civilian Conservation Corps) were refit to become quarantine facilities…"some [of these camps] would later be used to house prisoners of war, Americans of Japanese and German descent, and conscientious objectors…Officials in communities all over the nation clamored for one of the abandoned camps near them to become a 'concentration camp' for women. The first such camp opened in Leesville, Louisiana…camp followers (women who followed soldiers from town to town) swarmed in from every state of the Union…local officials dug up an invaluable piece of legislation passed in 1918. This was a quarantine act that permitted isolation of people with communicable diseases."

These towns were so afraid of sex and women that they imprisoned even more. And this kept happening, decades after the Chamberlain-Kahn Act was passed. There are horrifying cases from every corner of the country, from every year, from every decade.

"Mrs. A, a twenty-nine-year-old white waitress [was] detained 'on suspicion', apparently for simply sitting by herself to eat lunch at a Leesville restaurant. Charged with vagrancy, she remained in jail for seven days until the local health department convinced her to commit herself voluntarily to the isolation hospital. Mrs. A had, however, tested negative for venereal disease…waitressing was a profession marked for suspicion…when authorities saw Mrs. A dining alone, they apparently suspected that she was waiting for a man – and that was enough 'reasonable suspicion' to upend her life."

After World War II ended, federal funds dried up, but some states kept trying. Investigators swarmed Alaska in 1948 looking for signs of prostitution, focusing mostly on Native American/indigenous women and concluding that the conditions were "very bad". Commitments to the Plan slowed to a trickle in the 1950s, but even in 1967, Indianapolis's mayor called for the revival of the American Plan, claiming that it would "result in the mass departure of nearly all the 200 known street-walking prostitutes in Indianapolis".

And what about Nina McCall? In 1921, she sued the state of Michigan, a case she lost, but won on appeal to the state Supreme Court. The court ruled that the local health authority could examine people (aka women), but it needed responsible suspicion that they were infected, which they did not have in Nina's case. It was a bittersweet victory for a woman who eventually led a life of sadness and loss and death. Nina McCall died at age 53.

"This is the ultimate irony of Nina McCall's story. Even though the court had delivered her a victory, in another sense it had been a defeat. The court blessed the laws and practices that resulted in her imprisonment. Nina's suit - the only one of its kind in Michigan history - ended up solidifying the basis on which the American Plan rested for years to come."

Full Source List