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The Mass Imprisonment of American Women Believed to be Sexually Immoral

The Mass Imprisonment of American Women Believed to be Sexually Immoral
A poster created by the American Social Hygiene Association warning soldiers of the dangers of prositutes and STIs. Corbis/Getty Images

For much of the 20th century in America, a little-known but widespread government program locked [women] up without trials simply for having sexually transmitted infections—and then forced them to undergo dangerous, poisonous “treatments.”

Scott Stern, A&E, March 27, 2019

Until recently I had never heard of the American Plan or the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918. Neither had any of my friends or family. A friend shared an article on with me and it really stunned me – apparently America ran a nationwide fascist attack on women for decades during the 20th century and I was completely unaware of it! How was that possible and why is it not a central part of our history curriculum?

The resurfacing of this sobering chapter of American history is in part due to the research of Scott Stern at Yale University Library in 2015 and the subsequent publication of his 2018 book The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women. Most recently, in March of 2019, A&E Television Networks published an article by Stern summarizing his research and information on the American Plan.

The American Plan – Origins & World War I

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 (some erroneously estimated one in three) were infected with syphilis or gonorrhea. Suddenly these diseases presented not just a health threat—but a national security threat as well. So officials passed a federal law that outlawed sex work within a five-mile “moral zone” 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.

Scott Stern, A&E, March 27, 2019

The Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 is a U.S. federal law passed on July 9, 1918 by the 65th United States Congress. The law implemented a public health program that came to be known as the American Plan, whose stated goal was to combat the spread of venereal disease.

The Chamberlain-Kahn Act gave the government the power to quarantine any woman suspected of having a sexually transmitted disease (STD). A medical examination was required, and if it revealed an STD, this discovery could constitute proof of prostitution. The purpose of this law was to prevent the spread of venereal diseases among U.S. soldiers.[ During World War I, the American Plan authorized the military to arrest any woman within five miles of a military cantonment. If found infected, a woman could be sentenced to a hospital or a “farm colony” until cured. By the end of the war 15,520 prostitutes had been imprisoned, most never having received medical hospitalization.

The act is named for Senator George Earle Chamberlain of Oregon and Representative Julius Kahn of California.

Historical context

America entered World War I with an undersized army, resulting in the first compulsory military draft since the American Civil War. The army grew from 128,000 members to four million by the end of the war. Large training camps were built throughout the US in order to train the vast amount of new recruits. These large, isolated camps populated by young men were often associated with excessive alcohol consumption and illicit sexual activities with local women. The culture of military camps coupled with rumors of widespread venereal disease among the militaries of Europe inspired the creation of the Commission on Training Camp Activities, which sought to investigate the sexual and moral cultures of these training camps.[ The commission report was written by Raymond Fosbick, the assistant to the Secretary of War Newton Baker. In the report, Fosbick urges preventative measures be taken against prostitution and the spread of venereal disease: “take all steps necessary to suppress prostitution in the neighborhood of military training camps…We know something of the experience through which our allies have gone. In some cases as much as thirty three and a third percent of the men have been made ineffective through venereal disease. We cannot afford to have any condition of that kind in connection with American troops.” Shortly after the report was written, The Commission on Training Activities implemented the Chamberlain-Kahn Act.

The law

The Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 contains a series of measures intended to stop the spread of venereal disease. Firstly, it created the Interdepartmental Hygiene Board that controlled the allocation of funds for its stated purpose. Secondly, the act authorized the quarantine of citizens suspected of having venereal disease: “That the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy are hereby authorized and directed to adopt measures for the purpose of assisting the various States in caring for civilian persons whose detention, isolation, quarantine, or commitment to institutions may be found necessary for the protection of the military and naval forces of the United States against venereal diseases.” The act allocates $1,000,000 to fund this quarantine effort. Thirdly, the act created Division of Venereal Disease in the Bureau of the Public Health Service. The stated goal of the Division of Venereal Disease was: “(1) to study and investigate the cause, treatment, and prevention of venereal diseases; (2) to cooperate with State boards or departments of health for the prevention and control of such diseases within the States; and (3) to control and prevent the spread of these diseases in interstate traffic.”[


Under this law, women suspected to be prostitutes could be stopped, detained, inspected, and could sent to a rehabilitation center if they failed their examination. Any evidence of venereal disease found during one of these exams could constitute proof of prostitution. By 1919, thirty states had constructed facilities for the purpose of detaining and treating women with venereal disease; an estimated 30,000 women were detained and examined during the war. During the course of the war, 110 red light districts throughout America were shut down. Despite these efforts, the availability of prostitutes remained fairly constant around military camps, and rates of venereal disease remained quite high.

A government poster made during World War II.
U.S. National Library of Medicine

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 sitting at a restaurant alone; for changing jobs; for being with a man; for walking down a street in a way a male official found suspicious; and, often, for no reason at all.

Scott Stern, A&E, March 27, 2019

Current Status of Law

In closing, Stern provides the chilly warning that these laws are still on the books, in some form, in every state in the nation:

Enforcement of the American Plan ended by the 1970s, amid the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s lib 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.

Scott Stern, A&E, March 27, 2019

In an article published in 2015 in the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, Volume 38, “The Long American Plan: The U.S. Government’s Campaign Against Venereal Disease and Its Carriers” Stern comments on the largely unreported duration of the plan:

No historian has ever traced the American Plan, as such, beyond the 1920s. The few who have written about it usually stop their coverage shortly after World War I, often with a vague statement that it likely extended into the very immediate future; as one historian wrote, “the work continued in many cases on the state and local level throughout the 1920s.” Anything after the mid-1920s is typically treated as a different program. … In fact, it continued for years … lasting in some form at least as late as the 1970s. And the laws that undergirded the American Plan have outlasted even that late date, extending all the way to the present.

Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, Volume 38

What I have tried to provide here is a summary and overview of the available material on the American Plan. What is one to think of this horrific chapter in American History? For starters, I’d say it would be a good idea to simply acknowledge that it occurred and to educate and inform the American public with regards to these laws, plans, programs, and practices. Even though enforcement of the American Plan ended in the 70s, some form of the laws remain on the books in every state. These laws can still be used to detain, arrest, hold, and “treat” an unsuspecting and unaware public. Coupled with a misogynistic, sexist, xenophobic, racist, or general fear of “the other” a similar program could be adopted at any time to target perceived public health risks posed by any of these marginalized groups of citizens.

The American Plan can also serve as a lesson. Rates of infection in the military were grossly distorted and exaggerated. We need to guard against a manufactured crisis and act wherever possible on fact based evidence. Sexism played a large role in the American Plan. Almost all targets of the plan were women. We need to guard against public health or other implementations of law that may simply be a reflection of societal & cultural prejudice. The American Plan was largely ineffectual – there is no evidence it reduced the rate of infection and spread of venereal diseases. That’s partly because “loose women” or other stereotypes were targeted while subsequent research showed that most infections were contracted in the subject’s home town from friends, acquaintances, and fellow residents rather than from “immoral” prostitutes surrounding American military bases. Finally, arresting & confining individuals thought to pose a public health risk, without due process, is not only ineffective but almost certainly, when combined with a blatantly sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or racist implementation, in violation of the Constitution.

Let me know what you think