Weird History

An American Policy Created Morals Squads To Arrest 'Suspicious' Women And The Law Still Exists Today  

Genevieve Carlton
3.9k views 14 items

In 1919, Margaret Hennessey was taken in simply for walking down the street with her sister. A police officer decided she was suspicious, and forced both to undergo a pelvic exam. In 1918, Nina McCall was taken in, forcibly examined, and treated with arsenic under the same law. That policy, known as the American Plan, let morals squads legally take in "suspicious women" well into the 1970s.

In the name of national security, the American Plan deemed women a danger on par with the Germans. Women spread sexually transmitted diseases, the government declared, and police should arrest and isolate women to protect men from the dangers of STDs. But women didn't just face being taken in if a police officer decided they were suspicious or promiscuous. Women were forced to undergo invasive genital exams. Those found to have STDs were detained for months and treated with deadly "medicines" made from arsenic and mercury. 

The American Plan might seem like a vestige of the past, but these laws remain on the books today in every state.

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Photo: US Government/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The American Plan Targeted Women To Keep The US Military Healthy

The government called it the American Plan. During WWI, the government wanted to keep sailors and soldiers STD-free. So federal officials pushed for new laws targeting "promiscuous women." 

One law outlawed sex workers within 5 miles of a military training camp. These "moral zones" were meant to stop the spread of syphilis and gonorrhea in the military by targeting women rather than the soldiers themselves.

Government officials soon learned that most soldiers with STDs contracted them at home rather than on the military base. As a result, the federal government pushed for a much broader program that would target any woman suspected of having an STD.

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Photo: Mkittman/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Government Pushed For 'Morals Squads' To Round Up 'Promiscuous' Women

In 1918, federal officials promoted a "model law" for the states. The law would authorize "morals squads" to take in and forcibly examine anyone suspected of having an STD. Local officials would use the law to search out and detain people spreading STDs. 

While the laws didn't specifically target women, in practice the American Plan practically ignored men. When the morals squads took to the streets, they were looking for "promiscuous women."

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Photo:  State Library of Queensland, Australia/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Women Were Taken In Simply For Appearing 'Suspicious' To Morality Police

In 1919, Margaret Hennessey was visiting her sister in Sacramento, CA. Hennessey had left her husband at home, while bringing her 6-year-old son along for the visit. That day, Hennessey's son was at a local convent attending school

As the sisters walked toward the meat market, Sacramento's "morals squad" appeared. Officer Ryan announced that two women, walking together, qualified as "suspicious characters."

Both Hennessey and her sister were taken in. 

Women Taken By Authorities Were Forced Into Invasive Exams

After a police officer confronted her, Margaret Hennessey tried to explain to officers that she was a married woman visiting her sister. She pleaded that if they took her in, no one would pick her son up from school.

The police ignored her pleas, as Hennessey told the press. They “paid no heed, but took my sister and I to the hospital.” 

In the hospital, a doctor examined Hennessey's genitals, searching for STDs. “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,” Hennessey related. “My reputation means something to me, and I am going to defend it.”