An American Policy Created Morals Squads To Arrest 'Suspicious' Women And The Law Still Exists Today
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.
- 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.
- 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."
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.”
If Women Tested Positive, They Were Detained And Treated With Mercury
Margaret Hennessey was lucky. After passing the STD test, she was released after about 11 hours in police custody. The next day, she went to court to defend herself, but the police had already dismissed the charges. “I dare not venture on the streets,” Hennessey told the press, “for fear I will be arrested again.”
In the same sweep which took in Hennessey and her sister, the morals squad arrested a total of 22 women. All faced examination, and some were detained overnight. Only one of the women tested positive for an STD.
Women who tested positive faced forced internment, sometimes for several months with no due process. The detention hospitals treated women with arsenic and mercury, cures that could prove fatal.
- Photo: J. L. Nichols / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Some Women Were Even Sterilized Under Eugenics Laws
Detained women faced horrific conditions. Locked up in jails and forced to undergo mercury treatments, women who misbehaved were given even harsher punishments.
Women that refused to act ladylike, for example, might face beatings, dousings with cold water, or solitary confinement.
Doctors also used eugenics laws to sterilize women against their will. In one case, the mother of a 14-year-old prostituted her daughter. The daughter was sent to a reformatory school and sterilized. The girl's younger sister was also sterilized on the basis of having "immoral associates."