Online Exhibits@Yale

The American Plan - The Plan, Across the Nation

As the United States prepared to enter World War I in 1917, federal officials created the American Plan to combat a perceived epidemic of venereal disease and thus protect the nation’s soldiers. Historical research now casts doubt on the extent of the epidemic. Yet the American Plan was far more a local, rather than a national, campaign. State and local officials did the brunt of the police work: stalking women they believed to be promiscuous, detaining those whom they “reasonably suspected” of having venereal disease, and incarcerating tens of thousands of women who tested positive. These women were put in jails (such as the Newport News City Farm), detention hospitals, and reformatories. However, imprisoned women did not merely accept such treatment. They resisted by marching, rioting, attacking their captors, escaping from confinement, going on hunger strikes, burning down their sites of incarceration, or—in the case of Nina McCall and others—suing their captors in court. Women who were not imprisoned also resisted the American Plan, as Katharine Bushnell did, through raising publicity and lobbying officials.

Rev. Paul Smith Decries Visit of Unfortunates.

“Rev. Paul Smith Decries Visit of Unfortunates.” San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1917, p. 5.

This photograph appears in an article describing an epic, if little remembered, event in California history. As municipalities across the country— and particularly Los Angeles—were considering methods to suppress prostitution and venereal disease (of which the American Plan would be one result), hundreds of Los Angeles prostitutes marched to a local church to confront Reverend Paul Smith, a well-known “anti-vice” crusader. Smith, who was attempting to close Los Angeles’s red-light district, stood by in horror as perhaps 500 prostitutes filled his pews and demanded a minimum wage for women, protection from abuse, and political recognition. “Try to think what will become of us,” one prostitute told Smith, cautioning him against his crusade.

[I found this article through Yale University Library’s ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.]

"What's Going On?"

Katharine Bushnell. “What’s Going On?” 1919.

 Katharine Bushnell, a medical doctor and prominent opponent of the American Plan, wrote this pamphlet in 1919. Bushnell traveled across the state of California, investigating the Plan’s abuses—including the forced examination of women by male doctors, and the fact that officials did not similarly scrutinize men. Bushnell sent her pamphlet to a number of federal officials, as well as thousands of concerned citizens.

[I first found out about Bushnell in a book by David Pivar, which is out of print, and which I obtained using the library’s “Borrow Direct” system.]

Newport News to develop plan to close City Farm jail.

Photograph of Newport News Farm

The Newport News City Farm, which opened in January 1919, was an institution built with the aid of federal money to house women arrested under the American Plan. It had a capacity for “25 white and 25 colored women,” though it was usually over capacity, and exclusively held women infected with venereal diseases. Within five months, it was burned to the ground by “fractious inmates.” However, the City Farm was rebuilt and functions as a jail to this day, though no longer for venereally infected women.

The American Plan - The Plan, Across the Nation