Stigmatized Diseases and Stereotypes

"Home for Street Women": Venereal Disease and the Unknown Imprisonment of Women in the Early 20th Century

Scott Wasserman Stern, Yale University

Description

This paper examines the ignorance surrounding the forced quarantine of tens of thousands of American women in internment camps in the early twentieth century. It is traditionally stated that 18,000 women were interned in forty-three camps after being arrested on suspicions of prostitution and tested for venereal disease. Yet, I will show that these numbers only address the camps that received federal funding and operated between 1918 and 1920. A number of camps were in operation before 1918 or long after 1920, and many received no federal monies at all. This means that the number always given—18,000—is an appalling underestimate. Compared with the Japanese internment during World War II, the internment of women with venereal disease has received far less scrutiny. This paper is a step toward expanding scholarship on this subject.

I will argue that there is a lack of scrutiny of the imprisonment of these women because of (1) the vague and euphemistic treatment of venereal disease and prostitution in the press at the time and (2) the decentralization of the program. Contemporary newspaper articles rarely mentioned the internment at all, and when they did, they never did so explicitly. Many camps operated under local ordinances and under the purview of conflicting agencies, so no centralized records exist at all. Using government documents and newspaper and medical journal articles, I will show that lack of press coverage and an irremediably disorganized program have caused the imprisonment of women suspected of prostitution to be understudied and misunderstood.

 
Mar 31st, 10:00 AM Mar 31st, 11:15 AM

"Home for Street Women": Venereal Disease and the Unknown Imprisonment of Women in the Early 20th Century

Harkins 301, Providence College

This paper examines the ignorance surrounding the forced quarantine of tens of thousands of American women in internment camps in the early twentieth century. It is traditionally stated that 18,000 women were interned in forty-three camps after being arrested on suspicions of prostitution and tested for venereal disease. Yet, I will show that these numbers only address the camps that received federal funding and operated between 1918 and 1920. A number of camps were in operation before 1918 or long after 1920, and many received no federal monies at all. This means that the number always given—18,000—is an appalling underestimate. Compared with the Japanese internment during World War II, the internment of women with venereal disease has received far less scrutiny. This paper is a step toward expanding scholarship on this subject.

I will argue that there is a lack of scrutiny of the imprisonment of these women because of (1) the vague and euphemistic treatment of venereal disease and prostitution in the press at the time and (2) the decentralization of the program. Contemporary newspaper articles rarely mentioned the internment at all, and when they did, they never did so explicitly. Many camps operated under local ordinances and under the purview of conflicting agencies, so no centralized records exist at all. Using government documents and newspaper and medical journal articles, I will show that lack of press coverage and an irremediably disorganized program have caused the imprisonment of women suspected of prostitution to be understudied and misunderstood.

http://digitalcommons.providence.edu/auchs/2012/panela2/2