The year was 1918. After two and a half years of uneasy neutrality, America had finally entered The Great War and had committed over 4 million men to the war effort. As one would expect—or at least hope—the United States government took great care to prepare newly enlisted men for military service, making sure that those who had no prior military experience would be adequately trained and ready to fight when they reached Europe. However, the United States government understood that their soldiers would not only face dangers abroad, but at home as well, and worked tirelessly to keep them safe from that most dreaded of all military foes: syphilis.
Yes, at the beginning of the 20th century, venereal diseases were a massive problem for the US military, with 13% of all Americans drafted by Uncle Sam for WWI testing positive for syphilis or gonorrhea. At the time, there was a more intensely moral stigma around venereal diseases than there is today, and the primary mode of transmission for such diseases was widely thought to reside solely in sex acts that occurred outside of traditional marriage, the most pernicious of these sex acts being prostitution. In response to this, US, state and local governments eschewed the simple solution of providing their soldiers-in-training with prophylactics should they purchase a few moments of a woman’s time and tried to take away the opportunity for soldiers to contract the diseases by dismantling the prostitution trade.
In the summer of 1918, US Congress took matters into its own hands and passed the highly unconstitutional Chamberlain-Kahn Act, which granted the military $1 million to be used in a “civilian quarantine and isolation fund” that could be used to indefinitely detain prostitutes and “promiscuous women and girls.” The exact number of women who were unjustly detained as the result of this program is unknown, but estimates generally suggest a number somewhere around 30,000. The women were held in quarantine for an average of 70 days in federal detention centers and 1 year in reformatories near Army and Navy training camps.
Only 1/3 of the women that were held in these detention centers and reformatories were ever charged with prostitution. The other 2/3 were simply detained for having a venereal disease or for a host of arbitrary reasons ranging from how they dressed to the way they danced. In no way were any of the decisions on who to quarantine based on the most recent scientific findings or public health concerns. Rather, these decisions revolved around the personal moral judgements of men in power concerning women who had little or no rights. As a member of the military’s newly formed Commission on Training Camp Activities from New Jersey described after “investigating” the behavior of local women, “the manner of dancing by certain of these girls was so suggestive as to constitute almost positive proof of their indulging in sexual intercourse.” In other words, they’re whores because we say they’re whores.
The most egregious example of this pseudo-scientific posturing is from the bipartisan duo of New York and New Jersey Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie, who apparently obtained masters degrees in Public Health overnight and have enacted strict quarantine policies for people returning from West Africa who have had contact with Ebola patients. Governor Christie echoed the inane violations of civil rights perpetrated nearly a century ago on prostitutes and “impure” women by quarantining Kaci Hickox, a nurse who had been working with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) to help people in Sierra Leone who were enduring the ravages of Ebola. Upon landing in New Jersey, Hickox, who was asymptomatic for Ebola or any other disease for that matter, was promptly detained and quarantined in a tent equipped with the luxury of a portable toilet, but without a shower or television.
Read more at the Daily Kos