Margaret Hennessey’s experience was far from unusual. She had been detained under a program she likely had never heard of: the “American Plan.” From the 1910s through the 1950s, and in some places into the 1960s and 1970s, tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of American women were detained and forcibly examined for STIs.
…If the women tested positive, U.S. officials locked them away in penal institutions with no due process. While many records of the program have since been lost or destroyed, women’s forced internment could range from a few days to many months. Inside these institutions, records show, the women were often injected with mercury and forced to ingest arsenic-based drugs, the most common treatments for syphilis in the early part of the century. If they misbehaved, or if they failed to show “proper” ladylike deference, these women could be beaten, doused with cold water, thrown into solitary confinement—or even sterilized.
…Beginning in 1918, federal officials began pushing every state in the nation to pass a “model law,” which enabled officials to forcibly examine any person “reasonably suspected” of having an STI. Under this statute, those who tested positive for an STI could be held in detention for as long as it took to render him or her noninfectious. (On paper, the law was gender-neutral; in practice, it almost exclusively focused on regulating women and their bodies.)
…Records exist in archives that document women being detained and examined for sitting at a restaurant alone; for changing jobs; for being with a man; for walking down a street in a way a male official found suspicious.
…Contemporaneous exposés reveal [, that] in the late 1940s, San Francisco police officers sometimes threatened to have women “vagged”—vaginally examined—if they didn’t accede to sexual demands. Women of color and immigrant women, in particular, were targeted—and subjected to a higher degree of abuse once they were locked up.
…“In other words,” the [Sacramento] Bee reported, “out of twenty-two suspects subjected to an examination [in the single day sweep in 1919,] the police were justified in arresting but one woman.”
…Enforcement of the American Plan ended by the 1970s, amid the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s lib movement and the sex-workers-rights movement.