The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women

The nearly forgotten story of the American Plan, one of the largest and longest-lasting mass quarantines in American history, told through the lens of one young woman’s story.In 1918, shortly after her eighteenth birthday, Nina McCall was told to report to the local health officer for an STI examination. Confused and humiliated, McCall did as she was told, and the health officer performed a hasty (and invasive) examination and quickly diagnosed her with gonorrhea. Though McCall insisted she could not possibly have an STI, she was coerced into committing herself to the Bay City Detention Hospital—a facility in which she would spend almost three miserable months subjected to humiliation, exploitation, and painful injections of mercury. Nina McCall was one of many women unfairly imprisoned by the United States government throughout the twentieth century. The government imprisoned tens, probably hundreds, of thousands of women and girls—usually without due process—simply because officials suspected these women were prostitutes, infected with STIs, or simply “promiscuous.” This discriminatory program, dubbed the “American Plan,” lasted from the 1910s into the 1950s, implicating a number of luminaries, including Eleanor Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Earl Warren, and even Eliot Ness, while laying the foundation for the modern system of women’s prisons. In some places, vestiges of the Plan lingered into the 1960s and 1970s, and the laws that undergirded it remain on the books to this day.