New research highlights how active measures to quarantine people were generally enforced along the lines of gender and class, discriminating against poor women.
As if there weren’t enough problems abroad during World War I, Americans were faced with a war of a different kind at home: venereal disease. A sudden outbreak of syphilis, gonorrhea, and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) pushed states to quarantine their citizens and implement treatments in an effort to control the spread of disease. The intentions sound virtuous, but a new study reveals just the opposite.
Nicole Perry, a University of Kansas (KU) graduate student in sociology, documented proof of how the quarantine process continued “well into peacetime.” he also discovered “how these laws were generally enforced along lines of gender and class, especially punishing poor women,” according to a press release.
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Specifically, she studied Chapter 205 — the Kansas-state quarantine law that took effect in 1917. The law sparked the imprisonment of approximately 5,000 women at the Women’s Industrial Farm in Lansing, Kansas, between 1917 and 1942. The institution was officially a prison, but alongside inmates charged with murder, about 75 percent of the women being held there were detained under a quarantine order.
Sadly, this quarantine mania that attempted to contain sexually-transmitted diseases was done in vain. Today, quarantining someone for having an STD would be seen as ludicrous since the diseases are much better understood. Venereal diseases are now known to be spread by sexual contact, so education on STDs and safe sex is by far the best way to contain the diseases.
However, the Chapter 205 quarantine law illuminates how clear social hierarchies were formed as a part of the public health initiative. “Social class informed this trend. If you were well off, you could afford to get discrete care from a private doctor. If you were poor, you had to commit yourself to a prison in order to access care,” Perry said.
But the social inequalities embedded in the quarantine laws dug deeper than that. Officials would routinely test women for venereal diseases when they were arrested for other offenses, and then quarantine them under Chapter 205. Further, many women reported that they got the diseases from their husbands, who turned them into the police for revenge after an argument. But the men always got off scot-free, never being forced into quarantine. “In practice, Chapter 205 very directly supported the sexual double-standard,” Perry discovered.
Perry also examined about 500 inmate interviews of women incarcerated under Chapter 205 to try and better understand the ways in which the law was implemented. She found major discrepancies in the official state documents about Chapter 205 and what the women themselves reported.
“When you read the official state documents about Chapter 205, they talk about these women as prostitutes who are in dire need of moral training,” she said. “The women themselves report that they only had sex within marriage, that they were victims of rape, etc. It’s a very different story.”
This notion is arguably the most important takeaway from the entire study: there lies a stark contrast in how the affected women describe the events and how the state documents recorded them. Perry highlights parallels with the mass incarceration of African Americans as well as their current relationship with the police, which has gained national attention based on the controversial deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and more.
"The importance of listening to those affected by policies is something that activists are emphasizing today," she said. "Social media is a game changer in terms of being able to hear these voices, but things like race and class still influence whose version of the story gets heard.”