Beacon Press: The Trials of Nina McCall
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The Trials of Nina McCall

Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison "Promiscuous" Women

Author: Scott W. Stern

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 to be examined for sexually transmitted infections. Confused and humiliated, Nina did as she was told, and the health officer performed a hasty (and invasive) examination and quickly diagnosed her with gonorrhea. Though Nina insisted she could not possibly have an STI, she was coerced into committing herself to the Bay City Detention Hospital, a facility where she would spend almost three miserable months subjected to hard labor, 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 locked up tens, probably hundreds, of thousands of women and girls—usually without due process—simply because officials suspected these women were prostitutes, carrying STIs, or just “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.

Scott Stern tells the story of this almost forgotten program through the life of Nina McCall. Her story provides crucial insight into the lives of countless other women incarcerated under the American Plan. Stern demonstrates the pain and shame felt by these women and details the multitude of mortifications they endured, both during and after their internment. Yet thousands of incarcerated women rioted, fought back against their oppressors, or burned their detention facilities to the ground; they jumped out of windows or leapt from moving trains or scaled barbed-wire fences in order to escape. And, as Nina McCall did, they sued their captors. In an age of renewed activism surrounding harassment, health care, prisons, women’s rights, and the power of the state, this virtually lost chapter of our history is vital reading.
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“A powerful report on a relevant women’s movement deservedly brought to light over a century after it occurred.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Before reading this book, I had never heard of either the American Plan or Nina McCall. After reading it, I will be unlikely to forget either. Scott W. Stern has done a remarkably thorough job of laying out the evidence, brick by brick by brick, that damns the systematic incarceration of women with dubious sexual histories as one of the more shameful chapters in our nation’s history.”
—Anne Fadiman, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award winning The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

“In gripping and vivid detail, this book describes government officials, judges, and physicians who worked together for much of the twentieth century to surveil, imprison, experiment upon, and forever traumatize countless women. Perhaps more important, this book introduces us to brave women who refused to accept this barbaric treatment and who, against great odds, finally brought those same men to account. As the author makes clear, we must learn their story because what happened to them then could well happen to us now.”
—Heather Ann Thompson, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

“Beautifully written, this book will dismay, outrage, and haunt you. Stern paints the horror of the decades-long American Plan, which surveilled and incarcerated thousands of vulnerable young women without due process. This chilling account of American policing run amok chronicles the logic of the incarcerators and recaptures their victims’ voices. It is an exceptionally powerful intervention in our ongoing national conversation on law, order, and punishment.”
—Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History, Yale University

“This deeply researched book tells a profoundly important story, intentionally erased, about America in the twentieth century. Through the eyes of Nina McCall, Stern explores the American Plan, ostensibly implemented to control gonorrhea and syphilis but, in fact, causing the harassment, brutal medical mismanagement, and imprisonment of tens of thousands of women. In our own era, when harassment is a great national topic, this book could not be more timely.”
—Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia and Women Rowing North

“In this time of ‘reckoning’ about sexual assault and harassment, Scott Stern’s book offers a powerful historical reminder of the state’s role in the incarceration of women and girls during World War I and its aftermath. Indeed, through remarkable new research, he shows the long persistence of laws to quarantine women who were deemed—often without evidence—to pose dangers of sexuality and disease. In Stern’s riveting narrative, Nina McCall’s story is both sobering and shocking.”
—Allan M. Brandt, author of No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880

  • Bitch, listed in “30 Most Anticipated Nonfiction Books of 2018” reading roundup, 12/28/2017

The Trials of Nina McCall

ISBN: 978-080704275-5
Publication Date: 5/15/2018
Size:6 x 9 Inches (US)
Price:  $28.95
Format: Cloth
Not Yet Published
Will Ship On: May 2018
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