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 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.

Scott W. 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. 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 healthcare, prisons, women’s rights, and the power of the state, The Trials of Nina McCall is crucial reading.
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“In this beautiful and most heart-wrenching narrative, Scott Stern renders newly legible a most disturbing chapter in our nation’s long history of stigmatizing and criminalizing its most vulnerable citizens. In gripping and vivid detail, we learn of government officials, judges, and physicians who worked together for much of the twentieth century to surveil, imprison, experiment upon, and forever traumatize countless women. But, perhaps more important, we also come to know intimately the most 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, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

“Beautifully written, with deep theoretical insights, The Trials of Nina McCall will dismay, outrage, and haunt you. Stern vividly paints the horror of the decades-long American Plan, which surveilled and incarcerated thousands of vulnerable young women without due process. Suspected of being promiscuous and ‘diseased’ in a time when no medical test could confirm STIs, they found themselves at the mercy of local authorities’ whims, subjected to painful medical ‘cures,’ and locked up without recourse. This chilling account of American policing run amok deftly chronicles the logic of the incarcerators and recaptures their victims’ powerful 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


The Trials of Nina McCall

ISBN: 978-080704275-5
Publication Date: 5/8/2018
Size: x
Price:  $26.95
Format: Cloth
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Will Ship On: May 2018
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