The year was 1918. After two and a half years of uneasy neutrality, America had finally entered The Great War and had committed over 4 million men to the war effort. As one would expect—or at least hope—the United States government took great care to prepare newly enlisted men for military service, making sure that those who had no prior military experience would be adequately trained and ready to fight when they reached Europe. However, the United States government understood that their soldiers would not only face dangers abroad, but at home as well, and worked tirelessly to keep them safe from that most dreaded of all military foes: syphilis.
Yes, at the beginning of the 20th century, venereal diseases were a massive problem for the US military, with 13% of all Americans drafted by Uncle Sam for WWI testing positive for syphilis or gonorrhea. At the time, there was a more intensely moral stigma around venereal diseases than there is today, and the primary mode of transmission for such diseases was widely thought to reside solely in sex acts that occurred outside of traditional marriage, the most pernicious of these sex acts being prostitution. In response to this, US, state and local governments eschewed the simple solution of providing their soldiers-in-training with prophylactics should they purchase a few moments of a woman’s time and tried to take away the opportunity for soldiers to contract the diseases by dismantling the prostitution trade.
In the summer of 1918, US Congress took matters into its own hands and passed the highly unconstitutional Chamberlain-Kahn Act, which granted the military $1 million to be used in a “civilian quarantine and isolation fund” that could be used to indefinitely detain prostitutes and“promiscuous women and girls.” The exact number of women who were unjustly detained as the result of this program is unknown, but estimates generally suggest a number somewhere around 30,000. The women were held in quarantine for an average of 70 days in federal detention centers and 1 year in reformatories near Army and Navy training camps.
Only 1/3 of the women that were held in these detention centers and reformatories were ever charged with prostitution. The other 2/3 were simply detained for having a venereal disease or for a host of arbitrary reasons ranging from how they dressed to the way they danced. In no way were any of the decisions on who to quarantine based on the most recent scientific findings or public health concerns. Rather, these decisions revolved around the personal moral judgements of men in power concerning women who had little or no rights. As a member of the military’s newly formed Commission on Training Camp Activities from New Jersey described after “investigating” the behavior of local women, “the manner of dancing by certain of these girls was so suggestive as to constitute almost positive proof of their indulging in sexual intercourse.” In other words, they’re whores because we say they’re whores.
Odds are that you’ve never heard of this peculiar portion of American history and, unless you have a particular interest in venereal disease, sex workers rights or public health policy, there’s no reason why you should. Our nation has never been too keen on highlighting the ways in which it has violated the supposedly inalienable rights of its citizens in the past, especially when they’re still violating those same rights in the present. With the supposed threat of a domestic Ebola outbreak preoccupying the American 24 hour news complex and the added bonus of the opportunity for political posturing only weeks before a vital midterm election, some US politicians have decided to turn the crisis into their own political football.
The most egregious example of this pseudo-scientific posturing is from the bipartisan duo of New York and New Jersey Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie, who apparently obtained masters degrees in Public Health overnight and have enacted strict quarantine policies for people returning from West Africa who have had contact with Ebola patients. Governor Christie echoed the inane violations of civil rights perpetrated nearly a century ago on prostitutes and “impure” women by quarantining Kaci Hickox, a nurse who had been working with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) to help people in Sierra Leone who were enduring the ravages of Ebola. Upon landing in New Jersey, Hickox, who was asymptomatic for Ebola or any other disease for that matter, was promptly detained and quarantined in a tent equipped with the luxury of a portable toilet, but without a shower or television.
Christie’s reasons for keeping Hickox quarantined had nothing to do with his professed concern for the health of the people of New Jersey and everything to do with political grandstanding and fearmongering in the fortnight prior to an election. Hickox just happened to be the unlucky lady to be the first healthcare worker back from West Africa since Christie and Cuomo announced their new 21-day mandatory quarantine policy. The fact that public health officials and medical doctors were decrying the policy as unnecessary, harmful and “like driving a carpet tack with a sledgehammer” didn’t matter. In the myopic world of Governor Christie, she’s a threat because I say she’s a threat.
The nurses and doctors and public health officials who are working in West Africa should not be cordoned off and treated like tainted goods. These people should be honored like the heroes that they are. I have thought on this long and hard and I honestly don’t think I would ever be brave enough and selfless enough to do the work they do. To wake up every morning with the knowledge that that day could be the day that some infinitesimal virus invades the sanctity of my body and sets in motion a hemorrhagic fever that could very well kill me? I don’t know if I could do that, but thousands of men and women like Kaci Hickox are doing that right now and they should be celebrated and encouraged, not shoved away in makeshift tents because we’re too fearful to confront the reality of this disease.
If Governor Christie was truly serious about protecting the citizens of New Jersey, he would know that the best way to ensure that Ebola never makes it to the Jersey Shore is to fight it at the source. Whether it’s Ebola or it’s Syphilis, Governor Christie should know that you can’t quarantine your way out of public health crisis. Especially when the people you’re quarantining aren’t sick to begin with.