Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Kathi Kern


Sexual politics were central in the United States’ venereal disease control movement in the early decades of the twentieth century. This dissertation analyzes the evolution of the venereal disease control movement from the Progressive Era reformers focus on creating a single standard of morality to the Public Health Service’s (PHS) concern over maternal and economic health during the Great Depression. I examine the intersections of public health, gender, sexuality, and citizenship through reactions and policies addressing venereal disease. In particular, the United States’ entry into World War I heightened fears of moral and health crises, as military physicals uncovered a presumably high number of military recruits to have syphilis or gonorrhea. Military officers, public health officials, and social reformers viewed their infections as indicative of the moral failings of women. From this perspective, public health policies that criminalized and stigmatized women — mostly poor and working-class — emerged.

Beginning under the 1918 Chamberlain-Kahn Act, law enforcement officers, military officials, and public health workers had the authority to arrest women on mere suspicion of venereal disease and detain them for unspecified lengths of time under the guise of “treatment.” Women arrested under public health laws often found themselves labeled as sexual deviants because of the way in which venereal disease infections were inextricably tied to questions of morality. Deemed threats to the public and moral health of society, they were excluded from society and denied equal protection under the law. As such, I interrogate the role of public health in building a surveillance state that served to police morality and make female citizenship contingent upon white middle-class notions of “virtuous” sexuality, respectability, and motherhood.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)