Like a Virgin

Historian Nancy Bristow tells Brian about one of the biggest worries about sending young Americans off to war: whether they would be having sex — and how that preoccupation helped end the Progressive movement.

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Nathan Connolly: The great war decimated Europe and left millions of casualties including over 100,000 American soldiers. A century ago this month the bloodshed finally ended with the signing of the Armistice. Today we look at the legacy of World War I and the ways in which the war is still with us a hundred years later.

Nathan Connolly: We’ll be looking at how America raced to build the largest chemical weapons program in the world, the rise of the surveillance state, and how Woodrow Wilson tried to recreate the world in America’s image.

Nathan Connolly: But first, as the United States mobilized for war in 1917, Americans began to fear for their young soldiers. Besides all the obvious fears of battle, they were also terrified of soldiers getting venereal disease, and they had reason to worry. In the days before penicillin, VD could decommission a lot of soldiers. To head off the threat, President Wilson and a coalition of progressive reformers set up the committee on training camp activities. In 2014 I spoke to historian Nancy Bristow, about this group of performers and their different ideas of how to stop the scourge of venereal disease?

Nancy Bristow: I would describe sort of three wings here. You’ve got people concerned with purity, people concerned with social justice, and people concerned with efficiency. So the period reformers are going to want to provide opportunities for people to have safe, clean, helpful interactions, men and women together, to be good, middle class Americans who have self control and manage their bodies through sexual abstinence, at least until marriage. And they’re going to do things like posting picnics, and having town parades, and those things aren’t going to have much impact and will become less and less important to the federal government as the war goes on. Then you’re going to have social justice reformers who may be trying to manage the situation in a pretty complicated way to provide opportunities for girls to find a route that is meaningful to them away from prostitution, away from simply being exploited for sex during the war. But the efficiency reformers, when push comes to shove, are going to be most interested in keeping the soldiers free of disease, and the commission on training camp activities, the federal agency that’s actually created to oversee these issues during the war. The CTCA is really most of all concerned with efficiency, and here you can think of any number of urban governments that are set up in this time to run things in a more democratic but also more efficient manner.

Brian Balogh: Right.

Nancy Bristow: These folks, when it comes to VD, are wanting to hand out condoms.

Nathan Connolly: They want to cut to the chase.

Nancy Bristow: They want to cut to the chase and that’s really where the federal government comes down, is that they really want virile yet virginal soldiers as the historian Allan Brandt describes it, but they’re willing to have a backup plan.

Brian Balogh: So it sounds to me like virile trumped virginal.

Nancy Bristow: Yes. They’re going to be willing to use law enforcement programs, and they’re going to use them pretty repressively for young women. Part of what happens as they begin a more law enforcement directed program to prevent venereal disease is they begin to arrest women on the street, and they arrest them for a range of behaviors. They need not actually be engaging in anything that resembles a sexual act, in fact they can be at a dance and dance incorrectly, and once you are arrested you are taken to a hospital or to some sort of medical clinic where you’re tested for venereal disease. If you have it, you are then locked up in a hospital until you’re cured. In a pre-penicillin world this could take months and months and months. You might never be cured. Once you’re cured, you are then prosecuted for your crime, and then once you’re prosecuted you are held in a reformatory, often on what was called an indeterminate sentence. So for all the talk of social justice reformers, about moving to a world where men and women were treated the same, where both would become advocates of purity in American life, the reality is that both this commission and the American populous, and I suppose I should add a third population, the American soldiers, they don’t buy it by and large. Boys will be boys, men will be men, but women are to be the moral bastions of the American culture.

Brian Balogh: This coalition is easy to make fun of, but they did have some very idealistic hopes. Did the coalition hold together after the war? Were any of these objectives pursued in the 1920s, and were the actors the same?

Nancy Bristow: Historians have long said that World War I brought the end of the progressive movement. I would actually frame it just a little bit differently and say that the war actually empowered progressives, and created coalitions that perhaps were a little bit tenuous all along. And so suddenly you have people who before had been able to imagine themselves having a coalition, okay, we’ll work together on this because we all agree that venereal disease is a serious problem in American life. They could hold together tenuously until there’s actual real power to hand around, until you actually begin to repress American women and lock them up. Until you begin to distribute condoms, and then they begin to really recognize the differences that they have. And in the aftermath of the war, the progressive coalition in general is coming apart at the scenes, even as Americans are just fed up with federal intervention in their lives, we go from an all for one and one for all to individualism, it’s up to you to make your own way, let’s not have a social safety net, let’s not be preoccupied with community.

Brian Balogh: Nancy Bristow is professor of history at the university of Puget Sound. She’s the author of Making Men Moral: Social Engineering During the Great War.