When Margaret Sanger tried to open a birth-control clinic in 1916, she was jailed. When Oregon women tested positive for venereal disease at the same time, they also landed themselves in lockup, even as men went free. Oregon was the first state to intern women who tested positive—many were kept at the Cedars Detention Home in Troutdale—and the state’s policies became a model for the rest of the nation. Kimberly Jensen, a professor of history and gender studies at Western Oregon University, estimates that between 1917 and 1923, as many as 500 women were interned and incarcerated from across the state. Officials tended to target working-class women and women of color, who were perceived as particularly “disorderly” or more prone to “transgressive” sexual behavior.
Jensen, who’s also written about women’s career paths during World War I and Esther Pohl Lovejoy, will discuss the detainment and incarceration of Oregon women tonight at 7 pm in a presentation titled “Venereal Girls”: The Cedars Detention Home and the Portland Free Dispensary—Gender, Public Health and Civil Liberties in WWI and Its Aftermath. It’s part of the Kennedy School’s History Pub series. She answered a few questions via email.
WW: What was behind Oregon's detainment and incarceration of women who tested positively for VD? Why weren't men subject to such policies?
Kimberly Jensen: Many Portland and Oregon officials were worried about “disorderly women” well before the First World War, which the US entered in 1917, and made initial plans for a detention home for prostitutes and women with venereal disease in 1913. This was part of a broader movement to control women’s sexuality in an industrializing and urbanizing state and a “Social Hygiene” crusade that at its extreme included eugenic sterilization. In wartime, officials worried about keeping men and soldiers “fit to fight” free from venereal disease. They identified women who crossed the line of “respectable” heterosexuality as dangerous and made surveilling and controlling disorderly women a matter of national security in wartime and beyond.
How many women were detained, incarcerated or subject to parole? Was there targeting of certain demographics?
My research so far suggests that as many as 500 women were interned and incarcerated from around the state. Prostitutes or suspected prostitutes and women active sexually outside of marriage were targeted. Cultural assumptions among policymakers about working-class women and women of color as more likely to engage in transgressive sexual behavior and prostitution meant that women in these groups were also targeted. Portland’s 1917 ordinance establishing the detention policy also contained an explicit class bias. Those who were able to post a $1,000 bond and could convince a judge of their respectability and moral character could avoid internment.
What were the conditions like in the Cedars Detention Home? What sort of treatment did the women receive there?
Inspection reports and official records indicated that women had decent living conditions and food. Ruth Brown, an African American Portlander who sued the city for her release, reported through her pastor that she was being held without the ability to communicate freely and could not have a second test for venereal disease to challenge the city’s findings. Physicians provided treatment for venereal disease at the time using Neosalvarsan with a series of injections across several months. This was before penicillin and rates of cure varied.
In 1919 the Oregon state legislature mandated probation of one year for the women interned in the Cedars. They could not travel, nor change jobs, had a curfew, and could only be in the company of those persons approved by the parole officer. Then the State Board of Health required women involved to carry parole cards with them at all times. This combined with federal interstate quarantine regulations established in 1918 that prevented travel across state lines for those with venereal disease considered “a menace” to their communities.
There were similar policies throughout the nation, so what was unique about Oregon?
Oregon was the first state to establish a policy to intern women with venereal diseases in 1917 and Oregon became a “model” for the rest of the nation. The foundations for this wartime action in Oregon were in place in 1913 with such elements as a survey of the “moral conditions” of the city. So Oregon policymakers targeted women well before the United States entered the conflict in 1917, and continued in the aftermath of the war until 1923. This meant that the Oregon experience linked broader questions of surveillance and women’s civil liberties and citizenship together with this policy of internment before the war and across a decade and more. Oregon women and their supporters protested and resisted this policy, often using the language of citizenship rights five years and more after the achievement of woman suffrage in the state in 1912. Oregon women’s achievement of some civic rights like the vote, jury service, and office holding before residents of other states may have bolstered their resistance and gave them additional tools to challenge these policies.
How did women protest? How were these policies ultimately brought to an end?
Some community members worked on behalf of incarcerated women and against the Cedars and the double standards and lack of due process involved. This included Valentine Prichard, superintendent of the Portland Free Dispensary, African American activist Lizzie Weeks, a probation officer at the Portland Court of Domestic Relations, which had the power to sentence women to the Cedars, and Anna Murphy, a social worker who assisted women on parole to get employment and services and decried Portlanders who saw this parole as a chance to get cheap domestic help. White and African American clubwomen organized and pushed for changing policies and support of the women involved. Some male lawyers and judges expressed their opposition during cases and in newspaper interviews. Women achieved the right to serve on juries in Oregon in 1921 and grand jury members in Multnomah County inspected city and county institutions, including the Cedars. Women and their male colleagues who were members of grand juries from 1921 to 1923 used these inspection reports to protest against the Cedars.
An essential part of this story is that incarcerated women themselves protested and worked to change the policy. So far I’ve found nine women and their supporters, including Ruth Brown mentioned above, who petitioned the city or county for a writ of habeas corpus to secure their freedom from the Cedars. And several dozen women escaped from the Cedars to try to gain their liberty.
These actions meant that by 1923 the Cedars lost its state funding and federal funding. Valentine Prichard of the Portland Free Dispensary was waiting, with evening clinics and support services for women with venereal disease.
Have you happened upon any particularly surprising discoveries in your research?
I’m trying to find out more about Buster Taylor who was incarcerated at the Cedars. On August 30, 1918 the Rogue River Courier reported that “Mrs. Higgins, better known as ‘Buster Taylor’” was arrested and sent to Portland for incarceration. This suggests the possibility of what we today might consider a transgender identity for Taylor. There was considerable expense and effort involved in transporting someone from Rogue River to Portland and certainly publicity. This identity may have subjected Taylor to more scrutiny and harsher punishment and notoriety under the new policy. Interestingly, a Cedars inmate list housed now at the Portland City Archives shows that Taylor was evidently sent back at least once by 1919 and it is compelling that authorities used the name Buster Taylor rather than Mrs. Higgins on the inmate list. I hope to find out more about Taylor’s case.
It is vital to know that women and their supporters resisted, that they were not just acted upon by the state. My goal is to give voice to them and to place their stories in our historical consciousness as an important part of ongoing movements for social justice and civic rights and equality in Oregon and beyond.
GO: Kimberly Jensen is at the Kennedy School, 5736 NE 33rd Ave., 249-3983. 7 pm Monday, March 31. Free. More info here.