Dissertation Blog #4: “Backing Up The Government”: Women Doctors, Sex Education, and Eugenics during WWI

Amy Carney Blog Post


“Backing Up The Government”:

Women Doctors, Sex Education, and Eugenics during WWI

Lizzie Evens


Following US entry to WWI, men left their hometowns to travel to military bases, where they underwent a series of medical tests, including for gonorrhoea and syphilis. The results shocked military and political leaders. For them, the high incidence of venereal disease represented a serious threat to the nation’s military might. The federal government responded with a crackdown on vice via the newly formed Committee of Training Camp Activities (CTCA). But the fact that many new recruits were infected prior to enlisting demanded that any regulatory programme extended beyond the military into civilian life, and into women’s lives in particular.


Now, would-be regulators faced a quandary; how could they effectively spread their anti-VD message to women and girls? At this time, sex education was still a taboo and many saw teaching women about sex as equivalent to encouraging sex. Enter the woman doctor. Although marginal in the medical world, she enjoyed a reputation of scientific expertise and moral propriety. Fifty-six female physicians had already been organizing as part of the Young Women’s Christian Association’s “Social Morality Committee” to deliver lectures across the country.



Map of Social Morality Committee lectures delivered by female physicians (Jul. 1917 – Jun. 1919) from the YWCA, Report of the Social Morality Committee (1919).


In March 1918, the government conscripted the Social Morality Committee (SMC) into a war waged on the homefront: a war against “vice.” I was shocked when I learned of the scale of this little studied campaign. According to the Committee’s final report, in the year prior to March 1919, 144 female physicians delivered 6,197 lectures to audiences totaling over 969,217 women and girls across the US. They spoke in college lecture theatres, school halls, department store show rooms, and on factory floors spreading their government-sponsored ideologies about the danger of sex work, venereal disease, and out-of-wedlock romance.





Examples of Social Morality Committee posters, printed in Katharine Bement Davis, “Social Hygiene and the War” (New York, 1918), 5, 14.


In addition to lectures, the Committee created a series of leaflets entitled “Backing Up the Government”. These pamphlets discussed topics like – “Who Shall Buy My Clothes?,” “What Shall I Wear?,” and “Am I Ashamed of My Job?” – and they distributed almost 1 million copies. As these titles suggest, rather than parroting male medical or political propaganda, women doctors mounted their own ideological campaign.





“Who Shall Buy My Clothes” (YWCA Woman’s Press, New York, 1918), file 18, box 708, YWCA records, Smith College Archives.


Women doctors identified an epidemic of “Khaki Fever,” an affliction that caused young women to romance American GIs. However, rather than blaming women for these liaisons, the SMC argued that young women, like all members of society, experienced a wave of patriotism following US entry into the war, yet they lacked men’s military or industrial outlets, therefore admiration of soldiers became the only available expression of their patriotic fervor.


First-wave-feminist concerns about work and money were at the fore of women doctors’ sex education work. The pamphlets championed the war as a catalyst for women’s increased participation in the workforce, but argued that not all women’s jobs were equal. The pamphlet “Am I Ashamed of My Job?,” criticized working as a waitress or a saleswoman as “showy” and often more dependent “on a pretty face and not on skill.” In doing so, women doctors used the vocabulary of sexuality to criticize the propriety of working-class women’s job. They also lamented women whose male relatives financed their lives, bemoaning that women were “the only female animals who depend upon the male for food, clothing, and shelter.” [1] However, the female physicians’ chief approbation was saved for sex workers. The sex worker, according to SMC literature, was the epitome of women’s economic dependence because she was wholly reliant on men for income. One pamphlet opined that the “outcast prostitute” had given into one of the “many temptations for women to live without work.” [2] Therefore the “fallen woman” was not just a “temptress” of men, but of women too. By “earning money easily, dressing more showily” she “furnishe[d] a dangerous example to girls of weak will and unsatisfied desires.” [3] Like male doctors, women physicians depicted sex workers as vectors of disease, but their denunciation was also predicated on a “feminist reading of women’s work.


Their elitist feminist message was also a eugenic one. Women doctors argued that sex work and venereal disease posed a particular threat to white womanhood. SMC leader, Katharine Bement Davis, dramatized this message in a 1919 film, The End of the Road, screened alongside the social morality lectures. The movie depicted the “two roads” in life, each represented two young woman. First, Mary Lee, whose mother had instructed her as to the nature of sexuality and second, Vera Wagner, whose mother denied her this information, wishing that she “make a rich match and be placed in a position where she need not work and may gratify her fancies.” While Mary went on to serve as a nurse in the war and marry a physician, Vera worked in a department store, frequented dance halls, and contracted syphilis from premarital sex. [4]


The movie propagated a particular type of “eugenic feminism” through Vera’s implied infertility and various subplots. Nurse Mary Lee attended a case of venereal disease in the white, bourgeois family. The wife unknowingly contracted gonorrhoea from her husband, which led their child to be born with vision loss. She explained to the nurse that she wished to undergo surgical sterilization because; “I never want to bring another child into the world to pay…for the sins of his father.” [5] Throughout the twentieth century, poor women, disabled women, and women of color were disproportionately targeted with coercive sterilization programmes, often in the name of eugenics. Yet, the film showed an empowered Elbridge asking to undergo surgical sterilization; a subplot that drew upon the eugenic specter of white upper-class women’s fertility as a racial resource, imperiled by sex work and venereal disease.


The scale of the Social Morality Committee’s work, as the first national, civilian sex education campaign, raises the question: why have women doctor’s wartime lectures and eugenic propaganda been so little studied? I suspect the answer may lie in our discomfort, as feminists, in parsing women’s regulatory roles. Indeed, historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers in her study of white women as slave owners, described this homosocial dynamic as a “feminist nightmare.” [6] Nonetheless is necessary to subject professional women – those often cast as “pioneers” – to this scrutiny, because in doing so, we recognized how their power often came at the expense of more marginalized women.


[1] “Am I Ashamed of My Job”, (YWCA Woman’s Press, New York 1918), 1. Film no. 7206, “History of Women: Microfilm collection”, National Library of Australia.


[2] “Who Shall Buy My Clothes?” (YWCA Woman’s Press, New York, 1918), file 18, box 708, YWCA, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.


[3] Katharine Bement Davis, “Social Hygiene and the War: Woman’s Part in the Campaign’” (New York, 1918), 11.


[4] Katharine Bement Davis, “Social Hygiene and the War, Part II: Woman's Part in Social Hygiene”, Journal of Social Hygiene, vol. 4, no. 4 (Oct. 1918), 558.


[5] Jessica Lee Mathiason, “Engineering Kinship: Genetic Technologies, Economic Speculation, and the Queer Body” (PhD Thesis, University of Minnesota, 2017), 94-5.


[6] Stephanie Jones-Rogers, “’Nobody Couldn’t Sell ‘em But Her’: Slaveowning Women, Mastery, and the Gendered Politics of the Antebellum Slave Market” (PhD Thesis, Rutgers University, 2012), 267.



Lizzie Evens is a final year PhD candidate at University College London, where her thesis looks at the first women in medicine and policing and their regulation of other women’s reproduction and sexuality.