Opinion

Kansas has been here before: Lessons from policing women’s sexuality 100 years ago

August 1, 2022 3:33 am
Hattie Campbell, seen in a mugshot when she arrived as an 18-year-old in 1925 at the Kansas State Industrial Farm for Women, was one of more than 5,000 Kansas women imprisoned between world wars by a government more intent on enforcing a certain version of sexual morality than solving the health crisis at hand. (Submitted)

Hattie Campbell, seen in a mugshot when she arrived as an 18-year-old in 1925 at the Kansas State Industrial Farm for Women, was one of more than 5,000 Kansas women imprisoned between world wars by a government more intent on enforcing a certain version of sexual morality than solving the health crisis at hand. (Submitted)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Nikki Perry is a fourth-generation Kansan and the author of “Policing Sex in the Sunflower State: The Story of the Kansas State Industrial Farm for Women,” a 2022 Kansas Notable Book.

As Kansans prepare to vote on the future of reproductive health care in our state, we would do well to remember another chapter in our history. Between World War I and World War II, Kansas authorities sent more than 5,000 women to a prison in Lansing under a law called Chapter 205 for no other “crime” than having syphilis or gonorrhea.

First implemented in an attempt to control venereal disease among troops during WWI, the policy was almost exclusively applied to women.

Authorities talked about Chapter 205 as a way to morally reform young women who were engaged in what might have been called “lascivious conduct” at the time. But, as often happens when black-and-white moral mandates get applied to the messy realities of life, many others were caught up in the policy as well.

Wives whose husbands cheated on them, gave them a disease, and then turned them in after a fight. Survivors of rape. Nine-year-old girls abused by a relative and then sent to a prison alongside women convicted of murder and theft. Women who actually volunteered to go to prison because they couldn’t otherwise afford medical treatment. These were the casualties of a government more intent on enforcing a certain version of sexual morality than solving the health crisis at hand.

In 2019, the state of Kansas took a different approach to women’s health care when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution protects women’s right to make decisions about their own bodies, including whether to continue a pregnancy. While restrictions on abortion are still in place in Kansas, the court’s ruling that access to abortion care is constitutionally protected is particularly consequential given the loss of that protection at the national level.

Kansas voters face a choice Aug. 2. A “yes” vote for the “Value them Both” constitutional amendment would give the Legislature the right to legislate against abortion, even in the case of rape or threats to the mother’s health, while a “no” vote would leave the 2019 court decision in place.

The fact that this vote is on the primary ballot, which attracts fewer voters, is an acknowledgment that legislators and lobbyists in Topeka worried that the average Kansan voting in November may not be in favor of letting legislators make reproductive decisions. A recent Docking Institute poll found that 63% of Kansans agreed that women were in a better position to make their own decisions about abortion than politicians. The vote Aug. 2 will be decided based on which Kansans show up on Election Day.

Some women, including this 45-year-old mother of seven with advanced-stage syphilis, volunteered to go to prison because they couldn't otherwise afford medical treatment. (Submitted)
Some women, including this 45-year-old mother of seven with advanced-stage syphilis, volunteered to go to prison because they couldn’t otherwise afford medical treatment. (Submitted)

I’ve spent years researching and writing about the women imprisoned under Chapter 205, and their stories still make my stomach drop. One thing that stands out about the story of Chapter 205 is the sheer number of people involved with implementing it. There was not one sexist bad guy plotting to imprison women for having sex, but rather hundreds of local health officers, corrections workers and everyday citizens who turned women in to authorities.

People saw women, and especially Black and poor women, as being more like children than adults. They believed these women needed the state to make decisions about their health care and their sexual lives for them. Chapter 205 involved hundreds of people over several decades, all of whom essentially bought into the idea that women’s rights to due process and self-determination were optional.

If we look to our past, we see Kansans justifying sending women to prison instead of asking men to put on a condom. If we look to our present, we see incredibly restrictive abortion bans being passed across the country that again treat women as children. The ease with which legislators and the general public have dismissed women’s rights throughout history offers a lesson to us all, if we are willing to listen.

The old adage that we need to learn from our history if we are going to avoid repeating it is not as simple as it sounds. To actually learn from our past, we have to be brave enough to face the hard parts of our history head on, not as spectators but as participants who understand that we are still a part of this story today.

We have to be humble enough to recognize that the faults of people of the past are still with us, to actively look for ways that the sexist attitude that people with uteruses are more like children than adults shows up in our daily lives. We have to be vulnerable enough to look for those attitudes within ourselves. And, most importantly, we have to be willing to change. We are in our own messy moment in history right now, and we need whatever wisdom we can gain from our past to navigate it.

As we reflect on the sad story of Chapter 205 in Kansas, let’s face the hard truths and look for opportunities to create a more just future. The women and girls who were imprisoned under Chapter 205 deserve nothing less.

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Nikki Perry
Nikki Perry

Nikki Perry is a fourth-generation Kansan and the author of “Policing Sex in the Sunflower State: the Story of the Kansas State Industrial Farm for Women,” a 2022 Kansas Notable Book.

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