The book...is startling, disturbing and terrifically readable ... The trial transcripts supply fine courtroom drama, but the story doesn’t end there ... The Trials of Nina McCall is a consistently surprising page-turner, and at times I found myself wishing Stern had lingered over particular details ... Even so, his book is a brilliant study of the way social anxieties have historically congealed in state control over women’s bodies and behavior—at times with the complicity of medical authorities.
The end result [of Stern's research] is this meticulously researched, utterly damning work that lays out just what measures the United States government took to control women’s sexuality and autonomy—and how perfectly happy local officials and law enforcement were to go along with it ... The truths revealed in this book are truly shocking, and even more so because they are so little known. The culture of silence that has impacted sex workers for so long has finally begun to dissipate, but potent dangers remain ... One hopes the fact that more authors are now working to tell those stories means that more people will fight back.
It’s a shattering story. In his detailed, occasionally dense narrative, Stern (a 2015 Yale graduate who began his research in college) inculpates not just sexism and puritanical sexual policing, but racism, classism, xenophobia—and capitalism itself ... The emotional heart of the book, drawn in part from trial transcripts, is an account of how McCall, a small-town Michigan woman of Canadian and Scottish heritage, transformed herself from victim to resister ... The Trials of Nina McCall suggests that, in the face of misogyny and fear, the Constitution’s civil liberties and due process protections are flimsier than we dare acknowledge.
For those of us who decry today’s internationally unparalleled carceral crisis and wonder how we ended up here, Stern’s beautifully written account of the American Plan and the life of Nina McCall offers some needed but uncomfortable answers ... Stern is entirely right to concentrate on the underappreciated damage that the plan did to poor women across the country. The program, he shows, was never really about venereal disease—it was an effort to clean up the streets and police the behavior of women ... Stern’s book is not merely the story of one women’s fight against injustice. His research exposes both the insidious ways in which calls for 'public safety' soon come to justify the curtailment of rights, and the extent to which today’s most destructive carceral apparatus has its basis in fear on the part of the powerful ... Perhaps Stern’s most important point is that the American Plan matters because it 'is not ancient history. [It] helped create the infrastructure and rationale for an explosion of the female prison population that continues to this day.'
Mr. Stern shows how the Plan, ostensibly about public health, became a law-enforcement cudgel, one aimed at 'loose women,' disproportionate numbers of whom were working-class or of color. And while all prostitutes require clients, hardly any men were arrested under the Plan ... Most of what Mr. Stern knows of her story comes from court transcripts. That makes it difficult to build a whole book around her, and Mr. Stern’s essentially big-picture account of the Plan sometimes gets a bit dry. However, he does a fine job linking the American Plan to pure greed (states paid cities to administer it) and even to the U.S. government’s infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Mr. Stern also documents contemporaneous criticism—whose sources ranged from women’s rights advocates to such unlikely bedfellows as journalist H.L. Mencken and the Industrial Workers of the World—and some detained women’s own rebellions, including ingenious escapes. And Mr. Stern notes that all American Plan laws remain on the books—tools close at hand for some future oppressor.
The book’s academic tone is direct, informative, exacting, and well-suited for the grim subject matter it addresses, and it puts a face on the treacherous, sexist injustices committed by a misguided government. A powerful report on a relevant women’s movement deservedly brought to light over a century after it occurred.