'Obtuse Women': Venereal Disease Control Policies and Maintaining a 'Fit' Nation

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UK Department of History
06/06/2011 - 06/06/2012

In her MA thesis, 'Obtuse Women': Venereal Disease Control Policies and Maintaining a 'Fit' Nation, 1920-1945, Ashley Sorrell utilized the Linda Neville papers, which are part of the University of Kentucky’s extensive Appalachian Collection.  Sorrell describes how these materials helped shape her research.

“This project started with the Linda Neville papers, which is a rich resource to explore medical practices in Appalachia and Kentucky.  I used the case files from Neville's Mountain Fund to analyze the ways in which health reformers blamed women, particularly mothers, for the spread of gonorrhea and syphilis, while placing no burden of responsibility on the fathers.   Her work led me to ask broader questions about the relationship between the concern for national health and gender.  I hope to continue with this topic for my dissertation and plan to explore Appalachia more in depth through the use of the Wheelright Collection, which documents a syphilis outbreak, and Frontier Nursing Service Records that may document the relationship between health care workers and mountain mothers.”


Public health officials and social reformers grew concerned over the prevalence of gonorrhea and syphilis following World War I. The initiatives put in place by authorities to control the spread of venereal disease lacked any concern for women’s health and sought to control their newly found independence and mobility. This thesis examines public health policies related to venereal disease control from 1920-1945 and how these regulations affected women in the United States. Laws and social reform measures such as pre-marital blood tests, the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act, and the use of quarantining prostitutes during World War I and World War II were passed by government officials to ensure the future of America as a fit fighting force of men, placing women’s health concerns last in its race for domination. Women essentially were marked as the diseased dangers to America’s health.

Please contact the following individual if you have any questions about this project: 
Ashley Sorrell
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