Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944
October 29, 2018 8:26 AM   Subscribe

The quick-thinking young women informed the taxi driver that their clothing had been stolen while they were at Coney Island, and directed the driver to the apartment of a boyfriend on Madison Avenue.
From kottke.org via This Week in Scams, Emily Brooks brings us the tale of five teenaged women who escaped the Brooklyn "shelter" of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1944.

Carmen, Estelle, Jean, Margaret, and Mary were awaiting trial for juvenile delinquency, part of New York City's policing of young people's sexuality during both World Wars with the excuse of protecting America's young fighting men from STIs.
posted by Etrigan (14 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
This Week in Scams

OMG I have a new weekly reading thank you!!!! :)
posted by Melismata at 9:18 AM on October 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


OK, it would not at all surprise me if the conditions in the shelter were such that kids could find it desirable or even necessary to escape, but I'm going to take the contrarian position that fourteen- and fifteen-year-old kids do in fact need supervision (especially in an era where access to contraception was limited and the contraception itself not perfectly reliable) and it sounds like their parents were not doing their job. Trying to keep fourteen-year-olds from prostituting themselves or experiencing statutory rape at the hands of older "boyfriends" strikes me as a worthwhile form of "policing." Whether the authorities were going about it the right way...probably not. Very probably not. But OH NO THE STATE IS TRYING TO KEEP FOURTEEN- AND FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLDS OFF THE STREETS IN A WARTIME CITY AWASH WITH TRANSIENTS strikes me as an odd tone to take. (Seems a little strange to omit the age and use "teenaged women" here, too, since I think most people would agree that age makes an important difference, given that the range includes the age of consent.)
posted by praemunire at 10:15 AM on October 29, 2018 [7 favorites]


Well, praemunire, your comment includes quite a few other ways to handle the issue.
Namely: enforcing laws against statutory rape by targeting the rapists (not the young women), targeting the dangers of transiency by working to reduce transients (not young women), reducing the rates of STIs via any number of programmes – sex ed, distribution of condoms, enforcing those statutory rape laws (once again, not the fault of the young women) – and oh hey why not provide actual freaking support for single mothers.

You did read the part where the girls were either daughters of single mothers (who thus had to work) or foster children, right.
posted by fraula at 10:45 AM on October 29, 2018 [14 favorites]


Whether the authorities were going about it the right way...probably not.

Well, I'm glad you were able to allow that there might be a chance that jailing 14-and 15-year-olds might not be the best solution for the problems presented by their... oh, wait, we don't know what these particular 14- and 15-year-olds did to justify their incarcerations, but we do know that
Throughout the war, the department’s campaigns against juvenile delinquency focused on arresting boys of color for supposed crimes of minor violence or theft, and monitoring young women of all races for inappropriate social or sexual activities.
Nor do we know what sanctions the men with whom they may have "experienced statutory rape" (ick) suffered, but I think we can probably guess whether it was worse (depending, of course, on whether they were the right sort of men).

But OH NO THE STATE IS TRYING TO KEEP FOURTEEN- AND FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLDS OFF THE STREETS IN A WARTIME CITY AWASH WITH TRANSIENTS strikes me as an odd tone to take.

Trying so hard that
The shelter’s representatives reminded Elisabeth multiple times that her own daughter and the other girls had run away from home before. The officials argued, therefore, that “nothing too serious could happen to her at this point beyond what has already happened to her.”
posted by Etrigan at 10:51 AM on October 29, 2018 [6 favorites]


But OH NO THE STATE IS TRYING TO KEEP FOURTEEN- AND FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLDS OFF THE STREETS IN A WARTIME CITY AWASH WITH TRANSIENTS strikes me as an odd tone to take.

You might have a point if the cops would pick these girls up, return them home and give both them and their parents a stern talking-to about the dangers of wandering NYC unsupervised. Or if there was some evidence that the cops bothered to even slightly hassle men who got involved with these girls. But that's not what was happening here. The idea that the best way to "protect" women or children, is to literally lock them in jail is so deeply immersed in patriarchal bullshit it's mind-boggling to me, and I make no claims to being some bastion of feminist thought. I mean shit, the notion of protecting your daughter from the terrible dangers of the world by locking her up in a tower, and the inevitable failure of that idea, that's the stuff of ancient fairy tales.
posted by mstokes650 at 10:55 AM on October 29, 2018 [20 favorites]


I've read a little bit about the sexual politics of WWII and honestly, it was wild:

1. You still had this incredibly conservative/Puritanical (like, literally influenced by the Puritans) culture where there was no birth control pill, and safe abortions were only for wealthy women/girls.
2. Cities were full of soldiers on leave (either before they shipped out, between deployments, or after they'd returned with some sort of injury).
3. Young girls were being inundated with messages to support the troops, including romantic books/movies/magazine stories, etc about girls falling in love with soldiers going off to war. There were actual government-funded propaganda campaigns using pop culture to get girls to "date" soldiers.
4. The same cities full of soldiers were also full of the aforementioned single mothers, and fathers and mothers suddenly working double shifts to make up for all the soldiers not in the workforce. And a lot of immigrant families where everyone worked a lot. So a lot of kids were going unsupervised, in a situation that had suddenly become a lot more dangerous/exciting (depending on your POV)
5. This also meant people, including teenagers, who had never had money all of a sudden had money to do things like go out to eat, go to dance halls, buy nice clothes, etc. (at least things that weren't being rationed).

I mean, honestly how could this NOT add up to to a lot of teenagers having unprotected sex, to adults wringing their hands about it, to some young women/girls being victimized, to some young women/girls having unplanned pregnancies, etc. etc.

Incidentally, WWII was the start of "teenage" culture in the US - the word was invented at the time. Also, the unplanned pregnancies that happened during this time were the first of the Baby Boom.
posted by lunasol at 11:19 AM on October 29, 2018 [10 favorites]


1. You still had this incredibly conservative/Puritanical (like, literally influenced by the Puritans) culture where there was no birth control pill, and safe abortions were only for wealthy women/girls.

Birth control pill: not invented yet.
Condoms: primitively manufactured, not all that reliable, and not lubricated well.

Antibiotics: still very new, not something to count on.
Abortion: see lack of antibiotics. "Safe" is relative. Even what was available for the wealthy was not very safe.

And prosecuting the statutory rapists, given the state of forensic evidence at the time would require the girls' cooperation as witnesses.
posted by ocschwar at 11:34 AM on October 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


For a snapshot of how a young woman might wind up detained and what life was like in facilities for "incorrigible" young women here's an account from then-18-year-old Toronto woman Velma Demerson who was incarcerated in 1939 for living with her fiancé who was Chinese. She later wrote a book about her experience.

At age 81, Demerson sued the Ontario government for $11 million and asked for an apology. She got a letter of apology from the Ontario attorney-general for being “unjustifiably incarcerated” under the Female Refuges Act and for its “adverse effects” on Demerson, Harry Yip [her fiancé and later husband] and their son. Later the province gave her an undisclosed monetary settlement.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 1:09 PM on October 29, 2018 [13 favorites]


Sorry, nope. You can disapprove of the state's methods of social control (which I pretty explicitly said I did; I bet the conditions at that shelter were not good at all) without thinking it's fundamentally shocking and inappropriate and "policing of women's sexuality" for it not to want girls under the age of consent running around with older boyfriends and without parental supervision. I'm pretty sure that most of us would consider a modern-day parent turning a blind eye to a fourteen-year-old daughter hooking up with, say, an eighteen-year-old sailor in town for a few weeks as a terrible parent, and these days, we have readily available contraception, legal abortion, ways to treat most STDs, and much less of a social stigma against pregnancy out of wedlock.
posted by praemunire at 1:12 PM on October 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


Just to be clear about conditions existing at facilities of this type at the time (as described in the article I linked to above):

"the women were put into windowless, one-by-two-metre, cockroach-ridden cells, with buckets for toilets. Reading materials and clocks were not allowed. Inmates spent all day at sewing machines and were only allowed to talk to each other for 30 minutes a day."

"forced to submit to frequent, painful internal exams and unexplained procedures by ... a eugenicist who supported sterilization of the “unfit.” She was given a variety of medications. The contents or effects were not explained."

"She also discovered from a report in the archives that she was used in a drug study ... without her knowledge."


Honestly, to use your example, I think having (willing) unprotected sex with an 18 year old sounds potentially less risky and less traumatizing for a teenage girl.

I admit I'm somewhat biased though, because where I live it's legal for 14 year olds to have sexual relationships with 18 year olds.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 3:42 PM on October 29, 2018 [7 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that most of us would consider a modern-day parent turning a blind eye to a fourteen-year-old daughter hooking up with, say, an eighteen-year-old sailor in town for a few weeks as a terrible parent

While you’re making up charges, you might as well claim the five of them conspired to kill Roosevelt.
posted by Etrigan at 3:49 PM on October 29, 2018 [9 favorites]


While you’re making up charges, you might as well claim the five of them conspired to kill Roosevelt.

Aww man, now I'm sad all over again over the fact that Timeless got canceled. Coulda been a great episode!
posted by mstokes650 at 4:46 PM on October 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


Here's a bit of context for their preoccupation with sexual morality:

The US was the only nation to take part in WWI who did not provide their military personnel with condoms. Soldiers who contracted a venereal disease were court-martialed, which meant that they frequently did not report symptoms and the disease rates were high. To counters that military personnel were issued with prophylactic kits, which were not condoms but antiseptics to be applied following intercourse in the hopes of prevent infection with gonorrhea and syphilis. They were both painful and ineffective.

It's worth noting that the US military had an appalling rate of infection with venereal disease before they changed their policy to encourage the use of condoms. One quarter of the men who were examined for physical fitness to ascertain if they were able to serve in the First World War were infected. This was because the Comstock act had made it illegal to purchase condoms by mail, which meant they were difficult to obtain in many areas, and because fewer unmarried women were sexually active, but those that were active were more likely to be active with a higher number of partners, leading to a higher transmission rate.

By the time the US was engaged in World War II the US military was enthusiastically promoted the use of condoms. Rather than simply issuing them to the troops the way the British and Canadian military did, they made them available at "pro stations" where they could be purchased at three for a dime. Pro stations were set up everywhere that armed forces personnel were expected to go when on leave; the medical officers made sure that all ranks knew exactly where they could get the prophylactics.

So there really was a significant problem with control of sexually transmitted diseases in the military and they only got a handle on it by working aggressively to gain control during the Second World War.

It's also worth noting that between the wars women were expected to be substantially younger than their partners. High school girls before the Second World War did not want to go out with high school boys, who were considered too young to date. They were expected to go out with university boys. Freshman girls went out with freshman boys. They would both graduate in the same year, and then get married. She would be in her late teens, and old enough to become a wife and mother, and he would be able to support the family.

(There were substantially fewer women than men attending university before the war so they couldn't just date each other. Moreover in many cases having a university education reduced the probability of a woman getting married at all - I don't know if this is because a woman with a university education was considered intimidating, or if this was by choice, but I expect that both were factors.)

This means that for a girl to go out with or date an older boy or a young man was much more accepted than if she were active with a boy her own age. In the former case it was courtship, leading to responsible marriage; in the later it was suspect, as he was considered too young to date. If it was found out that they were having sexual relations they were not anticipating the marriage, but simply being immoral. If she got pregnant they couldn't get married to make things okay. He was too young for that.

It was only after the war when a boy just out of high school could probably support a family that same-age partners became the norm. During the twenties and during the depression when he almost certainly could not support a wife until he had been working a few years, he was expected to stay in the courtship phase or to remain celibate, or to go only with girls that were "not the kind of girl you marry" - that is, one of the rare promiscuous girls that went with many boys.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:51 PM on October 29, 2018 [15 favorites]


Jane The Brown, this is absolutely correct about ages and dating in the WWI and WWII eras and the beginning of ‘teenagers’. My mother held her first paying job at age 13. All her boyfriends were college aged and definately college educated women had a harder time finding husbands. Staying in college a couple years and then dropping out to support a student husband WAS fairly common. The usual agreement was he’d support her once he had his degree but usually the arrival of children made that pretty much moot. The lack of reliable birth control pretty much made the man not keeping this bargain inevitable. If he made a good living and supported them all it was still a net gain.
I think highly educated women WERE and STILL are regarded as intimidating by many men.
It is only recently that men have come to realize an intellectually superior wife can be a good thing. Women also used to prefer intellectually superior men. It is a fairly recent notion that people aren’t all smart in the same ways and that say a talent for rebuilding computers is as desirable as a gift for physics and that respect for different ways of being of smart is what matters and that character matters most of all in any relationship. Back then people did not think that way and the stigma around an unplanned pregnancy was real, it could literally ruin your life then.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:57 PM on October 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


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