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Gerald Markowitz


gender; New Deal; popular culture; public health; race; venereal disease


In the early 20th century, venereal diseases (VD) were estimated to affect 10-40% of the population at some point in their lives. If untreated, the long-term effects of these illnesses were serious--sterility, heart disease, paralysis, blindness, insanity, and even death. In spite of this, VD had often been a taboo and underfunded issue because it had long been associated with marginalized groups, immorality, and hypersexuality. However, attitudes about and the visibility of venereal disease within American culture changed dramatically in the 1930s. By the end of the decade the topic was widely covered in popular media, and governments at every level appropriated millions of dollars to create robust control programs. These changes were part of a national public health campaign to "stamp out" VD led by Surgeon General Thomas Parran and the Public Health Service (PHS) that lasted through the end of World War II. This dissertation attempts to address how and why in the late 1930s VD control moved from the cultural periphery to become a mainstream issue and how this transformation shaped the form the program took. I argue the campaign tapped into discourses on the family, national recovery, poverty, economic security, and scientific progress and modern medicine that were salient to the American people in the 1930s and moved the issue away from questions of sex and morality and undermined previous race and gender stereotypes. These rhetorical relationships also shaped the priorities and boundaries of the program, at times helping to expand control efforts and sometimes limiting their efficacy. World War II encouraged further development of anti-VD programs; however, wartime anxieties and priorities reframed how Americans envisioned the problem of VD control and its solutions. Venereal disease became more strongly tied to "social protection" issues that reflected concerns about social stability broadly and the sexual behavior of women specifically. The new focus was on protecting the health of the nation's manpower (servicemen, workers) and prostitutes and promiscuous women seemed to be a threat to servicemen in particular. The war also revitalized efforts to reach African Americans with VD control programs, as their higher rates of illness now undermined the war effort.