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MICHAEL LOWENTHAL

Behind the Scenes

A World War I-era public health poster.

The Story Behind Charity Girl

Charity Girl grew out of my shock when I happened upon the fact that during the First World War, some 15,000 American women were incarcerated in reformatories and detention homes—often for months at a time, with no charge of a crime, no trial, no legal recourse—while they received forcible medical treatment for venereal disease.

Many of the detained women were prostitutes, but a great number of them weren't; they were "charity girls," those who "picked up" men for the sheer fun of it and for the attendant perks of nights on the town—and who, by our contemporary standards, were doing nothing illicit or even unusual. Social standards change, but I don't believe the human heart does. I couldn't stop imagining what these charity girls had felt: girls who had the very same hopes and sexual urges as we do now, but who were made, for having those urges, to feel wicked.

I learned that some of the detention homes had been remodeled from brothels that the Feds shut down in their anti-vice crusade. To a novelist, this fact came as a gift: a perfect setting. But could I, a man in the twenty-first century, write a novel about girls in 1918?

You can read a brief essay [PDF] I wrote about the experience, as well as some of my personal connections [PDF] to the material.

The Research Behind Charity Girl

I spent exactly a year—365 days, to the day—researching the background for Charity Girl before I wrote a single word of the novel. And then I continued researching during the few years it took me to complete the book.

Primary Documents

Poring through old newspapers, government documents, and social-work journals, I got a new jolt of inspiration every time I came across another piece of original material.

  • Here is the cover [PDF] of the U.S. government's 1922 wrap-up report on "Detention Houses and Reformatories as Protective Social Agencies."
  • Here is a facsimile [PDF] of an amazing article from the December, 1917 issue of The Survey, titled "Girls and Khaki: Some Practical Measures of Protection for Young Women in Time of War." The article is by Maude Miner, whom I cite in the novel as the mentor to my fictional character of Alice.

Images

When I was writing Charity Girl, I tried to look every day at visual images from the period. In particular, I was struck—with a mixture of horror and amusement—by the government's anti-vice campaign posters, and I tried to imagine how a young woman like Frieda Mintz would have felt when she saw such posters (as she does in Chapter Ten of the novel).

  • The American Social Hygiene Association archive at the University of Minnesota library has made available eleven anti-vice campaign posters from the First World War. The images can be viewed online. (In the "search" box, type "Army Educational Commission.")

Secondary Sources

A handful of scholars have written about the government's campaign against women during World War I. The books I found most useful in coming to terms with this history were:

For further background about working-class women of the period, prostitution, women's detention centers, department-store culture, and the triumphant Red Sox team of 1918, I consulted: