Michael Lowenthal’s novel Charity Girl offers us a shocking piece of hidden American history: During World War I, the U.S. government detained 30,000 women. More than 15,000 were locked up for indefinite periods of time to protect the soldiers who had given them venereal diseases.
This happened to most without any charges for any offenses. In other words, most were not prostitutes.
Lowenthal tells the story through a delightful young woman, Frieda Mintz, who wraps bundles of fine purchases at Jordan Marsh in Boston.
Frieda has run away from her mother and her mother’s choice: an older, wealthy widower who wanted to marry 17-year-old Frieda so someone would take care of his children.
She meets an Army private, Felix Morse, while participating in an All-America Liberty Loan parade. She is part of the Jordan Marsh contingent of pretty girls wearing khaki trench caps and sashes that say, “Brunettes and Blondes buy Liberty bonds.”
Frieda can’t both eat and pay the rent; she is always hungry. She and other “wage-earning girls—vampers and laundry feeders, stenographers” are called “charity girls” because they allow the men they meet at dance halls to buy them drinks, buy them food and then in return, offer a snuggle in the balcony (or more).
Her friend Lou explains, “Getting treated when you pick up boys is one thing ... and we’re lots of us charity girls. But it’s never just for money, straight out.”
Unfortunately, Frieda is dazzled by handsome and callow Felix, who later tests positive for syphilis at camp and gives her name as his last contact.
She loses her job after the appearance at work of the “hunch-shouldered and indignant” Mrs. Sprague, she of the Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps.
Frieda is told “... more soldiers are hospitalized with social diseases than with battle wounds,” and “... if a soldier’s hurt when he goes over the top, that’s the price of freedom, and we’ll pay it. But any man hit by this other kind of sickness—well, he’s crippled in his body and his soul.”
When Frieda tries to reach Felix at camp, she is attacked by soldiers, then jailed. She is sentenced—without lawyer, judge, jury or other recourse—to quarantine in a detention home.
The regular, harsh exams and the treatment are nightmarish, as is the fact that Frieda has lost her freedom for however long the government chooses.
Grim as this is, Lowenthal never overplays his hand. Frieda and the women she meets—other prisoners, the matron, elegant social-worker Alice—capture our interest and concern.
And jaunty Frieda strives to learn and grow. Alice lectures her, “You blame yourself, Frieda. Blame your mother. Maybe me. Everyone but the man who got you here.” Frieda suspects Alice’s evangelical fervor is directing her to “a divinity of sisterhood.”
Lowenthal has created memorable women who deal in a variety of ways with a shameful moment. He does both literature and history a favor.