Letting States Legislate Morality Will End Badly (Again)Roundup
tags: morality, moral panics, Vice, White Slavery, Mann Act
Nancy C. Unger is Professor of History at Santa Clara University and president of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. A prize-winning author, she’s writing a book on the Diggs and Caminetti cases.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade, opening the door for states to impose a conservative Christian moral agenda on people who don’t share such beliefs. We have been here before.
A case from more than a century ago, in which the court furthered the imposition of a particular moral agenda, indicates a disastrous path ahead — with new discriminatory laws that trample upon rights and freedoms.
At the turn of the 20th century, the United States experienced a revolution in manners and morals. Concentrated areas of nightclubs, saloons, gambling parlors, brothels, dance halls, bars, cheap hotels and opium dens sprang up in the nation’s burgeoning cities. Their visibility — amplified by an increasingly sensationalist press — aroused moral panic, particularly among those who feared a rejection of religion and decency.
Prostitution was a particular worry. Most White Americans subscribed to the idea that White women were inherently sexually chaste. In contrast, they deemed recent immigrants, African Americans and other people of color to be inferior, rendering the women more susceptible to prostitution. Given these beliefs, the increased visibility of American-born White women in urban prostitution in the early 20th century created an urgent moral panic among White Americans.
Since they believed in the inherent purity and sexual passivity of White women, they saw only one explanation for this behavior: Innocent young women had been lured by the falsehoods of evildoers (often described in the press and political rhetoric as immigrants), then victimized by brute force into becoming sexual enslaved people for hire. This White slave panic reached a fever pitch between 1908 and 1913.
Rep. James Robert Mann (R-Ill.) championed paternalistic government protection of White American womanhood as a solution. In 1910, Congress passed the White-Slave Traffic Act, better known as the Mann Act, in recognition of its sponsor. The Mann Act made it a felony for “any person” to “knowingly transport … in interstate or foreign commerce … any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
Even the congressional opponents of the Mann Act did not object to efforts to police morality, nor did they question the degree of the problem. Instead, they denied that the federal government held the constitutional power to pass such a law and preferred letting the states act. Southern representatives — cognizant of the risks to Jim Crow segregation if the federal government grew too powerful — charged that the act violated states’ rights by giving the federal government unlimited power in “regulating the morals and health of a sovereign state.”
Despite the fearmongering, police never uncovered the international White slave syndicate that Mann and others insisted was thriving. Instead, the Mann Act became a tool to persecute men who flouted society’s standards, like African American heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who ultimately served time for consorting with a White prostitute.
One of the most famous early Mann Act prosecutions exposed the staggering ramifications of the law. Maury I. Diggs and Farley Drew Caminetti were married fathers who were dating unmarried women, Marsha Warrington and Lola Norris. All four were from prominent Sacramento families, and for months, the public antics of the two illicit couples shocked California’s capital. They headed for Reno in the hopes of letting the gossip die down. But instead, police jailed Diggs and Caminetti on a variety of charges, including violation of the Mann Act. Their real crime, however, was having affairs.