In June 1942, a woman named Billie Smith was arrested in her hotel room in Little Rock, Arkansas, and charged with prostitution and violation of the state’s immorality laws. Smith pled guilty and paid the fine of $10—equivalent to $150 today—but authorities weren’t quite done.
Smith was turned over to the city’s health examiner, who ran tests for syphilis and gonorrhea. When both came back positive, the officer ordered her committed to a federally run quarantine center in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Three days after her arrest, she petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the quarantine amounted to unlawful imprisonment—but Smith’s condition posed too much of a threat, the court argued, for it to do anything but let the quarantine stand.
“It affects the public health so intimately and so insidiously,” the court wrote, “that consideration of delicacy and privacy may not be permitted to that measures necessary to avert the public peril.”
Technically speaking, the “it” referred to sexually transmitted diseases, which the government had recently declared to be “military saboteur number one.” In practice, though, the real saboteurs were considered to be the women who carried them. Over the course of the United States’ involvement in World War II, federal authorities detained hundreds of women in quarantine centers across the country, determined to protect the country’s fighting men from sex workers and other women who flocked to the towns that housed army bases, known as “Khaki Wackies,” “good-time Charlottes,” “camp followers,” and—in a portmanteau coined by a the U.S. Public Health Service—“patriotutes.”