A Very Special 1944 Message to Women from the Government About STDs

In Depth

Recently, we all had a good laugh at an inappropriately upbeat PSA from the early 70s, warning America that VD is for everybody. But it seems downright contemporary compared to this 1944 special message to women, in which a VERY disappointed family physician informs a young woman that she has gonorrhea.

This film was the work of the United States Public Health Service, part of the Federal Security Agency. (Can’t be losing soldiers to syphilis on top of everything else, plus we’ve got all those women doing industrial work and god knows what they’re getting up to.) It opens on poor Peggy, who was never properly warned about the dangers of VD: “Things like that—I know about them in a vague sort of a way, but no one ever talked about them.” Certainly not her mother. “That would be facing the facts of life. What do the facts of life have to do with a girl like me? It couldn’t happen to me! And now it has.” You see her mother “thinks girls shouldn’t know anything until they marry.” God, mom—it’s 1944, not 1894. Get with the times!

The real audience for this PSA quickly becomes clear, as the doctor informs Peggy’s mother of her daughter’s diagnosis. She wails that they’ve given Peggy everything and wants to know what else they could’ve done. “You could have given her the information she needed about herself—her mind, her mind, and her proper relations with other people,” retorts the doctor. And so Peggy’s mother embarks on a quest to understand venereal disease, thereby becoming the framing device for a bunch of information on gonorrhea, syphilis and their consequences.

“Remember—your health, and the health of your children—depends on you,” the film closes.

You know, it IS an argument for a frank sex talk. But it’s also an opening for moralizing, with a very upright blonde woman promising that “we will give to our young people a thorough understanding of why continence is the best personal protection against venereal diseases,” and one of the doctors carefully stipulating that “the only positive protection is to avoid sexual relations outside of marriage.” Come on, guys, there’s a world war on. You’re not fooling anybody.

What’s interesting is that at the time, as Collector’s Weekly has covered, the military was straight-out telling soldiers to use condoms:

Goodman says World War II training films were also shockingly frank about condom use for VD prevention, even showing how to put them on models of penises. “It was a real surprise to me that those military films were very much supportive of protecting yourself,” Goodman says. “If you’re a smart soldier, you use a condom. There wasn’t a moral spin on that. There wasn’t anything about ‘Condoms may not be effective.’ It was just, ‘Use them.'”

But: “The running theme through World War II sexual education films is that female sexuality is a serious threat to men’s dominance.” And meanwhile, there was a growing freakout about havoc wrought by the war on the home front: “A lot of people—educators, the clergy, anthropologists—were worried that the family was dead, that people felt they didn’t need to be married to have sex,” explained archivist Rick Prelinger.

And so you’ll notice this film is doing some fancy footwork—suggesting parents should be open and frank with their kids because we’re in a crisis here, dropping a bunch of modern science, and then concluding that all y’all better keep your legs closed until he puts a ring on it (and you moms better keep both eyes on your daughters’ legs, too).

This video comes courtesy of our pals at Jalopnik, who also provided this handy gif for whenever you’re required to deliver bad news. Use it wisely.

GIF by Raphael Orlove.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin