Description and Reviews
The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who
Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade
In this deeply moving work, Ann Fessler brings to light the lives of hundreds of thousands of young single American women forced to give up their newborn children in the years following World War II and before Roe v. Wade. The Girls Who Went Away tells a story not of wild and carefree sexual liberation, but rather of a devastating double standard that has had punishing long-term effects on these women and on the children they gave up for adoption. Based on Fessler’s groundbreaking interviews, it brings to brilliant life these women’s voices and the spirit of the time, allowing each to share her own experience in gripping and intimate detail. Today, when the future of the Roe decision and women’s reproductive rights stand squarely at the front of a divisive national debate, Fessler brings to the fore a long-overlooked history of single women in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies.
In 2002, Fessler, an adoptee herself, traveled the country interviewing women willing to speak publicly about why they relinquished their children. Researching archival records and the political and social climate of the time, she uncovered a story of three decades of women who, under enormous social and family pressure, were coerced or outright forced to give their babies up for adoption. Fessler deftly describes the impossible position in which these women found themselves: as a sexual revolution heated up in the postwar years, birth control was tightly restricted, and abortion proved prohibitively expensive or life endangering. At the same time, a postwar economic boom brought millions of American families into the middle class, exerting its own pressures to conform to a model of family perfection. Caught in the middle, single pregnant women were shunned by family and friends, evicted from schools, sent away to maternity homes to have their children alone, and often treated with cold contempt by doctors, nurses, and clergy.
The majority of the women Fessler interviewed have never spoken of their experiences, and most have been haunted by grief and shame their entire adult lives. A searing and important look into a long-overlooked social history, The Girls Who Went Away is their story.
Ann Fessler is professor at Rhode Island School of Design. She was awarded a prestigious Radcliffe Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, for 2003-2004, where she completed her extensive research for this book. She is also the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; the LEF Foundation, Boston; the Rhode Island Foundation; the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities; Art Matters, New York; and the Rhode Island and Maryland State Arts Council. An adoptee herself, she begins and ends the book with the story of her own successful quest to find her mother.
From the Critics
- Cleveland Plain Dealer, by Vikas Turakhia 7/16/2006
- Globe and Mail, Toronto, by Marilyn Churley 7/15/2006
- New York Times Book Review, by Kathryn Harrison 6/11/2006
- Detroit News, by Marney Rich Keenan 6/03/2006
- Contra Costa Times, by Jackie Burrell 5/24/2006
- Christian Science Monitor, by Marjorie Kehe 5/16/2006
- Chicago Tribune, by Maureen N. McLane 5/14/2006
- Providence Journal, by Anne Grant 5/14/2006
- San Francisco Chronicle, by Robert Speer 5/07/2006
- Newsweek, by Anna Quindlen 5/01/2006
- Library Journal
- Kirkus Reviews
- Salon. com, interview by Sarah Karnasiewicz 5/11/2006
- choice! Magazine, by Molly M. Ginty 5/05/2006
The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, Sunday, July 16, 2006
When society shunned the unwed mother
by Vikas Turakhia
Ann Fessler’s “The Girls Who Went Away” is filled with heartbreaking stories of unmarried women who gave up their babies for adoption from 1945 to 1973, when the laws changed with Roe v. Wade. Through interviews with more than 100 women, Fessler has paired oral histories with sociological analysis, depicting an American society blurry to those raised in an era of legal abortion.
Fessler focuses on a time when high schools and colleges could expel unmarried students who became pregnant, sex education was minimal and some states barred unmarried people from purchasing contraceptives as an attempt to enforce moral standards. But as Fessler points out, such efforts to restrict information and access to birth control didn’t prevent teens from having sex, as even in the 1950s, “about 39 percent of unmarried girls had gone all the way before they were twenty years old.
“Those who became pregnant out-of-wedlock suffered “a version of social shunning,” causing families to send their “wayward girls” to maternity homes to wait out the pregnancy, deliver the baby, and sign it over for adoption. Afterward, the women were expected to return, explaining their absence with a story, perhaps about an out-of-town relative who needed help.
Anyone who saw the 2004 film, “The Magdalene Sisters,” about the Irish version of this practice, knows about its harshness. Fessler writes, “Those who went to maternity homes to wait out pregnancies often received little counseling and were totally unprepared for childbirth or relinquishment. They were simply told they must surrender their child, keep their secret, move on, and forget. Though moving on and forgetting proved impossible, many women were shamed into keeping their secret.”
Fessler’s statistics and depiction of America in the 1950s and 1960s fascinate, but the personal narratives that end each chapter of “The Girls Who Went Away” are unbearably moving.
Some of the women have horror stories, such as the one whose mother “administered a douche” of Lysol, and the date-rape victim whose father forced her to marry the rapist, but most of these accounts don’t hit such extremes. Their experiences are similar, and in telling their own stories, the women convey a level of guilt, sorrow and anger that simple statistics cannot get across. As an adoptee herself, Fessler connects with these women, and illuminates their stories with her own about meeting her birth mother for the first time.
Through “The Girls Who Went Away,” Fessler condemns the obvious double-standard that permeated society, but the book isn’t a diatribe against social mores. More than anything else, the experiences documented here demonstrate the perils of inadequate sexual education, and the way one event can alter lives no matter how much people try to suppress it. The greatest tragedy of these stories may be that the people in positions of influence, from social workers to priests to parents, seemed to try to do what they thought best.
The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Saturday, July 15, 2006
Children lost and found
by Marilyn Churley
The Girls Who Went Away could have been called The Babies Who Were Taken Away. An astounding one and a half million newborn babies were given up for adoption in the United States between the end of the Second World War, in 1945, and 1973, when abortion was legalized. It happened in Canada, too, and it is estimated the number is more than 100,000.
Behind those infants are flesh-and-blood natural mothers who suffered their loss and grief in silence. Every woman who has ever given birth or raised and nurtured a child will understand the lifelong torment suffered by these women. And for adoptees who believe their mothers gave them away because they didn’t want them, this book will leave no doubt about just how very much they were loved and wanted.
Ann Fessler is a U. S. video-installation artist who is also an adoptee. She had not sought out her birth mother because she didn’t want to invade her privacy. That is, until one day she met a woman by chance in an art gallery, and they briefly thought they might be mother and daughter. When they discovered they weren’t a match, the woman said, “You should find her. She probably worries every day about what happened to you.”
Fessler had never thought about adoption from the birth mother’s point of view. This conversation motivated her to seek out her own mother and to find out what it was like for young unmarried women to surrender their babies. She recorded the oral histories of more than 100 women, across the United States, who relinquished their babies in their youth.
This is a well-researched and mesmerizing book which provides great insight into the mixed messages of that era and gives voice to women who have quietly suffered lifetimes of grief and shame. These are the stories of white, middle-class, “good” girls, caught in a web of hypocrisy and rendered powerless and invisible. They ceased to be beloved daughters and instead became objects of shame. Compassion went out the window at a time when upward mobility meant everything. Families believed they could be ruined by “what the neighbours thought.”
Common themes running through each story are denial, shock, shame, fear and a lifetime of rage and guilt. Attitudes about premarital sex were changing, but unwed motherhood was still considered scandalous — something that only happened to “bad” and “low-class” girls. Birth control and abortion were illegal, and sex education was unheard of. The young men in question were let off the hook and went on with their lives. Some boys did try to stick by the girls, but more often they just dumped them. One had several of his friends say they, too, had sex with his girlfriend so he wouldn’t have to marry her.
In the meantime, the girls were kicked out of school and shunted off to religion-based “homes,” where they were hidden away until they gave birth and then coerced or even forced into giving up their babies. They received no counselling except a promise that they could return to a normal life at home and school, and to forget they ever had a baby.
But of course, they didn’t forget. One of Fessler’s interviewees, Diane, goes to the heart of it: “People talk about the worst thing that could happen to you is to lose a child. And no one talks about that in terms of a birth mother….Why should it be any different? It’s in your cells, and in your guts, and in your consciousness, and in your heart. ” Another, Karen, says, “It’s as if I was the unwilling accomplice to the kidnapping of my own child.”
In the second part of the book, Fessler outlines U. S. adoption-disclosure laws, which vary from state to state. As in Canada, the laws are uneven. “Coming out of the closet” and finding their children mercifully helped these women to deal with their unresolved regret and sadness. However, it is clear that no amount of letting go of shame and coming clean to families can ever set them completely free.
Here is Christine, who received a picture in the mail of her adult daughter as a three-month-old baby. “I can’t describe the sound that came out of me….It was not crying….It was like a wounded animal. It scared me. I hadn’t cried all these years, but looking at the pictures burst the dam….The reunion unlocked it, but the pictures really burst it wide open….One day when we were together I said, ‘I wish I could put you back in here and start all over again…’ And that’s the loss. You can’t get it back.”
I am one of those girls who went away. (I hid out in an apartment in a little town where nobody knew me. ) Until I found my son, when he was 28, I looked for him on every street corner and lit candles on his birthdays. So it is not surprising that I was riveted by each story. We birth mothers are always looking for links to our own experiences, and that’s why we breathe every word into our pores and weep as we read. But readers who are not part of the adoption constellation will weep along with us, for the raw, wounded voices of these women makes the book compelling. This wonderful book is jam-packed with honesty, passion and occasional flashes of humour. I have only one complaint. The stigmatization of female sexuality runs through it because all of the girls interviewed were innocents who were having sex for the first time. I doubt if it was Fessler’s intention, but it does seem to give us permission to sympathize with them and forgive them because they really were “good” girls after all.
The backdrop to The Girls Who Went Away cannot be ignored. The current Bush administration is systematically taking away choice for women, making it harder for young people to get birth control and promoting “abstinence only” education, despite the fact that teens and unmarried students are more sexually active than ever. In Canada, Stephen Harper so far has taken a hands-off approach to a woman’s right to choose and access to birth control, but there are both federal and provincial private members’ bills that, if passed, would limit those rights.
So beware. We could still, tragically, return to the days when girls were sent away.
Marilyn Churley is a former Ontario Member of Parliament and a reunited birth mother. She is writing a book that tells her personal story and her successful attempts to change the adoption laws in Ontario.
New York Times Book Review, Sunday, June 11, 2006
by Kathryn Harrison
Ann Fessler was nearly 56 when she first met her biological mother, who was 75. By then Fessler had already collected more than 100 oral histories for “The Girls Who Went Away. ” She knew that those girls — pregnant, frightened and coerced into surrendering their babies for adoption — never came back from the experience, not really. None of the women who agreed to be interviewed by Fessler were able to follow the advice of parents, pastors and social workers who told them to put their “mistakes” behind them and move on, pick up their lives at the point at which they’d hurriedly exited them to wait out their confinement in a maternity home. Whatever private fantasies Fessler may have attached to the idea of reunion with her birth mother, they were informed by what she’d learned from other women who, like her mother, had suffered what one called “a horrible, horrible, horrible loss. ”
The language of adoption makes it clear: Babies are surrendered. They’re given up. Relinquished. Mothers, even very young and panicked mothers, don’t usually part from their babies without a struggle. But while many books, articles and television shows in recent years have focused on the often overwhelming experience of adopted children who as adults find themselves helplessly pursuing their biological parents, less has been said about mothers’ separation from their infants — mothers as opposed to mothers and fathers, as biology grants males the freedom to move on, especially in the absence of DNA tests to establish paternity. A legacy of shame and guilt surrounding the circumstances that forced young women to surrender their babies has effectively silenced them from sharing the emotional fallout of that loss.
Between the end of World War II and the legalization of abortion nationwide in 1973, 1. 5 million babies were given up for adoption in the United States. This turbulent era for young women, whose sexual independence preceded their access to birth control (and their exposure to sex education), produced “an explosion in premarital pregnancy and in the numbers of babies surrendered for adoption. ” Unmarried girls in the 1950’s and 60’s may have felt increasingly liberated to have intercourse (Helen Gurley Brown’s “Sex and the Single Girl” was published in 1962, identifying a revolution that was well on its way) but the babies they bore were still considered illegitimate, and pregnancy outside of marriage was still a disgrace. A girl who found herself “in trouble” had virtually no means of resisting the forces that conspired either to push her into a speedy marriage or to hustle her out of town to have her baby far from the sight of all who would condemn her. “In one of the strictest forms of banishment,” Fessler writes, “high schools and most colleges required a pregnant girl to withdraw immediately. ” And this was only an institutionalized form of the rejection she encountered wherever she turned, insisting she withdraw from all social interaction.
Mothers and fathers went to what now seem ridiculous lengths to conceal their daughters’ shame, “disappearing” them before they sent them away to deliver their babies. For a 21st-century reader, accounts of a girl scurrying upstairs to hide in her room each time the doorbell rings, or of a mother insisting that as soon as she pulled the car out of the garage her daughter duck down below sight, come as a shock; some of us don’t even remember when an unwed pregnancy could provoke a genuine scandal. A month or so before her due date, the girl was put on a bus or escorted by a parent to a necessarily distant maternity home, where she waited out her last weeks feeling abandoned, as she in fact had been.
Many of these homes, though conceived in the name of charity, didn’t extend much to the young women they took in. “Write down on this side of the paper what you can give your baby. Write down on the other side what the adoptive parents have to offer,” one nun instructed her charges. Against the presence of a father, of money and all it could buy — house and clothes and food and a good education — what could a girl give her baby, other than “love,” as one wrote? And love could seem very little to a teenager who had been made to feel so small herself, reminded constantly of the trouble and shame she’d inflicted on her family. If she really loved her baby she’d make sure he’d have a better life than what she could give him. “Tearing you down and breaking your spirit,” was how one woman described the process.
Fessler’s thorough analysis of the social context of adoption in America between 1945 and 1973 demonstrates only too well how good intentions can produce disastrous outcomes. “The Girls Who Went Away” is a remarkably well-researched and accomplished book, especially considering that its author is not a sociologist but a professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. She does, of course, have her vested interest in the topic. Fessler was adopted during the 50’s, and she explores the era’s glorification of the conventional nuclear family, along with the power of a cultural institution like Life magazine to create and disseminate comforting myths, as it did in its Feb. 19, 1951, cover story. Beginning with its title, “The Adoption of Linda Joy” infuses a sense of serendipity into an experience that virtually all birth mothers seem to have found irreparably damaging. The article, Fessler writes, not only implied that Linda Joy’s mother made “an uncomplicated decision that was not influenced by outside forces,” it also presented the case of Linda Joy as if it were typical. In other words, it was so misleading as to be propaganda.
Such discussions provide the background necessary for readers to fully appreciate the many profoundly sad and disturbing oral histories in “The Girls Who Went Away,” and it isn’t fair to compare Fessler’s measured tone to the raw emotion of these bereft birth mothers’ stories — unfair and unavoidable, as they are juxtaposed throughout the text. “I think of my life as before and after, sort of like B. C. and A. D. ,” one woman says of the impact of losing her baby. “Guilt was always such a pervasive part for me. Not that I was sexual, or not that I was pregnant, but that I let somebody take my child,” confesses another. It’s not possible to overstate the despair, rage, loneliness and unrelieved anguish represented here. “I associated death and pain and loss with sex. ” “It’s as if I was the unwilling accomplice to the kidnapping of my own child. ” Even an impassioned academic can’t compete with the immediacy of these voices.
“Why are you traveling around the country collecting the life histories of all these surrendering mothers, but not your own?” one subject demands upon learning that the author had not yet met her own biological mother. “A legitimate question,” Fessler concedes. As much as each interview must have provided a kind of surrogate for learning her own mother’s story, it’s easy to imagine that once the chorus of voices came to an end the silence they left in their wake demanded Fessler discover just how it was for the woman who lost her. By then she would have been aware of all that was held in common by the girls who went away, and of the importance of hearing each separate voice.
Detroit News, Saturday, June 3, 2006
Author gives a voice to unwed mothers who suffered in silence
by Marney Rich Keenan
Those of us who went to high school in the 1950s and ’60s remember them well — the girls who would be at school one day and then gone the next, mysteriously absent, for the rest of the school year.
In my all-girl Catholic school, sudden disappearances of girls were not uncommon. Regarding one friend, I remember we were told that she went off to Europe midway in her senior year. (Some of us even received postcards, with cheery notes, postmarked from Paris. ) But that was just a ruse. In truth she was just a few miles away in a home for unwed mothers. She eventually gave birth and put the baby up for adoption. Years later, the smiling face in my yearbook haunts me. And it should. So should they all. As Ann Fessler chronicles in her amazing book, “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade” (Penguin, $24.95), the millions of American women who got pregnant in high school during the post-World War II years (a time in which neither birth control nor education about reproduction was readily available to them) were told they had no other choice but to give up their children.
The pregnant teenagers were evicted or plucked out of school, shunned by society and sent to “maternity homes” for the duration of the pregnancy, delivery and adoption.
Fessler interviewed more than 100 of these mothers who relinquished their first-born child for adoption, keeping all of it a secret to preserve their reputations and save mother and child from a lifetime of ridicule.
Most never discussed their experiences with anyone — ever — because of the shame and guilt. They were told that keeping it a secret would also allow them to move on and forget.
But for most, if not all, losing that child was a pain that never went away, a hole in their hearts that influenced every defining moment of their futures.
Recounts one woman over her loss of her son: “Every single night, 365 days a year for 21 years, I’d look up at the stars at night and think: ‘We’re under the same sky,’ and it was the one thing that made me feel close to him. I knew that he was looking at the same stars. “People say to me ‘Oh, well it’s not that way anymore. ‘ I say ‘It’s still that way for a lot of us. A lot of my sisters are suffering in silence. ‘ People can’t believe it has had such an influence. “It changed my personality. I suffered this alone for 21 years so everyone around me would be comfortable: ‘Don’t talk about it, because it makes us uncomfortable. ‘ And I didn’t.”
Another woman tells of a nervous tic in her voice that started when she entered the maternity home and then got progressively worse. “Over the years I went to voice specialists, ear, nose and throat doctors. I also went to this famous speech therapist — $200 an hour — and he said. ‘When did your speech problems start?’ I couldn’t get the words out. Finally, I said, ‘At the home for unwed mothers. ‘ And he looked at me and said, ‘Do you think you’re the only person who gave a baby for adoption? Why are you taking it so hard?’
“Then I went to a psychiatrist, and he didn’t know how to help me either. He listened to the story and he comes up with the idea that I should pretend the baby was born dead and put it behind me that way. I said, ‘I don’t think so, Doctor. I don’t think so. ‘ I went on antidepressants at that point.”
That an unmarried pregnant woman would be such a disgrace to a family and thus treated so cruelly seems almost hard to imagine today. But the post-war aspirations to be the perfect Ozzie and Harriet nuclear family, what Fessler calls the pressure to conform, shunned a whole population of women into suppressed pain.”
I thought about him every day,” said a woman now in her 50s. “He was just mine, a part of me that I didn’t share with anyone else. The part of me that was his mother remained 17 and the rest of me continued to grow, to be a wife and a mother, eventually a nursing student. I was in therapy for a while for little bit of depression, and they said: ‘You have an overactive maternal instinct. You need to become a nurse,’ so that’s what I did. I never mentioned that I’d given up a baby up for adoption, never mentioned it. I just couldn’t.”
A woman named Christine says: “Many times I’ve thought about the difference between the labor and deliveries of my two daughters. Such a difference and it was only because I had ‘Mrs. ‘ in front of my name. I was the same person, but all because of ‘Mrs. ‘ they treated me like a human being. After the birth of my first child, I had nothing. You walk out of the hospital with whatever memories you had and the stretch marks on your body. That’s it. Nothing. It was as if it never happened.”
Thanks to Fessler’s book, the girls who went away finally have a voice and, hopefully, a path that leads to healing.
Contra Costa Times, Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Adoption’s dark past: Author follows women forced to give up babies
by Jackie Burrell
It was an exchange in an art gallery that first forced adoptee Ann Fessler to consider adoption from a different perspective.
A stranger approached her and stated, “You could be my long-lost daughter.”
It was a powerful moment, Fessler said, and one that got her thinking about what it must have been like to give up a child from a young mother’s point of view.
Although Fessler was not this woman’s child — and it would be another 15 years before she began looking for her own mother — that gallery conversation launched a journey that would result in “The Girls Who Went Away.”
It was only a generation or two ago, in the 30 years between World War II and Watergate, when an estimated 1. 5 million pregnant girls were spirited away to homes for unwed mothers. There, alone and frightened, they gave birth and surrendered their babies for adoption.
Many of those women, now 50 to 70 years old, are still here today. And their children — the babies they relinquished under duress — are out there, somewhere.
It was a different era, noted Fessler, whose myth-shattering book combines scholarly research with interviews with 100 women.
The birth-control pill was unavailable. Sex education barely existed, and abortion was not only a dirty word but a dangerous back alley operation. And while men’s reputations were polished by sexual escapades, young women who became pregnant were shunned and tossed out of school.
“The big myth was that (these mothers) had weighed all the options and that her decision was based on her not wanting the child,” Fessler said during a recent interview in San Francisco.”The second myth was that these women were promiscuous. And the third myth was that they got over it.”
Most of these young women became pregnant with their first love, some the very first time they had intercourse. They weren’t promiscuous, Fessler said. They were naive and powerless.
According to U. S. Census Bureau, in the 1940s and 1950s, when young women had no legal access to birth control, teen pregnancy rates began to skyrocket. Between 1945 and 1957, rates rose 78 percent, with one out of every 100 teenage girls pregnant.
Many of the women Fessler interviewed — identified only by first name in her book — were like Nancy, who became pregnant at 16. All Nancy knew about sex was what was written on the school restroom walls.
“I just didn’t know…I mean, the whole biology of it,” she recalls in Fessler’s book. “He kept saying, ‘It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s really hard to get pregnant. ‘ What did I know? I didn’t see a lot of pregnant people, so I figured, I guess it really is hard.”
Nine months later a very pregnant Nancy finally worked up the nerve to ask her mother how babies are born.
“I mean it’s borderline child abuse not to share this kind of information,” Nancy says in the book. “How can anyone think that we will just absorb it naturally or that it’s our responsibility as children to figure it out?”
Families packed pregnant daughters off to maternity homes run by religious or charitable organizations. There, they waited out their time, delivered and, Fessler said, were coerced into relinquishing their babies to social workers.
“The stigma was incredible,” Fessler said.” The options were so little and the pressure so great. ”
Those post-war years were a unique time in the nation’s history, Fessler said. A prosperous middle class arose almost overnight, and status became everything. An unwed pregnant daughter was beyond socially disastrous — it was “low class.”
Some pregnant teens rushed into marriage. A few tried single motherhood. But most were threatened with social and family ostracism if they came home with a baby. Some social workers — who played the uneasy role of go-between, with unwed mothers on the one hand and 10 eager-to-adopt families for every available baby on the other — told girls they were unfit to be mothers, that no man would ever want them, and that their children would be labeled “bastards” on the playground. No mention was made of support services or options.
At maternity homes, 80 percent of the babies born were given up for adoption. And their mothers took the “unfit mother” message to heart. Thirty percent never had another child — some felt it would be unfair to the child they lost, others from fear of any further loss. Four of the 100 women Fessler interviewed had tubal ligations before they were 30.
“The worst part was they were told not to talk about it,” Fessler said.
Then society changed. The Pill arrived. Abortion was legalized. And when celebrities began having children out of wedlock, it wasn’t just OK, it was trendy.
Today, many of those girls –women in their 50s, 60s and 70s — question why they let themselves be forced into a decision they didn’t want. Fessler said that guilt is undeserved.
“Adoptees now don’t understand,” she said, “how difficult and complex the situation was then.”
Meanwhile, loss and grief continue to haunt them. They peer into every face they pass, or apologetically approach strangers in art galleries. Some leave notes with their adoption agency or join the Soundex Reunion Registry.
Or they stay quiet and keep the secret deep inside.
Christian Science Monitor, Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Mothers only in secret
by Marjorie Kehe
She was a young, unmarried college student and it never occurred to anyone involved to regard her pregnancy with anything other than shame. So she went to a maternity home to have her baby in secret and then relinquish it immediately for adoption. After, it was expected, she would return to her carefree life as a college student.
But it didn’t quite happen that way. Back on campus, the young woman found, “I wasn’t happy anymore. ”
Years later she would recall, “I mean, I realized there was something really wrong.”
Ann Fessler interviewed more than 100 women to assemble the emotional and deeply moving oral histories revealed in The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden Story of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decade Before Roe v. Wade.
The backgrounds of these women are varied as are their individual stories. Some had parents who screamed ugly words at them when they learned of their pregnancy; others were blessed with tender family support. Some deeply loved the fathers of their unborn children; others barely knew them.
But today almost all agree on one heartbreaking point: It was unbelievably painful to be separated from their children. Yet almost no one around them seemed willing to acknowledge such emotions. Often, in fact, the new mothers were treated as if they had no feelings whatsoever. Neither, in most cases, did anyone ever suggest to them that keeping their child was even an option.
“They felt they could erase it, but we just aren’t made that way,” says one of the moment when she signed the documents. “It’s unnatural to be separated from your child that way. ” For many, there was no moving on. “I had my seventieth birthday not too long ago, and it still colors my life,” reports another.
If the young mothers were unprepared and ill-informed, so was society itself, it would seem. Intentions were of the best; there were many families eager to adopt babies and there were young women having children out of wedlock. Pairing them seemed only natural.
In fact, the number of non-family adoptions in the United States soared after World War II. It is estimated that between 1945 and 1973 (when abortion was legalized in the US) more than 1. 5 million young women surrendered their babies for adoption. Many went to maternity homes where pregnant women could live in secret until they gave birth (sometimes under assumed names and generally insulated from the outside world by lies. ) Often, all expense were paid at these homes – provided the women agreed to relinquish any rights to their children at birth.
Fessler, who is an adoptee, begins the book with her own experience. She knew little about her birth mother and had never tried to seek her out. One day, however, as an adult, she was approached by a woman who thought she might be her mother. She wasn’t. But the woman told Fessler of the pain and loss she’d felt every day of her life since surrendering her own child. Fessler’s birth mother, she suggested, “probably worries every day about what happened to you. ” It set Fessler wondering about, and eventually, talking to, other birth mothers. Fessler does finally, at the book’s conclusion, reunite with her own mother. It’s an experience in sharp contrasts to many of the stories in the book but that’s one of the more fascinating things about “The Girls Who Went Away” – the variety of voices and tales.
Another of the book’s strengths is the fact that Fessler offers no prescriptions. She doesn’t tell us that adoption is right or wrong. She simply lets her material speak to us directly – and it does so powerfully – of the unresolved emotions that often last a lifetime.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.
Chicago Tribune, Sunday, May 14, 2006
Delivering up their babies
by Maureen N. McLane
Despite ongoing controversies about abortion, RU-486 (the abortion drug), parental notification and other such issues, it is hard to recall just how things were before Roe vs. Wade and before the sexual revolution of the ’60s that made Roe possible. In “The Girls Who Went Away,” Ann Fessler lays out an aspect of that grim prehistory, those days in which non-marital motherhood was almost unimaginable for middle-class white girls, contraception highly regulated and cloaked in shame, and abortion illegal.
Fessler’s wrenching, riveting book reveals some of the heavy and still-lingering costs of the mid-20th Century socio-sexual regime, in which “good girls” (i. e. largely white, largely middle-class) who got pregnant were encouraged, coerced, or sometimes forced into surrendering their babies. Fessler’s subjects came of age during a massive transformation of socio-sexual mores: More young people were having sex in the ’50s and ’60s, yet “access to birth control and sex education lagged far behind. ” Interviewing women who gave up their babies from 1945 to 1973 (when Roe was decided), Fessler shows, largely in the words of these women, how parents, social workers and health-care professionals combined to render them mute.
With its powerful collage from more than 100 oral interviews of birth mothers, this book is an extended keening in the guise of soberly distilled research. This is not to fault the book’s research or method, bur rather to emphasize its emotional impact and commitment to narrative. Repeatedly we hear of girls surprised to find themselves pregnant, struggling to hide behind girdles and tent dresses; parents enraged and sorrowing; the pregnancies and births undergone in states of delusion, torpor, shock, or horror. (This was a pre-Lamaze as well as pre-Roe era. )
The details offered here are most telling, as the women recall their absolute loneliness before giving birth, their shock and shame at the “prep” (an enema and pubic shaving), their drugged-out deliveries, the pressure to sign papers relinquishing their babies, sometimes within hours of birth.
The women Fessler interviewed were, of course, those willing to go on record, even if pseudonymously; these are the women who feel most passionately committed to coming “out of the closet” as birth mothers, to use the formulation many of the women do. While some had decent experiences in the maternity homes where most were sent, others share stupefying stories of callousness, ignorance, or maliciousness. As one woman observes, the mandate here was often punishment:
“It’s punitive. That’s it in a nutshell. You don’t deserve the baby.”
These people were treated as shamefully wayward animals who needed to disappear for a time and then reappear — Presto! — as if nothing had happened. These girls and women were abandoned, often by deeply loving parents, and plunged into a condition of radical powerlessness; some admit to their complicity with this arrangement, and have had to ponder what this has meant for their conception of themselves as adults.
The book sets out a paradigm of these women’s experiences — from the double standard organizing sexuality in the chapter “Good Girls v. Bad Girls,” through the various ways the pregnancies were handled, to “Birth and Surrender” and “The Aftermath. ” The final chapters explore the issues of search and reunion, as some birth mothers seek out their children, or find themselves sought out. Fessler is most strongly committed to “Breaking the Silence,” as her second chapter is titled — to counteracting the silencing of these women, but also the broader silencing that used to surround adoption.
Among the common threads Fessler finds in her subjects’ stories: afterlives marked by numbness, rage, or oscillations between them; a life-determining experience of grief and rage; an obsession with or phobia about children.
Throughout the book Fessler resists polemic; she is oriented primarily to the complexities of these women’s experiences, not to policy statement or social critique. Clearly, though, these are stories of damage and trauma, and in their vivid sorrows and occasional humor they reanimate the feel of an era that, for all its nearness, seems in some ways extremely remote.
Fessler focuses here on the experience of birth mothers but is clearly fully aware of the claims of adoptive parents and adoptees. The book makes an implicit case for open adoption, or at least for the adoptee’s right to find out the identity of his or her birth parents.
However complicated transparency might be, it seems a more honest way to navigate these treacherous emotional shoals — to balance the desires of adopting parents, the ambivalence of birth mothers, the eventual wishes of the children involved. In this book, the girls who surrendered their children were typically told that the adoptive families would be better parents, that they had better resources or admirable characteristics, that all would be well for the infants. Surrendering their children was presented as a noble gift.
Certainly it could be. Yet one feels in these interviews that most of these young women were never actually in the position to authorize this gift; they were not treated as agents caught up in a complex web, having to make terribly difficult choices, but rather as wards and dependents who had to be cajoled and if necessary threatened to “do the right thing.”
Beyond this finessing of the situation, these women sometimes later discovered that the adoptive families were not at all as advertised; here, too, they’d been betrayed, and this became a source of great bitterness.
These are stories about the cost of the sexual double standard, in which good girls were not supposed to know anything about birth control, or to express sexual desire. These are also stories about the political economy of families — how people thought about their pregnant teenagers or college-student daughters, and how their desire for respectability could trump all else. (Here as elsewhere in American life, race mattered, as “fewer African American families disowned their daughters or insisted that they surrender,” Fessler writes. )
And this book offers a window onto institutional history, for many of these girls and young women were sent to maternity homes, which have since largely disappeared or re-configured their mission. As their Web pages now suggest, Florence Crittenton homes — where many went — now devote themselves to helping pregnant unwed teens (and their boyfriends) fully assess and reflect upon their options. Their programs include everything from supporting teen mothers to facilitating open adoptions to arranging foster care, for very young mothers as well as their children. Education and therapy are central to the program. This is truly a new world.
Fessler is a visual artist who came to this project through her own art and experience: She is adopted, her parents always open about that fact. Still, her adoptive mother did not want Fessler pursuing information about her birth parents, and she only did so with seriousness after she died. Fessler begins and ends with autobiographical vignettes. They are muted, subtle, resisting neat closure. Here Fessler is as nuanced and strong-minded as her informants: Rather than serve up potted stories, these women ask us to consider the complexities of teen sex, family relations, secrecy and shame, kinship given and made.
Maureen N. McLane teaches British and American history and literature at Harvard University and is the author of “Romanticism and the Human Sciences.”
Providence Journal, Sunday, May 14, 2006
Adoption and shame before Roe v. Wade
by Anne Grant
In 1970, our son’s mother grieved for four months before signing the papers that released him for adoption. I wish I could give her this book.
Between the end of World War II and 1973, when Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, about 1. 5 million young American women were forced to disappear into a surreal world of secrecy and then to surrender their babies for adoption. Many of them had become pregnant without any knowledge of sex or birth control. Their terror persisted through the next nine months and for decades to come.
Ann Fessler, a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design, chronicles the cruelty of preserving a middle-class facade at the expense of these young women’s emotional and mental health. Shunned, shamed, and humiliated, many never told anyone the painful secret they bore until Fessler invited them to talk about it.
Her interviews with more than 100 “girls who went away” show what it felt like to be despised for being mothers, and what it cost to carry on as though their babies had never been born. Required to live a lie, many of these women still wrestle with guilt.
Not all boys were cads either. Some wept when their parents forbade them to marry and responsibly raise the children they had sired. Fessler portrayed this nuanced subject first in her video installation art and now in this book, with support from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, among others.
Like a necklace of gems, Fessler displays the mothers’ memories in their historic settings illuminated with sociological analysis. She shows how disproportionately the benefits of the postwar boom accrued to white families — like those that snapped up the 17,000 homes William Levitt built from 1947 to 1951 for Caucasians only in Levittown, Long Island.
Desperate to fit in with the corporate culture, these parents realized a pregnant unmarried daughter could ruin them: “Fears of being ostracized from their community or church ultimately led them to treat their daughters in precisely the same manner that they feared their neighbors would treat them.”
Most of the maternity homes that sprang up to maintain the middle-class mystique during those years did not serve African-Americans.
Fessler clasps the necklace at either end with her own story as one of those adopted babies. Would she find her birth-mother? A stunning work of art serenely clicks to closure.
Anne Grant of Providence is writing about victims of domestic violence who lost their children in custody battles at Family Court.
San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, May 7, 2006
Deprived of a chance to be mothers
by Robert Speer
In 1989, when Ann Fessler was 40, she saw an older woman across the room at an art exhibition who looked “very familiar. ” Later this woman approached her and, she writes, “with no introduction said, ‘You could be my long-lost daughter. You look like the perfect combination of myself and the father of my child. ‘”
Fessler replied, “You don’t know what you’re saying to me. I could be your daughter–I was adopted.”
The two women compared dates, but the births were 13 months apart. They continued to talk. The stranger asked Fessler if she had looked for her birth mother. No, Fessler replied, she didn’t want to invade her privacy.
“You should find her,” the stranger then said. “She probably worries every day about what happened to you and whether you’ve had a good life.”
As the woman talked about the pain and loss she’d felt, and continued to feel, from losing her baby, Fessler realized “that I had never heard the story of adoption from the perspective of a mother who had surrendered her child.”
That evening she went home and wrote down every word of their conversation. As she was doing so, she realized why the woman had seemed so familiar to her: She’d had a dream the night before in which they’d been talking together.
Soon after, Fessler started looking for her birth mother.
The search did not take long, but Fessler could not bring herself to take the last step and make actual contact. She was still afraid of invading her mother’s privacy, so she decided to wait. She waited 14 years.
In the meantime, she began to focus her work as a photographer and videographer on the subject of adoption. Fessler is a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design with a specialty in video-installation art, and her groundbreaking book, “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade,” is the result of her biggest project to date.
Most Americans who came of age in the 1950s or ’60s know exactly what the book’s title refers to. They can remember at least one girl in their class who suddenly left high school and dropped out of sight, often in a cloud of rumors involving out-of-wedlock sex and pregnancy. These girls simply “went away.”
And their history was indeed hidden, as the book’s subtitle states. In the years between the end of World War II, in 1945, and the legalization of abortion, in 1973, more than 1. 5 million young women surrendered their babies for adoption, almost all of them secretly. In many of these cases, these girls were shunned by family and friends, shamed by priests and pastors, kicked out of school and sent away to “homes for unwed mothers,” where they had their babies alone. Often they were still children themselves.
The dominant mythology is that they made well-considered choices leading to adoption, that they chose to give up their babies to “good families” who could take better care of them. The truth is far different. These girls faced so much family and social pressure to relinquish their children that they really had no choice. They were forced to do it, and the loss of their babies has haunted them for the rest of their lives.
Fessler interviewed more than 100 women across the country who surrendered their children, and she gives them ample opportunity to tell their stories in their own words and for the first time, weaving their oral histories together with a perceptive and telling description of the social climate that pressured them so heavily.
The result is a collection of deeply moving personal tales bolstered by solid sociological analysis–journalism of the first order, moving and informative in equal measure. It’s impossible to read this book without feeling tremendous compassion for these women, many who have been, as one of them put it, “an unwilling accomplice to the kidnapping of my own child.”
It’s easy to forget, in this era of innovation and change in the structure of the American family, just how puritanical white, middle-class society was 40 or 45 years ago. Sex outside of marriage was considered shameful, birth control was hard to obtain, and abortion was either available only to well-to-do families with the right connections or was life-endangering. The suffering experienced by the 1. 5 million women represented in this book testifies to the damage such rigidity produced.
For all the concerns we may have about the permissiveness and pervasive sexualization of modern life, Fessler’s book reminds us that we have made real progress. The era when young women who found themselves pregnant were coerced into giving up their babies is over. Today they have choices, and all of us, men, women and children, are better off for it.
Robert Speer is a screenwriter and journalist who lives in Chico.
Newsweek, May 1, 2006
Remembrance of Things Past….
by Anna Quindlen
In the glow of modern progress, the stories I tell my children about my girlhood sound as ancient as the Parthenon, beginning with my impossible (and improbable) dream of being an altar girl. The classified ads divided by sex, the working women forced out of their jobs by pregnancy, the family businesses passed unthinkingly to sons-in-law while the daughters stood by: the witnesses to those artifacts are going gray and growing old.
One of the most haunting reminders of those bad old days is on my desk, in a book to be published this spring titled “The Girls Who Went Away. ” I knew instantly who they were: the girls who disappeared, allegedly to visit distant relatives or take summer jobs in faraway beach towns, when they were actually in homes for unwed mothers giving birth and then giving up their children. They came back with dead eyes and bad reputations, even though, like some of those in Ann Fessler’s book, they may have gotten pregnant the first time out. And they came back riddled with pain and rage and an unspeakable sense of loss. “I’d have an abortion any day of the week, before I would ever have another adoption–or lose a kid in the woods–which is basically what it is,” recalled one woman bitterly.
That’s what a pregnant 16-year-old might well do today: have the abortion. Or she might have the baby and raise it with her family’s help, or give it up for adoption after handpicking the adoptive parents and drawing up a contract allowing her to visit the child from time to time. It’s a whole new world, in which female sexual behavior is no longer a moral felony. But those of us of a certain age remember those other girls, who were expected to serve a life sentence. Their parents called them whores and threw them out of the house, or simply pressed their lips tight and pretended nothing had happened while their daughters died inside. In “The Girls Who Went Away,” one recalled, “It was the beginning of it being invisible.”
The number of us who remember being invisible is dwindling. Coretta Scott King remembered when a black woman was seen in some quarters only as a hired domestic, Betty Friedan when a white woman was often treated like a major appliance or a decorative home accent. But both of them are now gone. Sandra Day O’Connor, who with little fanfare stepped down from the high court recently, remembers when a lawyer could tell you, without a hint of apology, that his firm never had and likely never would hire a woman associate.
O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice, was never known as a feminist firebrand. But she had what I think of as transformative experience, something that can’t help but suffuse your life and your mind. She carried within her the memory of what it was like to be reflexively devalued despite being smart and capable. I think it’s probably a good thing for a judge to have faced down that sort of organized systemic injustice. One argument is that it’s not supposed to matter, that judges are simply there to consider the statute as written, as though the law were algebra and its subject numbers. But jurisprudence is not math, and judges are not automatons but people who have been undoubtedly and sometimes mysteriously marked by what they remember, or choose to forget.
The justice who nominally replaced O’Connor, Samuel Alito, was questioned closely during his confirmation hearings about his membership in a group that opposed the admission of women to Princeton, his alma mater. Justice Alito appeared to recall little of the controversy. But I do. I remember the condescending and insulting way women were discussed when various Ivy League institutions considered granting the honor of their Y-chromosome diplomas, the questions about whether Yale women could be permitted to use the pool at the Yale Club. One Princeton alum told The New York Times in those days, “Girls are being sent to Princeton less to educate them than to pacify, placate and amuse the boys. ” It was certainly an education, to witness the resentment and outrage that erupts when the invisible insist on being seen, even acknowledged.
That was a long time ago. In the light of progress the shadows fade, yet how vivid they still sometimes seem. There is now only a single woman on the Supreme Court. Imagine the world if homes, businesses, schools, had only one woman for every eight men. It would be an odd sort of world, wouldn’t it? Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg surely can remember well when abortion was often a do-it-yourself affair, when an accidental pregnancy sometimes meant an exile into a hidden and unacknowledged hell. I suppose the landscape seems very different to her than it did when she was one of the lawyers arguing before the high court that it was impermissible to force pregnant teachers to give up their jobs because of the ridiculous presumption that expectant mothers are unable to work. Yet today she finds herself where she has so often been in the past: the only woman among a coterie of men. Not quite invisible. Not quite.
Fessler’s book is the culmination of interviews with more than 100 women who had been forced to give up their children for adoption between the end of World War II and Roe v. Wade (1973). The book discusses all facets of the complex issue, including the women’s discovery that they were pregnant out of wedlock, going away to maternity homes to deliver the babies, and later searching for their adult children. Fessler (photography, Rhode Island School of Design) successfully intertwines the women’s personal stories with descriptive text, placing the accounts in historical context.
An adoptee herself, she begins and ends the book with the search for her own birth mother. She points out that although the circumstances of the women she interviewed varied (generally, they had answered queries Fessler had placed in newspapers), they all shared a sense of overwhelming loss and isolation in their grief. Thought-provoking and thoroughly researched, this book is recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/06. ]-Nicole Mitchell, Birmingham, AL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Oral history featuring the voices of women who gave up their babies for adoption from 1945 to 1973, put into context by the author’s exposition on the mood of the times. Fessler (Photography/Rhode Island School of Design), a video-installation artist and adoptee who has created a number of autobiographical works on adoption, recorded some one hundred women. Narratives from 18 of them appear here, with shorter selections from many others. Drawing on government statistics, sociology, history, medical and legal texts, as well as personal journals and the popular press, she surrounds their stories with descriptions of social mores during the three postwar decades. In an era when sex education was meager and birth control difficult to obtain, more than 1. 5 million babies were given up for adoption.
The notion that these children were simply not wanted by their mothers is quickly dispelled by the stories told here, which make it immediately clear that the unwed women, many still teenagers, had little choice. Adoption was presented as the only route that would preserve a girl’s reputation. She was told to surrender the baby, forget what had happened and move on with her life. Fessler’s transcripts reveal that forgetting was impossible and moving on not easily done. Although the stories are at times repetitious, individual voices speak clearly of guilt, abandonment, loneliness, helplessness, fear and coercion. For many, shame and secrecy shaped their lives for years afterward, affecting their relationships with husbands and subsequent offspring, even the ability to form healthy marriages or bear children. The author brackets these oral histories with the story of her own long-delayed search for her birth mother and their eventual meeting. By giving voice to these women, Fessler has enabled adoptees to view the circumstances of their birth with greater understanding. A valuable contribution to the literature on adoption.
Salon.com, May 11, 2006
The children they gave away
by Sarah Karnasiewicz
“Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to keep [my] baby, or explained the options. I went to a maternity home, I was going to have the baby, they were going to take it, and I was going to go home. I was not allowed to keep the baby. I would have been disowned.”— Joyce
It was the 1960s and Joyce was going to beauty school in Florida when she realized she was pregnant. When her mother found out, Joyce says, she was “dumped” at a Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in Alabama. “It was an old, old, old house with big rooms,” she remembers now. “[And] I had no control…It was like being in a car wreck or something. Once you start skidding, that’s it.
[So] I kind of skidded through it. ”
Joyce is just one of more than a million and a half women who were sent to maternity homes to surrender their children for adoption in the decades between World War II and the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. They were college freshman working their way through school with two jobs. They were tomboys, sorority girls and valedictorians. They were mothers and they were invisible.
But now, artist and writer Ann Fessler has uncovered their hidden stories. The result of years of research and more than one hundred interviews, Fessler’s new book, “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade,” is an astonishing oral history that brings to light the dark undercurrent of life in America’s postwar middle class. Denied adequate sex education, shamed by socially conformist parents and peers, and without legal access to abortion, Fessler’s subjects emerge as the victims of a double standard that labeled them promiscuous while condoning the sexual adventures of their male counterparts.
Spirited away under the pretense of an illness or a family vacation, the women — many of them teenagers — spent their pregnancies away from home and gave birth among strangers. While the maternity homes were billed as a quiet place for women to reflect on their futures, when it came time to sign adoption papers, most of the women Fessler interviewed said they felt intense pressure to relinquish their children. Persuaded by social workers who said they would never be able to provide as well for their babies as a stable couple would, ostracized by families who were shocked by their behavior, and insecure about their own strength and intelligence, most women did as they were told and tried to forget.
Decades later, though, the mothers say the repercussions of those decisions are still being felt, as they struggle with depression, fight to find their lost children, and make peace with their past. “The Girls Who Went Away” is both politically and emotionally charged. Intertwining her spare prose with the mothers’ own words, Fessler raises difficult questions about reproductive freedom, women’s rights and sex education that seem particularly relevant today as Roe v. Wade is threatened, pharmacists refuse to fill contraception prescriptions, and a conservative administration promotes an abstinence only agenda in America’s schools. Salon spoke with Fessler from her home in Rhode Island about the meaning of choice, the long-term effects of living a lie, and myths about unwed mothers.
You’ve been working on the subject of adoption for years, first as a visual artist and now as a writer. Was it your own experience as an adoptee that inspired you to reach out to birth mothers?
It really all began in 1989, when a woman approached me at a gallery opening and said that she thought I was the daughter she had given up for adoption decades before. I wasn’t, but it was an amazing experience because at that point, I really hadn’t thought too much about trying to find my own mother.
The woman told me a little about her story as a surrendering mother. She was sent to a maternity home and said she never felt like she made the decision to surrender her child, but that it was made for her. She asked if I had tried to contact my mother and when I told her that I hadn’t, because I didn’t want to bother her after all those years, the woman said, “She probably worries every single day about what’s happened to you and whether you’ve had a good life. ” And that thought had just never occurred to me.
That was the moment I decided that I wanted to start reflecting on my experiences as an adoptee. Through the years, in each of my projects — whether films or art installations — I tried to set up areas where other people could contribute their stories. I was trying to be inclusive and to raise awareness of what adoption is like from all different viewpoints. And each time, I was really impressed by the stories I heard — they started to give me an idea of the complexity of the situation. But what floored me were the stories from the surrendering moms, mostly because I kept hearing the same things again and again — that the mothers didn’t feel like they had a choice. And I just kept thinking, why have I not heard these stories before?
You obviously tried to collect interviews from a range of women, but it does seem like because they were not cheap, the maternity homes serviced a particularly white, middle-class clientele. Did you discover different kinds of stories when speaking with women of different races and classes?
The African-American women I interviewed, of course, were women who had surrendered their children; I didn’t interview people who kept them. So they actually had the same kind of experience as most of the white women I spoke with, in that their families had high hopes and aspirations for them and felt that given the time period, if they had a child it would be the end of their education and everything else. Their parents were well-intentioned, but they didn’t anticipate the long-term effects — though it’s hard to imagine how anyone who’s had a child could not anticipate that surrendering a child would have a lifelong impact.
You say again and again that these stories need to be understood within the context of their time. What was it about the postwar years that made it such a difficult time for young women?
There was a lot of social pressure in the 1950s and 1960s — the time period I focus on — and that pressure was partly due to the tremendous rise in economic and social stability in many families after the war. The U. S had a booming economy, so families that had previously been thought of as working-class poor had moved up into the middle class and they didn’t want to go back. Having a daughter who was pregnant and not married was — and sometimes still is — seen as a reflection of parenting skills, and someone who had a daughter who was pregnant was considered low-class. It was just thought that didn’t happen in “good” families, though of course that was because the “good” families were the ones who could afford to cover it up by sending their daughters out of town.
Many of the women I spoke with talked about feeling betrayed because their mothers seemed more concerned about what the neighbors thought than about how they were coping, or what was going to happen to their grandchild.
I was surprised, reading the women’s stories, how often it was the mothers who were hardest on the daughters, and it was the fathers who visited them and cared for them when they were sent away.
Isn’t that interesting? I think that partly that was because at the time, raising children was really seen as the mother’s role, and the father’s influence was not considered as central. The idea was that if you were a solid middle-class family, the mom stayed home and spent her whole life with the kids, raising them and shaping them — so if something went wrong, it was her failure.
You write that the historical silence about maternity homes has helped perpetrate myths about what the mothers were like and what they wanted. What are those myths?
The biggest one is that any baby surrendered for adoption was willingly and perhaps even eagerly given up by the mother. And so the implication is that the women considered all their options — that they had options — and made a decision. When, in fact, most of the women I interviewed felt they didn’t really make the decision at all. If they were high school age, their parents made the arrangements and said this is what is going to happen, we’ll help you through this, but this is the only way.
A few of the older, college-age women did choose to go to the maternity homes, because they were supposed to be places that would shelter you and give you time to think about your decision. But the statistics reveal the truth: If women went into a home, 80 percent would surrender their baby, because once they were there, the pressure to do so was tremendous. The women were told, “This is absolutely the best option. If you love your baby, you will give it up for adoption, so it can have two parents.”
There was just no room for imagining other solutions at the time, at least in the middle class. I’m the same age as many of the women in the book — I came of age in the late ’50s and early ’60s — and I can tell you that growing up, I didn’t even know anyone who was divorced. It was just such a homogeneous world if you were white and middle-class that you didn’t have any other examples to follow as a parent. So the first myth would be that the women made a choice, which implies having options — when, in fact, the women I interviewed saw no alternatives at all. If their parents weren’t going to help them — which was really the only way that any girls made it — then they didn’t have a choice.
The second myth was that during the time period the book covers, anyone who got pregnant and sent away was considered a slut. It was an extremely hypocritical time sexually, because by the end of the 1960s something like 68 percent of women were having sex before age 20, but everybody lied about it. So all the girls who were having sex but didn’t get caught could claim they were virgins, but the ones who got pregnant couldn’t deny what they had done. So it was assumed they were either promiscuous or more sexually advanced than their peers, when most weren’t. It turns out, actually, that among the women I interviewed, most became pregnant with their first sexual partner, some with their very first sexual experience, and many within only five sexual experiences. So most likely they got pregnant not because they were promiscuous, but because they were naive. They didn’t know anything about sex; some didn’t even know how babies were born. People just didn’t talk about sex during the era; there was no sexual education, and in some families it simply never came up.
The third myth is that a woman who surrenders her child doesn’t suffer a loss. The families and the people who ran the maternity homes told the women that they’d go to the hospital and have the baby and the baby would be taken away and life would go back to normal — as though they just had their appendix removed. The idea was that they could make up a lie about where they’d been for the past four months and no one in the community would be the wiser — it would be like it never happened.
But you do write that maternity homes weren’t always so adamant about making mothers surrender, and that their ideology shifted dramatically after the war. How did they go from being places that may not have been ideal, but were at least supportive, to ones that were focused entirely on adoption?
The difference was that after the war thousands of adoptive families were clamoring for children. The numbers were staggering; at the time, for every child that was placed, there were 10 families still waiting for a baby. So all these lovely, established young couples were coming to maternity-home social workers hoping to adopt and that put the workers in a complicated position. On the one hand, they had a 17-year-old in front of them, who was sort of in a daze, and her baby’s not even real to her yet. She’s pregnant, but to her, pregnancy is a problem. Everyone is telling her she’s bad and that she’s shamed her family.
And so you find that more often than not, the social worker ends up agreeing with the girl’s family that the best-case scenario would be to get her baby placed with one of the many fine families waiting to adopt. And I don’t want to make it sound like I’m down on adoptive families, because, in fact, they were told they were adopting children who were unwanted. The problem was that all the parties were kept apart from one another, and it was a paternalistic system that told these women, “We know what’s best for you.”
Was there an element of social engineering at work? Were the women seen as less capable of parenting because they had already disgraced their families?Definitely. The message from social workers was that the baby would be so much better off with an adoptive family than with the surrendering mother because she was already a screw-up — she’d gotten pregnant, she wasn’t married, so how good a mother could she be?
She was seen as unfit because she was unmarried, though, of course, at the time, loads and loads of women got pregnant and then got married so they could give birth six or seven months after the wedding. In those cases, all was forgiven.
Did you talk to any women who, upon giving birth, wanted to change their minds and keep their baby?
I heard again and again from women that once their baby was born, everything changed. They finally realized that what they were dealing with wasn’t an amorphous problem, it was their child. Once that happened, quite a few women told me they tried to change their minds, to convince their parents to give them more time to find another solution. The terrible thing was that in some cases they were simply told it was too late. But legally that wasn’t true; there was a window of time in which mothers were allowed to change their minds.
So they were lied to?
Yes. Social workers were just so convinced that they were doing the right thing.
Did any of the women you spoke with try to get abortions?
Remember, this was before abortion was legalized, which doesn’t mean that there weren’t abortions happening, but there were lots and lots of botched ones. And most girls didn’t even know who to ask about it, or where to find one. So certainly, some women might haven chosen to terminate their pregnancies, but many of the women I interviewed were actually not pro-choice.
For example, one woman told me about growing up in a very strict Catholic family and, like many of the mothers, she had been in denial for several months, just thinking the problem would go away. Her waistline was expanding, but she just thought, This is not real, it can’t be real. For many women, by the time their parents found out it was too late to take them to a secret doctor for an abortion. In this particular case, though, the woman’s father, who was extremely religious, to the point that he didn’t use birth control, came to her room and actually said to her, “Is it too late for us to do anything about this?” And it was the daughter who said no, that she wasn’t willing to go through with an abortion.
You write that the National Mental Health Association recommends that people dealing with grief seek out people who understand their loss. But most of the women you spoke with did exactly the opposite — in fact, the insistence on secrecy seems like it made that kind of healing impossible.
Yes, secrecy was imperative. There was no reason to send a woman away and give up a child if you weren’t going to keep it quiet; the idea was that no one would ever know. That was what the families wanted and in some cases the women too — they knew what the social stigma was like, and they just felt like they could not deal with it. They knew what the image of an unwed mother was, and it wasn’t them.
One of your recurring themes is how damaging the burden of maintaining a lie can be on a life.
Absolutely. First of all, the women suffer tremendously from an ongoing sense of worry about their children — a feeling that some studies have equated with having a loved one who is missing in action. It’s this idea that your child is alive, is out there in the world, so are you going to run into her on the street one day?
The women were told by every authority figure in their lives don’t ever tell anyone because people will think less of you, no man will ever want to marry you if he knows you were such a bad, slutty girl — they heard that over and over. And that perpetuated the secrecy.
Also, many, many women realized only later, when the world started changing around them, that they had been duped. They were told that they had no choice, that the world wouldn’t accept them, but then within a few years the world and the culture had changed, and they saw that maybe other options might have been possible. One woman told me that when she was pregnant as a teen she had to drop out of school, but then in the 1970s Title IV made it a law that you could not discriminate against a woman and make her drop out of school just because she was pregnant.
There were also some organizations that started up in the 1970s of women who began coming out of the closet to talk about their experiences as unwed mothers who had been forced to give up their children in maternity homes. But, in general, most of the women still didn’t talk about it.
So not only were they not talking to their husbands and friends, they weren’t talking to each other?
Exactly. Remember, the mothers were all told that they would just move on, so many felt that something was wrong with them when they couldn’t forget their children. And not having anyone to talk to, they couldn’t compare notes.
They told me how the shame and secrecy affected their self-esteem, how they couldn’t relax and were always afraid of being found out — and I actually began to think it had some parallels to the gay community, to the idea of being closeted. The mothers found themselves driven to incredibly destructive behavior. And like in the homosexual community, things didn’t really begin to change until people came out and started speaking up, saying, “I’m queer and I’m proud,” the same was true for surrendering mothers. More and more women started speaking up, saying, “I’m a birth mother and this is nothing to be ashamed of. ” And so gradually women became more aware that they weren’t alone. But there are still many, many women who are very distraught and lonely.
In my book, I reproduce a note that was left for me in one of the comments boxes at an exhibition. It was from a woman who had snuck away for the day to come to the show, and she said, “This is the way I live my life, I couldn’t tell anyone I came here because my sons don’t know they have a half brother. ” And I think she ended it by simply saying, “I live in hiding. ”
You say that a lot of pain could have been prevented if parents in the ’50s and ’60s had been more realistic about the likelihood of young people having sex and had provided them with adequate sex education and contraception. Given the focus on abstinence only sex-ed in the U. S. today, are you worried for the future?
It’s scary to see such regression. A lot of things will never change for the women in my book; their lives are set. But one thing their stories can offer is a window onto a time period. And what they show us are the consequences of a sexually repressive, paternalistic, conservative society. And there are many people in the country right now who would like to go back there.
Abstinence-only sex education doesn’t allow for even a mention of birth control — the line is that the only way not to get pregnant is not to have sex. And certainly, that’s true and abstinence should be taught. But to focus solely on that is to also be willfully blind to the realities of human behavior. Sex education is incredibly important — especially realistic, age-appropriate sex education that starts early on — and it should be coupled with frank talk about relationships and respecting others. Because what scares social conservatives are stories about teen boys keeping lists of all the virgins they have scored. But while that shouldn’t be excused, that’s really not about sex, it’s about conquest. It’s a lack of respect for other people.
You say that the voices of the women in your book need to be heard as part of the current national debate over reproductive freedom because the “double standard” is still very much a part of our cultural psyche. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Women and men are both sexual beings, and the onus should not always be on the women to stop the sexual advances of the man. It’s a couple having sexual relations. But I think we still have this caveman notion that a man can go around spreading his seed, making conquests, and the woman is supposed to be the one with restraint who holds him back. And if you look at the world in general, outside the U. S. , it’s quite clear that both sexually and politically women still do not have equal say or power. Look at the Supreme Court right now. We don’t know yet what effect their decisions will have on the country, but just the imbalance of representation indicates that on some level we still value men’s opinions more, or believe that men can make more rational decisions. So if nothing else, I hope that by uncovering this hidden little part of women’s history, I can help build a bridge between two generations, and to show young people today the importance of having a voice, of being participants in their own lives.
choice! Magazine, May 5, 2006
by Molly M. Ginty
Though pregnant at age 16, one young woman was so naive she had no idea how her baby was conceived or would eventually be delivered.
Hoping to keep her child, a second girl was tied to her bed by hospital workers as she gave birth because they feared she would run away with her newborn.
Determined to raise her baby, a third young woman refused to sign adoption papers until a social worker told her she must pay thousands of dollars in maternity and hospital bills in order to keep the child.
These and other heart-wrenching stories comprise The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade (Penguin Press, 2006). In this groundbreaking new book, released just this week, author and adoptee Ann Fessler offers first-person testimony from girls who “got into trouble,” disappeared mysteriously, then returned home months later with downcast eyes and ruined reputations.
A videographer and professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, Fessler began collecting birth mothers’ stories in 1992, when she was coming to grips with her personal history and considering a search for her own biological mother.
Fessler compiled tape recordings and oral testimonies from more than 100 women who surrendered children for adoption between 1945 and 1973. First, she used the material to create an art exhibit that toured the United States. Now, she has transcribed interviews to create a 352-page book that is a must-read for anyone touched by adoption.
Told in the first person and in gripping detail, The Girls Who Went Away chronicles the injustice suffered by “unwed mothers” in the decades before abortion was legal. Under crushing social pressure–and often under coercion–these young women gave up children when they were still children themselves.
Despite differences in race, age, and socioeconomic status, contributors echo the same themes: a lack of sex education, a surplus of shame, and grief that haunted them not only through their pregnancies but through the rest of their lives.
Life Before Roe
In the years leading up to Roe v. Wade, sex education was rare, and in the few schools where it was offered, health teachers referred to intercourse as “the marriage act. ” Birth control was difficult to obtain, as many states prohibited its sale to the unmarried. Meanwhile, parking, heavy petting–and sex–became the norm as the sexual revolution blossomed.
Since a sexually active teenager who doesn’t use contraception has a 90 percent chance of conceiving a child within a year, thousands of girls found themselves missing periods and suffering morning sickness. “For the few girls who had money and connections, a clean illegal abortion was available,” says National Women’s Health Network co-founder Barbara Seaman, who had an illegal abortion in 1954 at age 19. “But for many girls, it was either a dangerous, back-alley abortion, a shotgun wedding, or adoption.”
Though two-thirds of teenage mothers in this era married before their babies were born, one-third remained single, and 1. 5 million children were relinquished for non-family adoptions between 1945 and 1973.
In The Girls Who Went Away, birth mothers speak of other shared experiences: guilt, isolation, and shame. During the three decades Fessler chronicles, social stigma against unmarried mothers prompted high schools and colleges to require that pregnant students withdraw immediately.” Some families made their daughters hide in the house so their pregnancies wouldn’t be seen, drawing the drapes, and making them duck down when they were in the car,” writes Fessler.
Many girls were sent to maternity homes run by Catholic Charities, the Florence Crittenton Association, and the Salvation Army. While there, they usually used pseudonyms and rarely ventured outside. After giving birth, they returned to school with tales of illness, visits to distant relatives–and hopes that they might be accepted again.
By far, the most common theme in these stories is the lack of individual choice. Fessler writes that one “prevailing myth is that these women were all eager to surrender their child and be free of their problem. ” But, she says, “many of these girls, even in their twenties, had no other option than to go along with their families or be permanently ostracized. ”
In Fessler’s book, one teenager in the throes of a difficult labor is denied pain medication until she signs adoption papers. A second refuses to surrender her child, only to have her parents place her in a mental institution until she complies. A third says, “I never felt like I gave my baby away. I always felt like my daughter was taken from me. ”
In Fessler’s estimation, the toll of these experiences was nothing less than devastating. In response to their loss, some birth mothers delved into substance abuse and dead-end relationships. Others became overachievers in an attempt to redeem themselves. Many developed migraines and other chronic health problems that repeatedly flared up on the anniversaries of losing their children.
Hope and Healing
Fessler’s book–the first of its kind–is part of a growing effort to heal these wounds. Since the 1970s, groups including the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association, Concerned United Birthparents, and the International Soundex Reunion Registry have worked to reunite birth mothers and adoptees. The infamous maternity homes are gone, shuttered now or transformed into programs for at-risk youth.
“Instead of keeping mothers from their children, employees at former maternity homes are actively trying to reunite birth mothers and adoptees,” says Ann Shervington Davis, CEO of Florence Crittenton Services of Baltimore. “The process can be difficult because state laws vary. But the Internet–and growing interest–help make these reunions easier. ”
To date, more than half the women who contributed to Fessler’s book have succeeded in finding their lost children. In some cases, their stories are mournful as they discover their sons and daughters want no contact or have passed away. In others cases, their stories are joyful as they exchange histories and health information, discovering they share the same hobbies, the same deep-set eyes, or even the same easy laugh.
Fessler’s own story is among the positive ones. At the end of her book, she describes finally finding the birth mother who surrendered her for adoption in 1949. Pregnant in her late teens, Fessler’s mother was an Ohio farm girl who went to a Crittenton Home. She never told her mother, siblings, or other children about Fessler’s birth. Like the women who contributed to The Girls Who Went Away, she is now breaching the divide of her history–and her hurt–and taking tentative steps toward reunion.
Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer living in New York City.