I just finished reading Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. From the title, it’s clear that this is a book about adoption. To me, it was about what happens when we don’t give women choices.
“Girl who went away,” according to Fessler, is a term that most women and men who grew up in the years between the end of WWII and the Roe v. Wade decision would instantly recognize. It was code for a woman with an unplanned “illegitimate” pregnancy. The girls “went away” in futile attempt to hide the pregnancy and to save their family from embarrassment, before relinquishing their child for adoption. They went to live with distant family members, or more often a maternity home for unwed mothers, where pregnant girls and young women were generally forced in, went through labor and kicked out as though on an assembly line.
The book is an oral history. The bulk is made up of extended first person narratives of women who surrendered their children for adoption. Interspersed between the narratives are chapters by Fessler that better explain various aspects of the surrendering process- becoming pregnant, confessing the pregnancy, being sent away during the pregnancy, giving birth, surrendering and grief- with historical details and statistics. I actually learned a lot from these sections, but it was the narratives that stuck with me. The first one made me tear up. And the worst part was just how shockingly similar each and every story was.
The word “surrender” is not accidental. It is incredibly deliberate and highly political. Usually, when talking about adoption, mothers are referred to as “giving away” their babies. But “giving away” not only implies a false sense that the mother did not want her child, it also implies that the mother had a choice. And a choice is the last thing that these women had.
For a book with “Roe vs. Wade” in its title, abortion is hardly mentioned. The book is far less, in fact, about the right to an abortion than the right to parent, which I find to be a refreshing and long overdue perspective. Most of the women in this book (who were girls at the time) had never even heard of abortion, let alone considered it. That’s just the first item on the shocking list of things that were unknown. They didn’t know about condoms or diaphragms, and for most of these women birth control pills had either not been invented or were still not widely available. Staggeringly, many did not know that pregnancy was caused by sex. Most thought that it just “couldn’t happen” to them. One girl thought that you couldn’t get pregnant until you were married. And in one tragic example, a woman recalled being a young teenager four or five months pregnant before anyone bothered to tell her that birth was given vaginally, and found out when she asked her mother how they had gotten rid of the scar on her belly from giving birth. Though teenagers are significantly less ignorance about sexual matters today, this revelations certainly conjured up images of abstinence-only education in my mind.
Even worse, a significant percentage of girls became pregnant as the result of rape, usually by their boyfriends. Of Fessler’s interviews, 7 percent fell into this category, and many more became pregnant through coercive means. And yet (as if there was any doubt) they were still blamed for their pregnancies, ostracized and called sluts and whores.
Between 1943 and 1975, at least one and a half million babies were relinquished to non-family adoptions. And around half of the women who became pregnant outside of marriage married before giving birth, leaving only half to be recorded as “illegitimate.” Though some married women still ended up surrendering their babies for one reason or another, this gives us a rough idea of how many unplanned pregnancies we were dealing with.
Since most histories of women’s right to parent being revoked actually involve women of color and low-income women, it’s slightly surprising that a large majority of the girls who went away were white and middle-class. In fact, the adoption rate for whites was up to 27 times that of the rate for blacks. Though the reasons are complex, it seems that there was a larger social stigma around unwed pregnancy in middle-class white communities. Sending the girls away was about keeping up appearances– and the poor and people of color were generally viewed in such a negative light already, there wasn’t much of a reputation to protect. In addition, many maternity homes would not even accept women of color as residents, which effectively negated that choice for many. In African American communities, it was extremely common that these babies would be raised by another family member.
The girls who went away were not given a choice. They were told, by their parents and often their church, that they would go away and that they would surrender their babies for adoption. The girls, for the most part, did not want to go away to a strange home run by social workers or nuns. And during the pregnancy, most didn’t know whether or not they wanted to surrender their babies. They were never told that they had an option to parent– and realistically, for unmarried women such an option did not really exist. Uniformly (one birth mother remarked that there must be a “handbook”), the girls were told that this was not really their child, keeping their child would be selfish and would ruin the child’s life, and that they were doing a great thing for a nice couple who could not have children, usually made up of a doctor and a stay at home mother. To want your baby was considered “selfish”– a stark difference from how mothers who do choose adoption are portrayed as “selfish” today. All were told that they would “forget” about their pregnancy, about their babies, and move on with life. And it becomes immediately clear that all of it was a lie.
Every woman recounts child birth and surrender as tragedy. Since they were constantly distanced from their pregnancy, most had no idea of the maternal instincts that would overcome them once they held their baby, if they got to held their baby. The women who did not still felt the loss, but generally regretted not even being able to say goodbye. Many women tried to fight for their babies. But adoption papers were signed under coercive situations, often during labor or while sedated. For women who signed their papers under sound mind, the event still occurred under extreme durress. When women told the social workers that they wanted to parent, the social workers often became angry and malicious, telling the woman (again) that they would ruin their child’s life and would break the hearts of a family who had already been chosen for their child. The women who persisted were then told that if they wanted to keep their babies, they would have to pay all of the rent from their stay at the young mother’s home as well as their hospital bills. It amounted to thousands of dollars (a huge sum now, and even more huge decades ago), and they couldn’t pay. The adoption was the condition upon which their care was provided. And women were literally forced to pay the bills with their children.
Nearly every woman in this book describes the surrender as the defining moment in her life. It affected every aspect of their other relationships with men, their parents, their children and their choice to have or not have children. Most describe a constant worry about their child and the feeling as though something was missing. Many express a feeling that she is unworthy of love, and a persistent fear that her later children would die or be taken from her. And because of the deep sense of shame that they were made to feel, it is not unusual for these women to spend decades or even their entire lives without talking about it or telling a soul, even their husbands.
I definitely recommend this book as a highly emotional and illustrative example of why it is so necessary to give women reproductive options. For a book that is remarkably similar in terms of style and content and yet comes from an opposite angle, I highly recommend Back Rooms: Voices From the Illegal Abortion Era by Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May. It details women who took the opposite route in their pregnancies during this time and decided to obtain an illegal abortion. Reading Back Rooms was also a traumatic and emotional experience. These girls and women (who tell their own stories, and so obviously made it out alive) went through hell, often including horrifying abuse and physical pain at the hands of quack “doctors,” the threat of arrest or even death. And yet what struck me in reading The Girls Who Went Away is that the women in Back Rooms were the lucky ones. By comparison, those who obtained illegal abortions and lived through it got off easy. And that’s saying a hell of a lot.