The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler

by Cara on October 1, 2007

in abortion, books, human rights, patriarchy, pregnancy, reproductive justice, reviews, slut-shaming, women’s health

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.

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{ 12 comments }

1 Molly B. Mullikin July 20, 2008 at 4:08 pm

My adopted daughter just found me after 53 years. At last the tears have come – almost non-stop the past 2 weeks. I was a 15 year old catholic when I delivered her – never saw her – never had any options. My family NEVER EVER mentioned the pregnancy again. I’ve had to tell my children and my grandchildren now. They have been wonderful…but they still don’t understand the shame and the forever hurt I have carried around all these years. My daughter adopted is a wonderful woman..she had an outstanding family I am very fortunate. I only wish there were some type of support group for us “girls”. Thank you Ann Fessler for writing this book…it is helping to acknowledge my loss. Molly

2 Sophia August 14, 2008 at 1:13 am

I’m rather glad that my mothers Catholic mother gave her up for adoption rather than aborting her.
Mainly because I rather like being in existence.

3 Cara August 14, 2008 at 12:06 pm

Sophia — have you asked your biological grandmother what her feelings are on that? For all I know, she actually did make a choice to give your mother up for adoption, and doesn’t regret it all. But your comment gives the impression of your not even taking that into consideration.

Further, if you didn’t exist, you wouldn’t know any differently. And if I didn’t exist, neither would I.

And lastly, one can feel happy about their own existence and life while still recognizing that the circumstances under which they came into being were wrong/unfair/morally ambiguous. I imagine that most people who are the product of a rape feel that way — they are happy to be alive, bur realize that the reason they exist is supremely fucked up. Life sucks and is complicated like that, but being happy to be alive is a rather ridiculous reason to want to support forcibly making the lives of women miserable.

4 Mary Everett February 9, 2009 at 6:17 pm

I found my birthmother when I was 32. We have now known each other for 32 years. I have thanked her many times for her unselfish decision to have me adopted, but I know it has caused her a lifetime of pain. Thank you for this book. I remember the girls in my school who went away. My younger daughter got pregnanty at 19 and chose abortion. I respected her choice and helped her pay for the procedure. She and I have bnever regretted it.

5 Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh February 19, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Thank you so much for this wonderful review of Ann Fessler’s book. I am “Karen I, Virginia” in it and am very grateful to Ann and others who know The Truth for speaking about the Baby Scoop Era and the mothers who were exploited for their babies by those who made their living from separating natural mother and child. It is shameful, and I believe, illegal what occurred then. It isn’t much better today either. The industry has found very clever ways today to remove infants from mothers. The brainwashing, thought reform techniques and coercive persuasions are still alive and well in America. It MUST stop. People, please do not adopt.

6 Mary O'Grady February 20, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Karen is right.
Women and girls who want to carry unexpected pregnancies to term should have help to keep and raise their babies.
Ann Fessler in her excellent book explains the cruelty of adoption. Its very existence depends on that cruelty never being known for what it is.

7 Bekki Farlee April 3, 2009 at 10:00 pm

I gave a daughter up for adoption in August of 1970 at age 17. It was the 2nd most difficult thing I have ever done in my life and I am now 56. My mother gave me no choice. It was maternity home and adoption or move out and be on my own with no money or emotional support.I had not even finished my senior year of high school. Truly we girls who went away were victims of the times and the society in which we lived.

8 Nancy Burdeau June 1, 2009 at 8:40 pm

I am reading the book ” The girls that went away” Tears are coming to my eyes as I read it. I too had no choice but to give up my beautiful son up for adoption, he was born April 19, 1973. I hid my pregnancy for 7 months( I did not believe in abortion) I wanted my son to have a life, and I wanted it to be with me. But when my family and the birthfather’s family found out(even though he wanted to marry me)right away I was wisp away to the Florence Critten Home for unwed mothers. I got very little counciling, it was very lonely. I too was dropped off at the hospital in terrible labor, left alone Wanting a hand to hold. Instead the nurses left me alone and unplugged my nurse buzzer. I tried so hard to change my parents mind on keeping my son Michael, and almost had changed their mind when the Social Workers found out they called them and it was a done deal, I had to give up my child. I have never gone a day without him on my mind. I can see his little face. I carry a picture of him in my wallet always. I am now trying to reunite with him. As above, we truely were the girls who were sent away, we were victims of the times, and society in which we live! I will never stop searching…..I need to know he is OK. We were lied to so much back then.

9 Constance Spellworthy August 24, 2009 at 4:26 am

The word “some” should be spelled “sum.”

10 Cara August 24, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Uh, thanks?

11 Nancy Burdeau December 23, 2009 at 9:20 pm

I found my birthson!!!!! Now we need to slowly get to know each, my heart is sooooo overwhelm and happy. When I talked to him I just wanted to hold him as I did when he was a baby. But he is to big for that now. I still cry for happiness, and pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming. This was the greatest Christmas Gift my family and I could have. I told all my kids(they never knew) and my parents the first day, they too are excited. Crossing my fingers that he and I can be friends. Nancy

12 Maria March 23, 2010 at 6:09 am

I am one of the girls that went away, my daughter is now 30, we are developing a relationship. This pain should never have been brought on to me, or anyone. Its a life of SEVERE pain.

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