Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Adoption Before Roe v. Wade

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler

Fessler's book contains the oral histories of unmarried women who became pregnant, entered homes for unwed mothers, and surrendered their babies for adoption during the 1950s and 60s. On the one hand, this book contains the kinds of stories you'd expect -- the women interviewed are mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly Catholic, and mostly woefully uninformed about sex. The stories echo one another almost to the point of saturation. And yet, the cruelty and denial of parental rights each woman was subjected to is so egregious that their stories stand alone, each heartbreaking and unforgettable.

The treatment the women received at the hands of their families and their babies' fathers is awful, though somewhat predictable, knowing what we know about gender roles and sex ed. in those days. More shocking, however, are the psychological games that social workers played with the new mothers. Lines like, "What do you have to offer this child?" and "He'll be called a bastard on the playground," and "She'll be better off with this nice family," are repeated over and over, as though scripted. The women in the homes were encouraged to forget about their children, being told, "You can have another one."

And, of course, this did not prove to be a good coping strategy. Many of the women interviewed spoke of entering into abusive or hasty marriages, either believing that they deserved no better or hoping to give birth to a child they could keep.

A horrifying social history that tells you a good deal about what you think you already know about sex, the double standard, and unwed motherhood in the 50s and 60s.


Gwen said...

One thing I have been horrified to discover is that this type of pressure--not as bad, but still there--still exists in the Mormon community. The church has an affiliated adoption service that places children with Mormon families. I've read some of the literature, and it is primarily a service to help unwed mothers place their babies, and there is definitely that "Can you possibly provide the type of home your child deserves?" element to it. One pamphlet I saw outright said that if you cannot marry the child's father, then giving your child up is the next best alternative so that it can have an "intact" family.

It made me really sad.

mary_m said...

One of the women in the book who is later reunited with the child she gave up, finds out that her baby wound up in a horrible family. The father abandoned them almost immediately, the mother had a drinking problem and abused the kids, all kinds of bad stuff.

And of course, back when she's signing the papers relinquishing custody, the social worker tells her, "Oh, the father is a doctor and the mother stays home with the children, and she'll have so many advantages you can't give her, don't you want to do what's best, blah blah blah."

And her comment is, well, I'm sure I would have done better than that.

I guess I'm really not surprised to learn that this kind of thinking is still alive and well. I'm sure that being a pregnant Mormon teenager is about as scary as it gets.