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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

with 14 comments

Ann Fessler, herself an adoptee, originally began conducting interviews with women who’d surrendered their babies for adoption in the ’50’s and ’60’s for an audio-visual art installation project which aimed to explore the emotional issues that regularly accompany adoption and impact all involved parties. What she found was that almost all of the women she spoke with told very similar stories that directly contradicted normative social and media narratives about birth mothers. Despite popular belief, women who surrendered babies to adoption in this era did not do so carelessly, easily, or because they wanted to; rather, they did so because of social, economic, and familial restraints that stripped them of alternatives. Sometimes they were kept in the dark about their legal rights, or were outright lied to about them. In almost all cases their decisions were coerced.

Fessler explains that, very generally, the post-WW11 boom brought economic prosperity to a growing middle class of mostly white families who enacted “white flight” by moving into quickly growing suburbs. Perhaps out of anxiety about losing their newfound sense of safety and security, a new culture of hyperconformism was born. Despite the fact that most girls’ only sex education came from their sex partners (ovbviously problematic!) and teen pregnancy was not uncommon, it was considered so shameful that girls’ lives were completely disrupted by pregnancy: they were ostracized, kept from school, and sent to live in “unwed mother’s homes”. Their needs and desires were rarely, if ever, acknowledged or catered to and, though many believed at first that they had no choice but to do what they were told and listened to parents or social workers who said that adoption was the best they could offer their babies, when the time came, they didn’t want to relinquish their children. Some fought harder than others to keep their babies, but none of them acted completely of their own volition. Nor were they prepared for the emotional and psychological aftermath of surrender, which none of them had known to expect since all they’d been told is that they would “just move on” and which, in many cases, lasted the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, the babies’ fathers faced little to no consequence, and the start of the sexual revolution failed to dismantle many of these double standards.

Each chapter starts with a historical contextualization by Fessler, who zeroes in on one aspect of the adoption experience or the forces shaping it (like the myth of “Good Girls v. Bad Girls”, or the stifling reality of “The Family’s Fears”), and is followed by the personal testimony of two women about how they relate to them. It’s an effective format, and gives the book a very personal feeling. She briefly discusses the historical reasons why adoption was so much more common among white women in these years than it was among women of color, though I do wish she’d gone into more depth about this. In any case, her interviewees were overwhelmingly white and, it seemed, of similar economic and family backgrounds. Unfortunately, this meant that a lot of their stories were so similar that the book became really repetitive, to the point where it seemed you could have taken any of the stories and applied them to any of the chapters. This was perhaps the only real problem I had with the book, but by the second half it was kind of a big one.

Though I’ve had no personal experience with adoption and imagine that someone who has might have a different response to the book, I think Fessler did an okay job of illuminating the pain and pressure felt by women who surrendered their babies in this era without villifying adoptive parents. She does begin to question the efficacy and morality of the adoption system, but without explicitly laying blame and while looking into the way in which the system has evolved, and why. Though it was extremely redundant and the focus was a bit narrow in some ways, I found this book to be emotionally gripping and imporant. I’m not sure what comparisons could be drawn to today’s world, but these women’s stories have a lot to tell us about the culture they lived in and remind us to keep an ear out for the voices being silenced today.

Written by Emily Jane

September 13, 2011 at 2:32 am

14 Responses

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  1. I read this one a few years ago and found it fascinating, although like you I would have appreciated more focus on women of colour at that time!


    September 13, 2011 at 11:06 am

    • Hey Eva! Yes, it would have been nice. Like you, though, I was fascinated regardless.

      Emily Jane

      September 14, 2011 at 1:26 am

  2. What a shame this book didn’t have a broader focus. It sounds really interesting — one of those books that makes me so, so grateful to have been born in this time period and live in the place where I live.


    September 14, 2011 at 1:15 am

    • Me too, Jenny! I mean, I’m sure that unplanned pregnancy and related decision-making is no walk in the park for lots of teenagers and other young women in the states today either, but damn.

      Emily Jane

      September 14, 2011 at 1:29 am

  3. This sounds really really interesting, too bad it was a bit too repetitive though. Could have been fantastic with a broader focus I’m sure.


    September 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm

  4. Oh I hate redundancy, do some authors do that to fill the pages? Still, sounds like an interesting read and a new way to learn about the culture of 50s and 60s.


    September 21, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    • In this case I really think it was because her interviewees had such similar backgrounds that their stories played out in only a limited number of ways. But it did say a lot about the 50’s and 60’s…and yeah, I do think some authors do it for the word count!

      Emily Jane

      September 23, 2011 at 3:49 pm

  5. I can’t speak for Fessler but I can likely provide some insight into why her book did not include the experiences of women of color or a broader focus as I am adopted, am an adoption activist, and know a great number of women who were pregnant during this time and were forced to surrender their babies to adoption.

    The answer lies in the topic covered in the book: private, infant adoption in the post-war to pre-Roe v. Wade era. The official numbers say less than 1% of unmarried women of color surrendered babies to adoption while 19% of unmarried white women surrendered to adoption (women’s historians will say the adoption numbers are inaccurate. Something like 70% of white women may have surrendered). This is an issue that specifically surrounded white women who were middle class, at the time. The forced surrender of white babies was not only due to the societal scorn against “illicit” sex and “extra-marital” childbearing or families trying to hold onto middle-class status by ridding themselves of their daughters’ “mistake.” The mass surrenders of white babies were also due to the fact that there was a demand for the adoption of white babies by prospective adoptive parents. For every 1 baby that might be available for adoption, there were as many 10 parents waiting to adopt. The childbearing of unmarried women of color was also socially scorned, even moreso, but was not largely dealt with forced adoptions; transracial adoptions were not in demand and were rare. A book you may then be interested in is “Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade” which gives an account of the injustices in adoption for white women but also the horrific racism and mistreatment of unmarried women of color who became pregnant.


    October 29, 2011 at 2:59 am

    • Thank you so much for the extra info, Amanda! The point you make about demand for adoption of white babies and unpopularity of transracial adoption is a really good one. The book you recommend looks really interesting, too! Onto my “to read” list it goes…

      Emily Jane

      October 30, 2011 at 8:02 pm

  6. I’ll add, speaking as an adoptee, that if the redundancy was intentional, adoptees and surrendering mothers can likely relate.

    The general societal understanding of adoption is that it is this 100% wonderful thing. Those of us who choose to speak out about the problem in adoption or dare to express ambivalence or even negativity about our experiences within adoption are constantly met with this single phrase “you must have had a bad and rare personal experience; I know someone who is adopted/surrendered to adoption and they seem just fine. MOST adoptions are just fine.”

    If Fessler is like most any other adoptee that is in regular practice about speaking out about injustices against women and children, specifically in adoption, she’s heard this retort 1000 times and wanted to make it clear: this is not a matter of a rare, bad, personal experience or how someone is choosing to view adoption badly. This was corruption, it was bad, it wasn’t rare, it is a forgotten part of history, and people need to listen. We’re tired of getting written off–I’m sure I repeat myself all the time too on these topics when I talk about adoption 🙂


    October 29, 2011 at 3:10 am

    • Fair enough, Amanda. I can only imagine how frustrating that might be! From that perspective, the repetition makes total sense. It did definitely emphasize that this was a widespread systemic problem, so in that sense it most certainly fulfilled its aim!

      Emily Jane

      October 30, 2011 at 8:06 pm

  7. I picked this book up because my mom was given up for adoption by her birth mom who was single at that time. She was able to meet her half-siblings a few years ago, but her mom passed away years before our state opened the birth records. The adoption has always been hanging there in the background like a presence, and so finally finding out some answers was a relief to the whole family, and because of it I’ve been fascinated by adoption stories for most of my life.


    November 7, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Alyce. I hope this book will only add to that relief!

      Emily Jane

      November 7, 2011 at 6:57 pm

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