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
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.