In the decades between World War II and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, a million and a half young women who got pregnant out of wedlock placed their children up for adoption. In The Girls Who Went Away, Ann Fessler gathers the forgotten history of a generation who gave up their children, one of whom was Fessler’s own mother. From her unique perspective, Fessler interviewed scores of women—most of whom had never before spoken of their experience—that were all but forced to surrender their newborns.
Few subjects are tiptoed around as gingerly as teenage pregnancy. But it’s this very sidestepping of the issue that helps to propagate it, not only in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, but even today. There are groups that advocate chastity, encouraging young boys and girls to take an oath to abstain from sex until they’re married. Many parents fight passionately to prevent teenagers access to contraceptives and information about sex and birth control. Instead, they eagerly pass out ubiquitous rubber bracelets to remind young boys and girls of the vow they’ve taken. During their formative years, Fessler’s subjects had very few, if any, resources aimed at prevention. To have it otherwise would make parents admit what they already knew in their hearts: teenagers have sex. And so the blame fell on the girls themselves.
This is perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of The Girls Who Went Away. These young women were victims of an American society that all but ensured teenage girls would become pregnant in huge numbers. At their most vulnerable, these young girls were sent away to have their children in secret, programmed to surrender their babies and their rights as mothers. With a scribble of a pen and the advice to forget and move on, these women went back home to lives they had outgrown. But they never forgot and certainly never moved on.
Ann Fessler is a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design and a specialist in video-installation art. She was awarded the prestigious Radcliffe Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University to complete her extensive research for this book. She is also the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; the LEF Foundation, Boston; the Rhode Island Foundation; the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities; Art Matters, New York; and the Maryland State Arts Council.
Q. What has surprised you most during interviews and in reaction to your installations on this subject?
A. I think one of the biggest surprises was that many of the women I interviewed were themselves unaware of the fact that hundreds of thousands of other women had surrendered children during the ’50s and ’60s and that so many shared their sense of grief over the loss of a child. Women who had not discovered “birth parent” support groups felt very alone. They had been told they would move on and forget and they saw their inability to do so as yet another personal failure. Often at the end of an interview, a woman would say to me, “Have you interviewed any other women who feel the way I do?” That question made me want to weep. After all these years, so many women were still suffering in silence. I receive e-mails every day from women who are just learning that they are not alone in their feelings and are deciding it may be safe to “come out” about their experiences to friends and family. The shame and blame that was thrust upon these women has proven to be very effective at silencing them.
The second big surprise was that so many of the women never had another child. About 30 percent of the women I interviewed surrendered their only child for adoption.
Q. The staff these girls encountered at the maternity homes ranged from coldhearted (unsympathetic doctors) to tenderhearted (the motherly African American cook). Have you spoken to anyone who worked at one of the homes? What were their feelings regarding this issue?
A. I have spoken to several retired social workers who worked in maternity homes or adoption agencies in the 1960s. Some are now assisting in searches to help reconnect adoptees with lost kin or working to pass legislation in their state to allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates. Over the years these social workers have encountered parents, siblings, adoptees, and adoptive parents who returned to the agencies in search of information. These experiences have helped to change their thinking about what constitutes the best practice in adoption. They have seen the damage done by keeping secrets.
I have to add that I think many of the changes that have occurred in adoption have come about because surrendering mothers, not social workers, have demanded changes and more openness. Women have learned to be more assertive than they were in the ’50s and ’60s.
Q. New York City recently announced its plan to close its P-schools—specialized schools for pregnant students. Do you view this as a sign of progress in attitudes and policies with regard to teenage pregnancy? In what areas has the United States made strides? What challenges does it still face?
A. The women I interviewed became pregnant at a time when schools routinely expelled a girl as soon as her pregnancy was detected. High school girls often continued, or finished, their schooling at a maternity home. College students who became pregnant often dropped out for a semester and some never returned. Quite a few of the women I interviewed returned to school in their fifties, after their subsequent children were raised, to finish school and pursue their educational dreams. It was not until Title IX of the Education Amendments Act in 1972 that high schools and colleges were prevented from expelling a young woman because she was pregnant or raising a child. Allowing a young mother, married or unmarried, to continue her education while pregnant or parenting is incredibly important, no matter the school. I’m not familiar enough with the difference in curriculum between the schools for pregnant girls and the regular public schools in New York City to make a judgment about the advantages either might provide. The Title IX Amendment was a monumental stride toward equality for women since, needless to say, the father of the child was not asked to withdraw from school.
You asked about teen pregnancy today. I have not interviewed young women who became pregnant after 1973—neither those who raised nor those who surrendered their children, so this question does not fall within my area of research—but I’m sure that today there are just as many myths about pregnant teens and about teens who parent as there were in previous decades. I will say I believe the challenges this country faces related to teen parenting may lie in providing all young people the kind of quality education available to those raised in affluent homes; providing opportunities for meaningful, challenging, rewarding work that rivals the rewards of motherhood; and providing opportunities for financial and educational growth that may delay parenting until achievable goals are reached.
Other challenges we face are those having to do with a woman’s ability to control decisions regarding pregnancy and/or parenting. I find the push toward “abstinence-only” sex education extremely troubling. Call me crazy, but I think it is unrealistic to expect most people to wait until they are married to have sex. Withholding information about sex and pregnancy prevention did not deter the majority of young men and women in the ’50s and ’60s from having sex before marriage and it is unlikely to deter them now. I think abstinence-only sex education probably works best within specific communities where there is peer, family, church, and community pressure to delay sex, but I have my doubts as to whether the majority of these young people actually delay until marriage—unless of course they marry young. To apply the abstinence-only sex education strategy in the general population is misdirected at best, and a waste of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.
The stories in the Girls Who Went Away provide a backward glimpse into an era when sex education and birth control was largely unavailable and everyone was to abstain until marriage. The result was millions of crisis pregnancies. Once pregnancy occurs the decisions only become more difficult. Pregnancy prevention is the first line of defense for those who are not ready to parent. Once pregnancy occurs—and it will if couples engage in unprotected sex—the decisions will only become more difficult and life altering.
As far as adoption practice is concerned, there are several challenges to be faced. Like all other citizens, adoptees should be entitled to information about their genealogical and medical history, not just adoptees that live in particular states with “open records.” Adoptees should be given access to their original birth certificate when they reach eighteen or twenty-one if they desire. If birth parents do not want contact they should be given an opportunity to file a “no contact preference form” with the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the state where the birth occurred. This system is in place in several states at present and it has worked extremely well. All states need to follow suit.
Mothers who are considering an adoption plan must be able to do so without coercion, and with full knowledge of services and support available to them. I think most people imagine a very young teenager when they picture a surrendering mother, but the majority of surrendering mothers today are in their twenties, only about a quarter are in their teens. Women must be given adequate time following the birth of their child to decide whether or not to follow through with the adoption, and a reasonable time afterward to revoke consent. I understand the eagerness of adoptive families who are waiting to take a child home, but a mother cannot understand the full weight of her decision until after her child has been born, and she must be given a reasonable time after she signs the relinquishment form to revoke consent. In some states today a women can sign an irrevocable consent of relinquishment within twenty-four hours of giving birth. Women who have had children know that giving birth changes you and there is no way for a woman who has never given birth to understand how she will feel afterward. A woman must be a fully informed and willing participant in the surrender of her own child.
Q. The women you interviewed represent various religious backgrounds. Between religion and societal convention, what was more of a motivating force in sending these girls away? Where religion is concerned, did you pick up on any pattern in the way parents reacted to a pregnant daughter?
A. I interviewed women raised in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish households who resided in every region of the United States. I did not find a significant relationship between the way the daughters were treated and the religious beliefs of the parents or the geographic region of the country.
Most parents treated their daughters in precisely the way they feared they would be treated by their neighbors. Of course, I only interviewed women who surrendered, not those who may have raised their child with the help of their parents. In the ’50s and ’60s about the worst thing a middle-class girl could do was become pregnant outside of marriage. For those who were aspiring to, or of middle-class status, the worry was they would be perceived as “low class” by their friends and neighbors—they would be harshly judged and ostracized. Certainly, religion was a major force in shaping these values but economics seemed to be the driving force at the time. The mothers who had admitted to experiencing single pregnancy themselves, and families who were less upwardly mobile, generally did not react as harshly.
It’s important to point out that not all of the “girls who went away” were sent by their parents. Many women became pregnant in college or after they were out of school and working. Of the women I interviewed, the average age at the time of their child’s birth was nineteen. Many checked themselves into a maternity home and never told their parents that they gave birth. The stigma was so great at the time that raising a child as a single mother—especially a never-married mother, but also a divorced woman—was socially, financially, and emotionally difficult and some simply felt they could not cope with the stigma or do it alone. The image of an unwed mother did not fit the image they had of themselves. Of course they fit the profile of many unwed mothers, but they did not fit the stereotype. In part, this was because the middle-class girls could afford to go away, so they were invisible.
Q. You mention the 1951 Life magazine story about a teenage girl surrendering her child. What are some other depictions of this subject in the media? What is the most honest portrayal you encountered?
A. The confession magazines like True Story, Modern Romances, and True Confessions, which were popular from the late 1920s through the 1960s, were filled with stories of unwed mothers. Unwed pregnancy and motherhood is also the subject of films of the era. One notable film is a 1946 melodrama To Each His Own, in which Olivia de Havilland plays a young woman who falls in love with a fighter pilot. She becomes pregnant, he dies in battle, and to avoid scandal she surrenders her son for adoption to someone she knows and watches him grow up with another family. I believe To Each His Own was the highest grossing film in 1946 and de Havilland won an Oscar for her performance.
Despite the melodramatic quality, I was struck by the fact that the surrendering mother was portrayed as a woman who cared deeply and longed to stay connected with her child, whereas later depictions generally portrayed the mothers as eager to be rid of their “problem.” The portrayal of a surrendering mother who loved and spied on her child as he grew up would likely not have been as popular in the 1950s and ’60s when the number of adoptions increased dramatically and agencies needed to reassure adoptive parents that the child was surrendered willingly.
Q. Are you and your own birth mother still in contact? How did meeting your mother affect your research?
A. My interviews and research for the book were complete when I contacted my mother, so meeting her did not affect either. Actually, quite the opposite—my interviews and research prepared me to meet my mother. We are still in contact, though our contact is infrequent. She is still trying to decide whether she can tell her family about me. She has been keeping her secret for fifty-seven years. It will not be easy to explain to her siblings why she kept this secret from them, or to explain to her children why she has not told them they have a half sister. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to make the reunion process for surrendering mothers easier by educating the communities that will receive this new information from them, and allow families, husbands, subsequent children, and adoptees to better understand what these mothers were up against.