The Girls Who Went Away: Part 1 – the treatment of unwed mothers during the baby boom
When I was four years old, my mother told me I was adopted.
I said something along the lines of “Okay.” And that was, essentially, that.
Forty-four years later, I met my birth mother.
But even after meeting her, I really didn’t think much about it. I wasn’t angry or upset that I’d been adopted. On the contrary, I was happy things had worked out the way they did for both of us. I had a good life and so did she.
And then, almost 17 years to the day after meeting my birth mother, I read The Girls Who Went Away.
Wow! Even though I’m an intelligent person with a degree in psychology, and even though my birth mother had told me about how she hadn’t wanted to give me up for adoption, I’d never really stopped to consider the perspective of birth mothers before. And how having a baby and then giving it away had forever changed their lives as well as the lives of their babies.
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
Published by Penguin Books
This book documents the stories of young women in the United States who gave up their babies for adoption between 1945 and 1973. At least a million and a half mothers and babies were separated at birth during these years. Not because the mothers didn’t want to keep their babies, but because society—the culture of the times—made it necessary for them to hide the pregnancy of an unwed mother behind a wall of secrecy and hypocrisy.
These women—many of them young girls—were forced to ignore their pain and grief, pretend that all was well, and in many cases never again speak about what had happened to them.
Ann Fessler, the author of this book, grew up the adopted daughter of an adopted daughter. Her mother was never told she’d been adopted—she accidentally discovered it. Like me, Ann was told she was adopted when she was young.
Also like me, she never thought about how her birth mother must have felt. Until one day in 1989 when she had a conversation with a woman she met at an art exhibit. After discovering that Ann was adopted but had never tried to find her birth mother, the woman, who was herself a birth mother, said, “‘You should find her. She probably worries every day about what happened to you and whether you’ve had a good life.’ I [Ann] could see in her eyes that she was speaking from her own experience, and the thought that my mother might feel the same sense of loss was shocking to me. I felt guilty and empathetic and naïve all at once. Why have I never considered this possibility? How could I not know? How could everyone not know? I continued to listen, realizing that I had never heard the story of adoption from the perspective of a mother who had surrendered her child. It seemed incredible to me that after forty years of life as an adoptee I was hearing the other side of the story for the first time.” P. 3
While reading Ann’s book, I had a similar reaction. I have degrees in psychology and education, I work with people all the time, and I’m always interested in how they tick. Plus, the biggie, I was adopted! Why hadn’t I realized any of this before?
For fourteen years after talking to that birth mother, Ann gave opportunities for birth mothers to share their stories through art. The most compelling thing she learned was that “What the mothers had been assured when they signed the papers giving up all rights to their children turned out to be a lie: they did not move on and forget.” P. 6
In June of 2002, she began “tape-recording the oral histories of  women who surrendered a newborn for adoption between the end of World War II, in 1945, and 1973.” The result was a book which, according to the publisher, “places the women’s stories within the social history of the era and her own story as an adoptee.” Her book was called “wrenching, riveting” by The Chicago Tribune, “a remarkably well researched and accomplished book” by The New York Times, and “a blend of deeply moving personal tales, bolstered by solid sociological analysis—journalism of the first order” by The San Francisco Chronicle. (From the publishers’ website.)
8 key points for me after reading this book
1. I’m what is called a baby-boomer, but I’d never thought much about why there was a “boom”
According to Wikipedia, “The U.S. birthrate exploded after World War II. From 1945 to 1961, more than 65 million children were born in the United States. At the height of this baby boom, a child was born every seven seconds. Many factors contributed to the baby boom. First, young couples who had put off getting married during World War II and the Korean War could finally begin their families. Also, the government encouraged the growth of families by offering generous GI benefits for home purchases. Finally, popular culture celebrated pregnancy, parenthood, and large families.”
Ann mentions that after World War II, sexual norms began to change. “As early as the 1950s, about 39 percent of unmarried girls had gone ‘all the way’ before they were twenty years old, and by 1973 the percentage had risen to 68 percent. Because of the difficulty of getting contraceptives, the frequency of premarital pregnancies rose right along with that number. In the mid-1950s, about 40 percent of first births to girls age fifteen to nineteen were conceived out of wedlock. Thereafter, the numbers rose sharply. By 1971-1974, the number of first births conceived outside of marriage to teenage girls had reached 60 percent.” P. 29-30
2. Keeping young girls ignorant about sex and how to prevent pregnancy leaves them vulnerable
Part of the reason there were so many births was that there was very little sex education and virtually no access to contraceptives for unmarried people. I’m going to assume this also contributed to an increase in the number of marriages because of an unexpected pregnancy, too. However, the important point for this post is that it led to a large increase in the number of babies born to unwed mothers.
Despite the increase in the number of young people having sex in the 1950s and 1960s, access to birth control and sex education lagged far behind. Believing that sex education would promote or encourage sexual relations, parents and schools thought it best to leave young people uninformed. During this time, effective birth control was difficult to obtain. In fact, in some states it was illegal to sell contraceptives to those who were unmarried. The efforts to restrict information and access to birth control did not prevent teens from having sex, however. The result was an explosion in premarital pregnancy and in the number of babies surrendered for adoption.”
In those days, most young people were given very little if any education about sex. “The mothers’ denial of the reality that their daughters might need some facts about sex and pregnancy is especially illogical given that, statistically, almost half of the mothers themselves had had sex before marriage, and some have walked down the aisle pregnant. But then again, logic usually has little to do with sex, and parents usually don’t think their child is having sex. That has likely not changed over time.” P. 40
“When parents did talk to their daughters about sex, they often began the sentence with the word don‘t, as in ‘Don’t ever let a boy touch you.’ Or, if pregnancy was even acknowledged as something that could occur before marriage, ‘Don’t ever come home pregnant.’ This directive rarely included an explanation of how one might actually get or not get pregnant.” P. 38
Right, don’t let the kids know how babies are conceived. That’s a sure way to make sure they don’t experiment and accidentally get pregnant. And also make it illegal to buy condoms or the pill because that will definitely keep them from having sex.
Of course, it should go without saying that there were many abortions during this time—including botched ones. One assumes that well-to-do people could afford better care, although many girls wouldn’t want their parents to know. But that’s another topic. This is about the girls who, either intentionally or without a choice, gave birth to healthy babies.
3. Unwanted pregnancies were hidden to protect everyone’s reputation
Although sexual norms were changing, the ideal was very much that of a married couple who went to church on Sunday, where the husband had a good job and the wife stayed home to look after her well-behaved family. Anything outside of that ideal was looked down on.
Unwed girls or women who became pregnant were viewed as immoral or as sluts, even though many of them had little sexual experience and, because of the dearth of sex education, a good number of them didn’t even know how babies were conceived. Even a girl who was date-raped might be blamed for getting pregnant.
Ann says, “One assumption was that they were women who were having a lot of sex with a lot of different young men. In fact, the majority of the women I interviewed became pregnant with their first sexual partner, some from their first sexual experience.” P. 10
The girl’s parents, too, would be judged. Therefore, it was very important for the family of an unwed, pregnant woman to hide the fact that she had given birth to a baby. The more conservative or respected the family, the more the need to hide the truth.
Ann says, “Though sexual norms were changing among the young, the shame associated with single pregnancy remained. The social stigma of being an ‘unwed mother’ was so great that many families—especially middle-class families—believed it was unthinkable to have a daughter keep an ‘illegitimate’ child. These women either married quickly or were sent away before their pregnancy could be detected by others in the community.” P. 8
“For most of the women I interviewed, it was not a question of choice but of doing what society demanded—a demand that society has never fully acknowledged.” P. 13
4. Infertility was also a social stigma
These years were also a very difficult time for couples who were infertile. Ann wrote, “Married couples who were not raising children seemed odd in the pro-natal environment of the 1950s and 1960s. The desire to parent, and to conform to the normal social and family expectations of the time, imposed substantial strain on couples who could not conceive. Such couples turned to adoption in record numbers during those years, and the rising demand for adoptable children intensified the pressure applied to young women to surrender. P. 118
5. “Boys will be boys”
There were men who offered to marry their girlfriends or who would have done more if they were able to. Some of them paid all or part of the cost of their girlfriend’s time at whichever home for unwed mothers she was sent to. But there were also many who denied responsibility, blamed the girl for getting pregnant, and were never heard from again.
And, as has seems to have been the case throughout history, the majority of young men escaped the condemnation the girls received. And yes, some of the young men were responsible for more than one pregnancy, and some of them were applauded by their peers because of their virility.
Ann says, “According to the prevailing double standard, the young man who was equally responsible for the pregnancy was not condemned for his actions. It was her fault, not their fault, that she got pregnant.” P. 8-9