The Girls Who Went
The Hidden History of Women
Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v.
by Ann Fessler
The Penguin Press, 2006
Reviewed by Barbara
book is based on the authors interviews with many birth mothers who
relinquished children between 1945 (the end of World War II) and 1973 (the
year the of the Supreme Courts ruling in Roe v. Wade). It especially
focuses on those women who went away to so-called homes
for unwed mothers or to relatives. Although the cover story often
was that the girl had gone to an aunts, in some cases that
part was actually true.
Prior to doing the research for this book,
the author, who is an adoptee, had not seriously attempted to find her own
birth mother, although she had found an uncle some years previously. She
is, in fact, a second-generation adopteeher adoptive mother was also
adopted. At the time she found the uncle, she had her birth mothers
name, birth place, and address at the time the author was born, and had found
a yearbook picture. That was in 1989.
She began the interviews in 2002, after being
drawn to some art exhibits dealing with adoption. The book has many extensive
excerpts from the interviews. Readers, particularly birth mothers who
relinquished during those years, will find that the womens stories
may echo their own memories. This may be painful for some, but certainly
will be affirming in many ways, as they reflect how different society was
at that time, compared to current options for young women who get pregnant.
Quoting the book, The girls who went
away were told by family members, social-service agencies, and clergy that
relinquishing their child for adoption was the only acceptable option. It
would preserve their reputation and save both mother and child from a lifetime
of shame. Often it was clear to everyone, except the expectant mother, that
adoption was the answer. Many of these girls, even those in their twenties,
had no other option than to go along with their families or risk being
permanently ostracized. For them there was generally little or no discussion
before their parents sent them away. Those who went to maternity homes to
wait out their pregnancies often received little counseling and were totally
unprepared for either childbirth or relinquishment. They were simply told
they must surrender their child, keep their secret, move on, and forget.
Though moving on and forgetting proved impossible, many women were shamed
into keeping their secret.
The author states, If you are a woman
over fifty who had sex before marriage, you are one of the so-called bad
girls. I would put myself squarely in that category. The only difference
between me and the women whose stories appear here is that I didnt
get caught. These women and I were certainly not alone in our
She also discusses, although briefly, the
consequences for birth fathers. There is still very little written about,
or by, birth fathers.
One of the women interviewed stated, You
asked about the pain of the reunion. My son didnt cause the pain when
he came back. He has never been the cause of any of my pain. The pain was
always thereit just came out in the reunion. I was still burying that.
If it hadnt been the reunion, there could have been something else
in my life that would have broken it loose. Ive always thought f ran
/the instant I knew I was pregnant that he was innocent in all of this.
Many of the other women expressed similar feelings.
This book is recommended reading for all parts
of the adoption triad. It is very important information for adult adoptees
born during those years, or even before or after, to learn not only what
birth mothers went through, but how families and society looked at pregnancy
and relinquishment in those times.
For adoptive parents, it is necessary information,
even today, that will help them see the birth mothers perspectives.
For birth mothers, and also for birth fathers, reading this book may bring
back painful memories, but even those can be affirmingsometimes a birth
parent questions their own memories, especially when people now say Why
couldnt you have found a way to keep your child?
Interestingly, the author did finally contact
her birth mother and they have contact through e-mail, but still had not
met in person at the time of the books publication. One wonders why,
but that is not the focus of the book. Although it may be tempting to skip
around in the book to read the various stories, it is more helpful to just
sit down and read it, front to back, and let the women tell their stories.
The reader needs to just listen and learn.
Fessler, a visual artist and professor at Rhode Island School of Design,
has worked over the past 20 years in interactive video-and-sound installations,
photography, and artists books, using storytelling to explore issues
of family, identity, and gender inequities. Since 1990, Fessler has created
four installations on adoption: Genetics Lesson (1990),
Ex/Changing Families (1996; in collaboration with Carol Flax)
and Cliff and Hazel (1999), a humorous film portrait of adoptive
Her latest project,
is based on oral-history interviews that she conducted with women who surrendered
children for adoption between World War II and the passage of Roe v.
Excerpted from the July 2007
edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2007 Operation Identity