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January 2015

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The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler

Written by , Posted in Feminism, Reviews

Four Stars

the girls

I’m not sure what drew me to this book. I’m not adopted, and I’m not aware of anyone close to me who was either adopted or surrendered a child for adoption. But it was probably the subtitle that pulled me in: ‘The hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade.’

The ‘solution’ to unplanned pregnancies for many anti-choice people is for the woman to carry the pregnancy to term and then surrender the child for adoption. That of course doesn’t solve the issue for women who don’t want to be pregnant (regardless of whether they want to raise their child). But it also really doesn’t take into account the impact surrendering a child for adoption has on many of the women who give birth.

This book is, to borrow a totally clichéd phrase, heart-wrenching. The focus is primarily on the middle-class white women who, between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s found themselves pregnant and (sometimes, although not always) alone. Ms. Fessler points out that during that time white women in the U.S. were surrendering children at a rate many times that of black women, which in part explains why the vast majority of the women she spoke to come from this demographic. The overwhelming common thread in these stories is not care for the young women, or even care for the children they gave birth to; instead, it seemed most families were mostly just concerned about being embarrassed by their daughters, and these young women were punished for that.

And it’s always the daughters. It appears that, for the most part, the young men and boys involved in the pregnancy were not affected – they certainly weren’t kicked out of high school like their pregnant girlfriends (which was the law in some places), and they weren’t sent away to maternity homes to finish out the nine months, deliver the child, and have the child taken away. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? Young teen and single moms are often derided still today, but I don’t see anyone going after the men who were just as present at the time of conception.

There’s so much wrong with what so many of these women went through. From not being informed of their rights, to being treated like crap by parents who clearly didn’t know how to care enough about their children (only about how the rest of the town might talk about them), these young women tell their stories throughout Ms. Fessler’s book. Each chapter is filled with quotes from women the author interviewed, and then followed by two chapters that are each one woman’s story told to illustrate the points being made. The biggest take-away for me is that these women should have been given the support they needed to keep their children if they wanted them; they instead were essentially treated like breeders for more ‘worthy’ couples. These women did not owe their children to these couples who wanted to adopt, but the social workers, nuns, priests and maternity home staff seemed to do all they could to convince these women that it was not fair to their children to keep them.

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