Synopses & Reviews
A powerful and groundbreaking revelation of the secret history of the 1.5 million women who surrendered children for adoption in the several decades before Roe v. Wade
In this deeply moving work, Ann Fessler brings to light the lives of hundreds of thousands of young single American women forced to give up their newborn children in the years following World War II and before Roe v. Wade. The Girls Who Went Away tells a story not of wild and carefree sexual liberation, but rather of a devastating double standard that has had punishing long-term effects on these women and on the children they gave up for adoption. Based on Fessler's groundbreaking interviews, it brings to brilliant life these women's voices and the spirit of the time, allowing each to share her own experience in gripping and intimate detail. Today, when the future of the Roe decision and women's reproductive rights stand squarely at the front of a divisive national debate, Fessler brings to the fore a long-overlooked history of single women in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies.
In 2002, Fessler, an adoptee herself, traveled the country interviewing women willing to speak publicly about why they relinquished their children. Researching archival records and the political and social climate of the time, she uncovered a story of three decades of women who, under enormous social and family pressure, were coerced or outright forced to give their babies up for adoption. Fessler deftly describes the impossible position in which these women found themselves: as a sexual revolution heated up in the postwar years, birth control was tightly restricted, and abortion proved prohibitively expensive or life endangering. At the same time, a postwar economic boom brought millions of American families into the middle class, exerting its own pressures to conform to a model of family perfection. Caught in the middle, single pregnant women were shunned by family and friends, evicted from schools, sent away to maternity homes to have their children alone, and often treated with cold contempt by doctors, nurses, and clergy.
The majority of the women Fessler interviewed have never spoken of their experiences, and most have been haunted by grief and shame their entire adult lives. A searing and important look into a long-overlooked social history, The Girls Who Went Away is their story.
"'Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to keep the baby,' says Joyce, in a story typical of the birth mothers, mostly white and middle-class, who vent here about being forced to give up their babies for adoption from the 1950s through the early '70s. They recall callous parents obsessed with what their neighbors would say; maternity homes run by unfeeling nuns who sowed the seeds of lifelong guilt and shame; and social workers who treated unwed mothers like incubators for married couples. More than one birth mother was emotionally paralyzed until she finally met the child she'd relinquished years earlier. In these pages, which are sure to provoke controversy among adoptive parents, birth mothers repeatedly insist that their babies were unwanted by society, not by them. Fessler, a photography professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, is an adoptee whose birth mother confessed that she had given her away even though her fiancé, who wasn't Fessler's father, was willing to raise her. Although at times rambling and self-pitying, these knowing oral histories are an emotional boon for birth mothers and adoptees struggling to make sense of troubled pasts." Publishers Weekly
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"[A]n incredible and deeply moving look at the personal cost suffered by the women who gave up their babies, voluntarily and involuntarily....[H]eartrending..." Booklist (Starred Review)
"By giving voice to these women, Fessler has enabled adoptees to view the circumstances of their birth with greater understanding. A valuable contribution to the literature on adoption." Kirkus Reviews
"Fessler successfully intertwines the women's personal stories with descriptive text, placing the accounts in historical context....Thought-provoking and thoroughly researched..." Library Journal
"Fessler interviewed more than 100 women across the country who surrendered their children, and she gives them ample opportunity to tell their stories in their own words and for the first time, weaving their oral histories together with a perceptive and telling description of the social climate that pressured them so heavily." San Francisco Chronicle
"Through hundreds of interviews with women who gave up babies for adoption between 1945 and 1973, The Girls Who Went Away
provides a revelatory account of the fifties, illuminating it as an anomalous period beset by social contradictions. It airs a secret that still shapes our society, and it provides a window into what it would mean if the social agenda of the Christian right were to prevail." Carolyn McConnell, The Iowa Review
(read the entire review from the Iowa Review
This powerful revelation uncovers the astonishing, untold history of the million-and-a-half women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before "Roe v. Wade."
In this deeply moving and myth-shattering work, Ann Fessler brings out into the open for the first time the astonishing untold history of the million and a half women who surrendered children for adoption due to enormous family and social pressure in the decades before Roe v. Wade. An adoptee who was herself surrendered during those years and recently made contact with her mother, Ann Fessler brilliantly brings to life the voices of more than a hundred women, as well as the spirit of those times, allowing the women to tell their stories in gripping and intimate detail.
About the Author
Ann Fessler is professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design and a specialist in video-installation art. She won a prestigious Radcliffe Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, for 2004, 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. An adoptee herself, she begins and ends the book with the story of her own successful quest to find her birth mother.
Table of Contents
The Girls Who Went Away 1. My Own Story as an Adoptee
2. Breaking the Silence
3. Good Girls v. Bad Girls
4. Discovery and Shame
5. The Family's Fears
6. Going Away
7. Birth and Surrender
8. The Aftermath
9. Search and Reunion
10. Talking and Listening
11. Every Mother but My Own
A Note on the Interviews