Joyce is just one of more than a million and a half women who were sent to maternity homes to surrender their children for adoption in the decades between World War II and the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. They were college freshman working their way through school with two jobs. They were tomboys, sorority girls and valedictorians. They were mothers and they were invisible.
But now, artist and writer Ann Fessler has uncovered their hidden stories. The result of years of research and more than one hundred interviews, Fessler’s new book, “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade,” is an astonishing oral history that brings to light the dark undercurrent of life in America’s postwar middle class. Denied adequate sex education, shamed by socially conformist parents and peers, and without legal access to abortion, Fessler’s subjects emerge as the victims of a double standard that labeled them promiscuous while condoning the sexual adventures of their male counterparts.
Spirited away under the pretense of an illness or a family vacation, the women — many of them teenagers — spent their pregnancies away from home and gave birth among strangers. While the maternity homes were billed as a quiet place for women to reflect on their futures, when it came time to sign adoption papers, most of the women Fessler interviewed said they felt intense pressure to relinquish their children. Persuaded by social workers who said they would never be able to provide as well for their babies as a stable couple would, ostracized by families who were shocked by their behavior, and insecure about their own strength and intelligence, most women did as they were told and tried to forget.
Decades later, though, the mothers say the repercussions of those decisions are still being felt, as they struggle with depression, fight to find their lost children, and make peace with their past. “The Girls Who Went Away” is both politically and emotionally charged. Intertwining her spare prose with the mothers’ own words, Fessler raises difficult questions about reproductive freedom, women’s rights and sex education that seem particularly relevant today as Roe v. Wade is threatened, pharmacists refuse to fill contraception prescriptions, and a conservative administration promotes an abstinence only agenda in America’s schools.
NB: You can listen to Fessler’s “Fresh Air” book tour interview here. I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but the description reminded me of a novel I liked a lot, Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars.