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The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler
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The Girls Who Went Away (2006)

by Ann Fessler

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» See also 54 mentions

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“This never happened.”

Don Draper says that all the time on Mad Men, and in fact he says it to a character who's in the midst of a breakdown after an unwed pregnancy. Those script writers are good: although they didn’t invent the line, it is fiction: it did happen, and the women never forget.

Subtitled, The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, this is an excellent exploration of the social and legal intolerance of teenage unwed pregnancy and motherhood in 1950s-‘60s USA, with a compelling collection of oral histories from those birth mothers.

There wasn’t much contraception and it absolutely wasn’t much available (mostly denied to single women, or accompanied by a big dose of judgment, and condoms were behind the pharmacy counter). Even information about contraception was illegal, and sex education was nil. The 1950s was a period of extreme social conformity and violations came with catastrophic fallout. And it was all on the girl -- reliable proof of paternity wasn’t there yet -- who generally hid it with tight girdles in the early months and disappeared for the latter months to group homes (e.g. Florence Crittenton; typically under the guise of an illness or caring for a family member) and then adoption.

They said, “You can’t raise the baby alone.” But no one expects a widow to give up her baby because her husband dies, do they? No. It’s punitive.

I’ve always appreciated Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 for its mandate of equal sports opportunities for women, but until now I didn’t realize its provision was broader -- No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance -- prohibiting high schools and colleges from expelling pregnant girls and teenage mothers.

And I marked dozens of passages despite my having lived at the late edge of the time. My older sister’s husband only learned in his 50s that (while he was away at college) his younger sister had been sent away and her teen pregnancy never revealed. I shudder at the lifelong burden these women bear (it reminds me of The Things They Carried and the narrator’s guilt that he conformed by serving in Vietnam rather than resisting -- following his beliefs and seeking refuge in Canada):

One of the questions that come up when you go to court and relinquish is they ask you if you have been coerced in any way, and I thought it was the height of hypocrisy. Of course you’re coerced. You’re coerced by your parents, who said, “Don’t come home again if you plan to keep that child. We’re not going to help you.” You’re coerced by everyone around you because of the shame and the lack of acceptance by society and your community. You’re not acknowledged as a fit mother because you had sex before marriage. The judge congratulated me on how courageous I was. I was furious that he would tell me it was about courage. It was about defeat. It was totally about shame and defeat. ( )
9 vote DetailMuse | Jul 30, 2014 |
Not sure why I picked this up in the bookstore- it was on one of the tables, and looked interesting.
I picked it up, leafed through, and then I was hooked- I found it in the library, and basically wolfed it in one afternoon.

A careful, insightful study of what women went through in the 50's and 60's, when getting pregnant out of wedlock was severely stigmatized, and the effects of giving up their children weren't talked about. ( )
1 vote ewillse | Mar 23, 2014 |
Not sure why I picked this up in the bookstore- it was on one of the tables, and looked interesting.
I picked it up, leafed through, and then I was hooked- I found it in the library, and basically wolfed it in one afternoon.

A careful, insightful study of what women went through in the 50's and 60's, when getting pregnant out of wedlock was severely stigmatized, and the effects of giving up their children weren't talked about. ( )
  PatienceFortitude | Mar 6, 2014 |
Not sure why I picked this up in the bookstore- it was on one of the tables, and looked interesting.
I picked it up, leafed through, and then I was hooked- I found it in the library, and basically wolfed it in one afternoon.

A careful, insightful study of what women went through in the 50's and 60's, when getting pregnant out of wedlock was severely stigmatized, and the effects of giving up their children weren't talked about. ( )
  PatienceFortitude | Mar 6, 2014 |
Not sure why I picked this up in the bookstore- it was on one of the tables, and looked interesting.
I picked it up, leafed through, and then I was hooked- I found it in the library, and basically wolfed it in one afternoon.

A careful, insightful study of what women went through in the 50's and 60's, when getting pregnant out of wedlock was severely stigmatized, and the effects of giving up their children weren't talked about. ( )
  PatienceFortitude | Mar 6, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
.Ann Fessler was nearly 56 when she first met her biological mother, who was 75. By then Fessler had already collected more than 100 oral histories for "The Girls Who Went Away....Unmarried girls in the 1950's and 60's may have felt increasingly liberated to have intercourse (Helen Gurley Brown's "Sex and the Single Girl" was published in 1962, identifying a revolution that was well on its way) but the babies they bore were still considered illegitimate, and pregnancy outside of marriage was still a disgrace. A girl who found herself "in trouble" had virtually no means of resisting the forces that conspired either to push her into a speedy marriage or to hustle her out of town to have her baby far from the sight of all who would condemn her. "In one of the strictest forms of banishment," Fessler writes, "high schools and most colleges required a pregnant girl to withdraw immediately.Mothers and fathers went to what now seem ridiculous lengths to conceal their daughters' shame, "disappearing" them before they sent them away to deliver their babies
 
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For my two mother, Hazel and Eleanor
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My mother told me that on my first three birthdays she lit a special candle on my cake for the young woman who had given birth to me.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143038974, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:23:28 -0400)

This book brings to light the lives of 1.5 million single American women in the years following World War II who, under enormous social and family pressure, were coerced to give up their newborn children. It tells 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. 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 interviewed by Fessler, herself an adoptee, have never spoken of their experiences, and most have been haunted by grief and shame their entire adult lives.--From publisher description.… (more)

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