The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade

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by Ann Fessler

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

In what many remember as dark distant days, 1.5 million single American women surrendered their out-of-wedlock babies rather than suffer shame or controversy. In some cases, they didn't even receive the chance to make the decision: Their parents or maternity home caregivers hastily shunted the newborn infants off to adoption. Girls Who Went Away recreates this aspect of the pre-Roe v. Wade era with compelling, often deeply moving oral histories of birth mothers who lost their offspring.
Michael Mewshaw
While striving for diversity of age, race and social background, Fessler discovered that her sources spoke with one voice about the early trauma that continues, in their telling, to blight their lives, scar their psyches and undermine their marriages and their relationships with their parents. Open the book to any page, and sad refrains repeat themselves with the plangency of a ballad.
— The Washinton Post
Publishers Weekly
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 fianc , 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. (May 8) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Fessler's book is the culmination of interviews with more than 100 women who had been forced to give up their children for adoption between the end of World War II and Roe v. Wade (1973). The book discusses all facets of the complex issue, including the women's discovery that they were pregnant out of wedlock, going away to maternity homes to deliver the babies, and later searching for their adult children. Fessler (photography, Rhode Island Sch. of Design) successfully intertwines the women's personal stories with descriptive text, placing the accounts in historical context. An adoptee herself, she begins and ends the book with the search for her own birth mother. She points out that although the circumstances of the women she interviewed varied (generally, they had answered queries Fessler had placed in newspapers), they all shared a sense of overwhelming loss and isolation in their grief. Thought-provoking and thoroughly researched, this book is recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/06.]-Nicole Mitchell, Birmingham, AL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Oral history featuring the voices of women who gave up their babies for adoption from 1945 to 1973, put into context by the author's exposition on the mood of the times. Fessler (Photography/Rhode Island School of Design), a video-installation artist and adoptee who has created a number of autobiographical works on adoption, recorded some one hundred women. Narratives from 18 of them appear here, with shorter selections from many others. Drawing on government statistics, sociology, history, medical and legal texts, as well as personal journals and the popular press, she surrounds their stories with descriptions of social mores during the three postwar decades. In an era when sex education was meager and birth control difficult to obtain, more than 1.5 million babies were given up for adoption. The notion that these children were simply not wanted by their mothers is quickly dispelled by the stories told here, which make it immediately clear that the unwed women, many still teenagers, had little choice. Adoption was presented as the only route that would preserve a girl's reputation. She was told to surrender the baby, forget what had happened and move on with her life. Fessler's transcripts reveal that forgetting was impossible and moving on not easily done. Although the stories are at times repetitious, individual voices speak clearly of guilt, abandonment, loneliness, helplessness, fear and coercion. For many, shame and secrecy shaped their lives for years afterward, affecting their relationships with husbands and subsequent offspring, even the ability to form healthy marriages or bear children. The author brackets these oral histories with the story of her own long-delayed search forher birth mother and their eventual meeting. 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.
From the Publisher
"Fessler recounts her own journey to find and reunite with her birth mother in this heartrending look at the untold story of American women compelled to surrender their children." —Booklist Starred Review

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
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Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
18 - 17 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Journalism of the first order, moving and informative in equal measure. (San Francisco Chronicle)

A remarkably well-researched and accomplished book. (The New York Times Book Review)

A wrenching, riveting book. (Chicago Tribune)

Haunting. (People)

Meet 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.

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The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
Channah_Miriam More than 1 year ago
The adoptee sister to my son suggested I read The Adoption Triangle, I couldn't find the book, but took out three others on adoption to read. As a birth mother from 1972 who 'went away', I was totally un-educated to modern day reunion practices to which present times has us in as adoptee to birth mothers. Then "The girls that went away" - was suggested to me by another birth mother. What an educational book! The stories were personal,heart felt, and Real. The book helped me realize my family was just like most of the rest of that era. I was no longer standing on an island by myself. Ann Fessler did a wonderful job of pulling together facts of an era where shame and guilt was placed on the platter of every single girl who found herself in trouble. There was so much healing that took place as I turned each page. I have ordered a copy for each one in my first family to receive in order to really know their sibling and daughter's struggle during that nine month's and years afterwards. This is a five star book for anyone in the adoption triangle, birth mother, adopted mother, and adoptee. All parties will understand each other better when they close the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a suburban male coming of age in the late 1960s, I can remember the snickering about the "girls who got into trouble," though I never knew any. Ms. Fessler's book is at its best when she lets those girls (now women) tell their story in their own words. I was reminded that paternity testing did not exist then but the double-standard did, so the fathers in almost all cases walked away unburdened by any responsibility for the children they fathered. The first-person accounts of the pressure to relinquish, the shame place on them by the "grown-ups," the lack of counseling, the isolation and sorrow and lingering sense of loss are heartbreaking. I felt, though, that the book was unbalanced. While my personal belief (as an adoptee from the era examined in the book) is that mothers and their children fare best when kept together, surely there are cases when a mother who relinquishes a child finds the resilience to move on to a fulfilling life post-relinquishment. That's a minor complaint, though, for a book that personalizes the damage done to so many young women by post-WWII culture in America.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
this book is a very intense read....could not read it in just a couple of sittings as it definitly pulls many emotions from the reader. Having grown up in the era that the author is writing about probably made it more so. I would recommend this book to all women of all ages.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm 47 years old. While I recall hearing my older siblings talk about 'girls who went away', I didn't personally know anyone who did. I came 'of age' just as birth control became more readily available and I was 15 at the time of Roe v. Wade. There were certainly girls during my early teens who 'messed around' and we all knew who they were, but none of them became pregnant (at least they never 'went away'). When I would hear my siblings and their friends talk about the girls of their generation who did suddenly disappear, I assumed these girls were glad to give their babies up so they could get on with their lives. I also assumed they had been careless about birth control never imagining that they were never told about it or how difficult it was to acquire. I also assumed that as they aged, they probably had moments of fleeting curiosity about their baby. Simple things like 'I wonder what he/she looks like'. I never imagined the depth and intensity of their loss. I was mesmerized and heart broken by each story in this book. I'm so glad Ann Fessler took the time to gather their stories and that the women were willing to share them with the rest of us. Bless their hearts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very moving. Imagine being a young single girl and going into labor without your mom to talk to you - being alone - feeling rejected by Society and the man you thought you loved. Feel the torment of having to give up the child because you can't afford to take care of him/her and not having any choice. Being afraid to tell future boyfriends or others about your illegitimate child for fear of rejection again. I was quite horrified that the Catholics seemed to be the worst!!! How dare they charge the girl for her care, making her work hard while pregnant, ignoring the needs of this young woman and treating her like dirt and yet freely giving her child away like they were doing her a favor. They even lied about some information making it near-impossible or impossible for the mother and child to ever be reunited at a future time. That whole time society never seemed to kick the butts of the men who contributed to this condition and their attitude that, "It's not my problem" as they moved on to their next conquest. I know there were a few young men that married the girl after her child was given up and it is sad that they didn't do the right thing in time to keep the child.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am an adoptee born in the time that girls were sent away. My birthmother went to a maternity home and I was placed for adoption thru that same agency. Thanks to their falsification of legal records I will most likely never meet her which of course was their intent. I picked up this book on a Sat afternoon and by Sun morning I had finished it, I don't think I read it, I inhaled and absorbed it into my soul. Other than an email correspondance with one of the girls that was at the same home as my birthmother I had never had an idea of what it was like for her. Thank you Ann for this gift of a look into the world she endured, I was forever changed from my fantasy world of what I had imagined. If you are any part of the triad and know someone whose life was shaped by this time period this is a must read.
USMC_WIFEY More than 1 year ago
this is such a great book that openly talks about a subject that was so taboo at the time! being born in the 80's, it's mind boggling to me to see how we treated young women and their unexpected children just a few decades ago. a great read!
Emily23 More than 1 year ago
"The Girls Who Went Away" was a required reading book in a history class in college. I decided to start reading it just as the deadline approached before a quiz. The minute I opened the first page, I couldn't stop reading. I never realized the heartbreak so many un-wed women had to endure. It keeps your interest with heart wrenching stories. The only problem is realizing these are TRUE tales of women in a time in America where things seemed to be sugar coated.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was born in 1961, so my interest in this topic stemmed from becoming close with several adults who are adoptees. I became even more interested after I mentioned something in passing to my 16 year old niece and made reference to the time before abortion was available, and she had no idea what I was talking about. I found this book dispelled many myths about the feelings and intentions of birth mothers. I found it alternately very sad (stories of girls being forced to do something they didn't want to do) and very inspiring (stories of joyous, healing reunions). I'd recommend it to anyone who's life has been touched by this issue.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My Mother gave me up for adoption and I always wondered how she felt. This book gave me alot of insight. What a brave courageous woman she was. I just found birth family, but regrettfully my Mother had already passed away. One day I hope to meet her and tell her how much I love her and thought about her everyday!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am also one of the children who was placed for adoption during the time period that Ann Fessler describes. I have gained so much from reading this book. It was not easy for me to get through it. I had to put it down between the emotional highs and lows that I experienced as I kept reading. I cried at the losses and rejoiced in the reunions and times of family acceptance of past wrongs done to the women in the book. This book gives a voice to women who struggled with one of the most difficult, life-altering events in their lives. Thank you Ann, for honoring these women. As an adopted child, I had a wonderful family. As an adult, I wished to know my birthfamily especially the woman who gave me my life in so many ways. Through this book, I have learned to appreciate her and her courage even more than I did before. I believe in adoption now as it has changed so much and become so much more sensitive to all involved in the process. I only hope that this book helps more families deal with the loss and to forgive each other. To that end and as I work in a bookstore myself, this has become my personal recommendation to customers. The stories of these women needed to be told and this book does an excellent job in allowing them to be heard.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read the book and it is a very depressing and harrowing account of what adoption CAN be, but not necessarily what adoption always is. I am adopted and have two great parents who did not attempt to exploit my birth mother--who decided to give me up voluntarily. My adoption was facilitated professionally and I was in good health the entire time. I know this because Holt International adoption agency is very respected throughout the world and does a great service by facilitating adoptions from poor nations. However, from my own experience and research I must corroborate that many adoptions that occurred several decades ago, before societal acceptance and regulations, were susceptible to greed and manipulation, as this book asserts. It certainly highlights a part of what adoption was and can be still. However, to attribute these accounts to the overall culture of adoption would be a mistake. Hopefully, this book can bring some awareness that adoption has come a long way but that there are still negative remnants from the past.
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Name: Sparrow&star <br> Her pelt is a mix of brown giving it a soft feathery look. Like a sparrow! &#9786 <br> golden-yellow eyes <br> Loyal. Caring. Fierce. Strong. <br> Kin: Whispfeather and Nightfury (loners) <br> Sp&alpha<_>rro&omega<_>&star
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is incredibly enlightening it changed my entire perspective on adoption. I LOVE this novel & all that it offers. Not only do you get statistical figures, but also real heart wrenching stories from women forced to give their children away. I read this for my sociology class in college & I could not put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book reveals truths never discussed in the open.
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Caedwyn More than 1 year ago
As an adoptee, I found this book to be very helpful in understanding the culture surrounding my birth mother's decision. Growing up as I did in an era where being unmarried & pregnant is not as big a deal, it's difficult for me to really understand the condemnation and stigma these women faced, how REAL the punishment was for being unmarried & pregnant. I understand her a little better now, and I'm sending her my copy so that maybe she can understand herself a little better, too.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a wonderful book that kept my attention from start to finish. As a girl born in the 70's, I had no idea young ladies were treated so unfairly. It really makes me look around at women that may have been affected by it (and are still affected by it). This books provides both real life stories and historical background into the issue.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great insite into a taboo subject. The interject of statistics and facts between the real life stories is both fasinating and heart breaking. Kudos to Ann Fessler for bring these women's untold stories to the printed page.