The Girls Who Went Away
By: Ann Fessler
# of pages: 354
Quote: “According to the prevailing double standard, the young man who was equally responsible for the pregnancy was not condemned for his actions. It was her fault, not their fault, that she got pregnant. This was in that period of time when there wasn’t much worse that a girl could do. They almost treated you like you had committed murder or something.”
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.
My review: I heard about this book and decided to read it for a few reasons, one of which is that adoption/fostering is something my family is considering. I’m glad I read it and I want to start by saying that if anyone you know has surrendered a child or has been surrendered, you should tell them about this book. Even if it wasn’t in the time period this book concentrates on, this is still relevant today.
This book stirred up a lot of feelings. I’ve always looked at adoption from the adoptive parents’ point of view. This changed the way I view the whole process and it really makes me wonder how things have changed in the years the 50s, 60s, 70s. And how international adoption then and now works. Also, thinking about the religious aspect makes me especially sad. Even after abortion was legal, it was frowned upon by the religious community so you would still have young women feeling pressured to give up their child because abortion wasn’t a choice, but single motherhood was also frowned upon because it meant you were caught in your sin.
As far as abortion goes, it wasn’t really mentioned at all in the book. I feel that Roe vs. Wade shouldn’t even be mentioned in the title. It may have changed theea women’s stories to some degree, but honestly, I’m not sure it would have been any better at that point in time. Women who choose abortion often face extreme feelings of guilt, inadequacy, low self esteem, and the “what ifs” similar to what the young women in this book went on to feel after they surrendered their babies. It’s a decision that needs to be made carefully and followed up with counseling, which the professionals at the time didn’t think was needed for adoption and probably wouldn’t have provided it for abortion either.
I read some reviews on Goodreads and several people mentioned how tedious they thought the stories became because they were so repetitive. However, that’s the whole point of this book. Millions of young women went through this and it’s heartbreaking that their stories are so similar. That’s the worst part. It wouldn’t be so remarkable if their stories were extremely different or if only a few were shared. The large number of stories in the book that are “just alike” make the reader realize that this was something common even if it isn’t talked about or shared, even 30+ years later. Maybe your grandparents or parents went through this and you don’t even know.
Why I gave this book 5/5 stars: The author has personal experience with the subject and that is clear in the way she wrote the book, the interviews were honest and real, the subject is important.