Between 1945 and 1973, an unprecedented 1.5 million women in the United States surrendered children for adoption due to enormous social pressure. They were expelled from high schools and colleges and forced to leave jobs as teachers and nurses because they were pregnant. They were sent away to distant relatives or to maternity homes to make the “problem” disappear. These women gave birth to their first child, left it behind and returned home, where they were expected to keep their secret, move on and forget.
Many of these women have remained silent and as a result their collective story has remained untold. The space created by this absence has been filled with myths and stereotypes that continue to affect them, their adopted out children (now adults), and current adoption policy. A GIRL LIKE HER brings this hidden history to light as the women’s stories collide with the authoritative voice-overs and images from films that purported to represent them.
Most people equate the 1960s with a time of “free love”—yet few understand the actual lived experiences of women from that era who became pregnant. For women of the baby-boom generation, sex before marriage was rapidly becoming the norm, yet sex education still meant watching a scratchy movie with egg and sperm meeting in some mysterious place. Oral contraceptives were not widely available to single women until the late 1960s and in some states it was illegal for single women or man to acquire contraceptives until the 1972 Eisenstadt v. Baird Supreme Court decision. Adults thought it best not educate young people about sex, thinking it would encourage sexual activity. Predictably, millions of women became pregnant. Abortion was illegal and responsible for 30% of maternal deaths. Thus, if a young woman became pregnant, it was likely that she would give birth.
Never-married women with children were stigmatized, ostracized, and discriminated against in the workplace. An unmarried teacher or nurse could not return to her job if she kept her child. Before the Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972, if a young woman became pregnant while in high school or college, she was immediately expelled. If she kept her child she could not return. Yet despite these conditions, adoption was seen as a choice, a personal decision made by a woman who had weighed all of her options and ultimately chose placement over parenting.
What the surrendering mothers from this time period have to say is not easy to hear, but the lack of knowledge about this history has resulted in misinformation and stereotypes about these mothers that persist today–stereotypes that are not only painful the mothers, but to millions of adoptees. The lack of information about adoption and surrender during this time period continues to shape adoption policy and fuels attitudes that negatively impact all parties in adoption, including adoptive parents.