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.
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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.From Booklist:
*Starred Review* Between 1945 and 1973, when unwed motherhood was considered shameful and abortion was generally illegal, 1.5 million babies were relinquished for adoption. Fessler, who was herself adopted, offers an incredible and deeply moving look at the personal cost suffered by the women who gave up their babies, voluntarily and involuntarily. More than 100 women spoke to Fessler about the shame of unwed pregnancy compounded with the guilt over giving away the child as well as the life of secrecy and lies thereafter. Many of the young women were temporarily banished from their communities, sent away to maternity schools to deliver their babies, and then returned to what was supposed to be "normal" life. But for many, the experience changed forever their relationships with their parents, the fathers of their babies, and subsequent husbands and children. Years later, many of the women struggled with the question of reuniting with their children as laws on adoption and social mores changed. 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. Vanessa Bush
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