' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Adoption is a critical part of women’s history

Monday, February 6, 2012

Adoption is a critical part of women’s history

Mothers who lost their children to adoption deserve more attention in Gail Collins’ otherwise entertaining and informative account of the transformation of the condition of American women over the past 50 years, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.

Between the end of World War II and the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade nullifying laws prohibiting abortion, hundreds of thousands of mothers lost their newborn infants to closed adoption in a radical social experiment, the effects of which reverberate today in the damaged lives of these women, and often, their children and the fathers of their children. While women with unplanned pregnancies have more choices today thanks to Roe v. Wade and more enlightened mores, unnecessary adoptions continue.

Collins devotes only one sentence to adoption in the pre-Roe era (other than discussing the case itself, noting that Roe who real name was Norma McCorvey, was unable to have an abortion before her pregnancy ran its course and placed her child for adoption. “…[T]he idea that an unmarried woman would simply raise a baby herself was almost unheard-of, particularly in small towns. Most girls married the father. Others got abortions or went to homes for unwed mothers, where they gave the baby up for adoption and returned from what was generally described as a long stay with an out-of-town relative.” [Emphasis added.]

Collins and other feminist historians fail to give the connection between adoption and the edicts of patriarchy the emphasis they deserve, i.e. motherhood without male approval is wrong, and motherhood with male approval is essential. Adoption takes care of both situations. Collins’ omission is not surprising. Except for adoption specific histories—Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, Rickie Solinger’s Wake Up Little Susie, E. Wayne Carp’s Family Matters, and Ellen Herman's The Adoption History Project, the Baby Scoop Era does not get the attention it deserves.

Why This Matters
Acknowledging this history is vital to the mothers who lost children; it tells them they are not alone, that they did not lose their children due to moral fault but through coercion and ignorance. It lets their adult children know that their mothers did not willfully abandon them. 

Disseminating this history helps guard against repeating it. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana. Adoption as a solution to perceived social problems is a constant theme is American politics. President Obama pushes adoption as a way to reduce abortions although adoption would actually make only a small dent in the 1.2 million abortions which occur every year. The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act promotes adoption to reduce foster care caseloads, resulting in some children being adopted into abusive homes and others abandoned by their adoptive families when they turn 18 and government subsidies run out. Presidential contender Newt Gingrich proposed cutting welfare costs by sending “illegitimate” children to orphanages, from where presumably the fortunate few would be adopted. Providing more supports for vulnerable families would accomplish all these goals with far less cost and pain but that’s not on the radar of many politicians.

Let’s Get Into the History Books
March is Women’s History Month. It’s a good time to honor women who have spoken up and worked for adoption reform. Concerned United Birthparents founder Lee Campbell, Baby Scoop Era Research Initiative founder Karen Beebe Wilson Buterbaugh, my fellow blogger and Birthmark author, Lorraine Dusky, Shedding light on ... The Dark Side of Adoption author Mirah Riben, many others. It's a good time to tell our histories. You could start by adding your story to Origins’ Parents Stories page.

 Pres. Obama, Adoption is not only available, it's being crammed down our throats
High Number of adoptions in the US is a national disgrace


  1. I don't understand why is it so hard to get the facts out?
    Even with self published books is there any that talks about
    Era of Mass Adoptions?
    I am aware of Ann Fessler's book.

  2. From theadoptedones

    Off topic but perhaps not...

    What is missed in the conversation is also how many women had abortions pre Roe vs Wade. Roe vs Wade did not provide the abortion option, it provided safe access. The dark side of the story is very sad and that reality does not have the doctors around to speak up about it - they have all passed away, my dad included who had to try to patch up women who came to him after the fact, if they came to him in time.

    Very sad that the book glossed over the horrors mothers went through. A time that must never happen again and all must work against.

  3. It does not surprise me that this book does not address forced adoption in the US.

    Back in 1974 or so, I called a national women's organization and told them about my experience as a relinquishing mother in the 1960s. I told the woman on the phone that I had wanted my baby and wanted to keep him.

    I asked her," what is your organization doing now for mothers like me?"

    She thought for a few seconds, and then answered," well, that is why we have to make sure that abortion stays safe and legal."

    But, that was not what I had asked about...and I had made that very clear.
    For a long time, "unwed mothers" did not seem to register on the "feminist agenda" and the fact of forced infant surrender was not seen as a problem to address, in my opinion.

    Rickie Solinger has addressed these issues in her books on women's history.

  4. What is title of Sollinger's book?


  5. Ummm. Ty, it's in the post.

  6. Rickie Solinger is also the author of "Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States"

    (New York:2001)

    Interesting book....with mid to late 20th century information.

  7. Sollinger's titl wasn't in the post that's why I asked, Courtney.

    Thanks Kippa I have that book bought it right after it came

    I do find it interesting that the women's history on Era of
    Mass Adoptions is not written about in many more books
    it's what happened and not writing about it will not make
    the truth disappear. Fessler's book and interviews with
    the women in her book is in Women's Studies at Harvard.

  8. You're absolutely right, Kitta. Adoption did not register on the feminist agenda and doesn't today other than many feminists are adopters or trying to be.

    I was a charter subscriber to "Ms" magazine. In the early 70's, I wrote a letter to "Ms" regarding an article about an adoptee. I told what it was like to be a birth mother. "Ms" did not publish my letter but did send me a condescending response.

    Feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem, the founder of Ms, were clueless about adoption. Steinem and others were part of a culture and class which used abortion to resolve unintended pregnancies. Many of these women, including Steinem, came out about their abortions.

    As Anon notes, Collins' book does not discuss the impact of illegal abortions and the horrors including death that women suffered. This needs to kept front and center if we are to fend off the constant attacks on "Roe v. Wade." Women's bodies are still fodder for political agendas.

  9. From the Post:

    "Except for adoption specific histories—Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, Rickie Solinger’s Wake Up Little Susie, E. Wayne Carp’s Family Matters, and Ellen Herman's The Adoption History Project, the Baby Scoop Era does not get the attention it deserves."

  10. The Traffic in Babies: Cross-Border Adoption and Baby-Selling between the United States and Canada, 1930-1972.
    University of Toronto Press (August 13, 2011)
    Karen Balcom (Author)

    'Through a series of dramatic and compelling narratives, Karen A. Balcom effectively links the story of Canadian children adopted by American parents to central themes in the history of child welfare. Her examination of the practical and constitutional challenges that reformers faced in transnational family-making offers a powerful corrective to triumphal narratives about child-friendly liberal welfare states. The Traffic in Babies is both a very interesting read and a genuinely original contribution to the field of social welfare and adoption history.' (Ellen Herman, Department of History, University of Oregon )

  11. To clarify, Rickie Solinger wrote two books related to adoption history. "Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade" and "Beggars and Choosers." Both are excellent.

  12. Thanks Jane.

    There were two books one was listed the other wasn't.

  13. I mentioned to my daughter who is in the Women's Study program at Brigham Young University that she needs to read this post and show it to her professors.

    Interestingly, she said that most all of her professors have adopted multiple children internationally.

    Is it common for Academics in Gender Study to be adopters, or is that just a fluke of BYU? If not, perhaps that partially explains why the history of adoption has been overlooked.

  14. Interestingly enough when my husband and I visited Princeton for a day about a decade ago, we were able to attend classes with the prof's permission. I chose a gender studies class and whadda ya know, it was all about adoption (straight and gay) and the prof and the students were clueless that adoption might have issues for the adopted, much less the mothers who bore the children....I sat there pretty much going crazy until near the end of the class the professor said that it appeared I had something to add, and brother, did I.

    The kids were nonplussed; maybe none of them were adopted or wanted to say anything. I sent the professor material later about the OBC issue, birth mother's lingering sorrow, etc. but I never got any sort of an acknowledgment. I ended up assuming she was gay and wanted to adopt, or had already adopted. But she certainly didn't know squat about issues other than how to get a kid, and why there should be more of them available.

    So my guess is that the BYU and Princeton experiences are par for the (gender studies) course.

  15. Yes, Jane women's bodies are still political fodder. Sheesh with the Komen controversy over paltry Planned Parenthood funding and the wonderful Presidential candidates campaining to what ever way the wind blows, it's time to get our stories out there again. The February Sisters at the Univ. of Ks. (KU-where I attended in the late 1960's and where I have worked for 30 yrs.)are celebrating a 40 yr. reunion. This KU feminist organization came about 3 yrs. too late to prevent my first son to be coerced sight unseen from me. But the feminist groups US wide who are holding reunions like this one at KU will be hearing from me. ;-)

  16. I’m a firstmom from the BSE and feel strongly that our stories need to be told. The more the better. Some adoptees , my firstborn included, continue to call us baby abandoners and accuse us of not wanting to raise our children. I was personally accused of willfully giving my child to strangers because I was selfish. Despite Fessler’s book and countless other stories, my child has not bought into the “no choice” explanation and the coercion tactics used. As might be predicted, our reunion relationship fizzled.

  17. Lorraine,
    Your comment of 3:56pm is exactly why first mothers should not just shut up and stay in the closet.

    "The kids were nonplussed; maybe none of them were adopted or wanted to say anything."

    Even if there were adoptees in the classroom they may very well have still been steeped in the adoption beliefs that their APs' had instilled in them. Being adopted is the same as being a bio-kid, we're your real parents, etc. These students are probably away from home for the first time and are just getting their footing as independent adults. They may not have found their own voices about what adoption means to them and how they feel about it.

    "But she certainly didn't know squat about issues other than how to get a kid, and why there should be more of them available."

    And of course giving no thought whatsoever to who is going to "produce" the product, er I mean children.

    I am intrigued, mystified and concerned about the noticeable blind spot that the women's movement and women's historians have about the real issues behind the BSE. Do you think this is because many people even today still think that all those relinquishments were voluntary? I don't see how anyone can deny that there was a BSE. It seems so glaringly obvious when you realize that of all the adult adoptees who publish comments here the majority of us were born within a 10-15 year period. Obviously, there were some very powerful social forces at play to have so many adoptees from one generation. To me these forces are one of the best indicators of women's second-class status at the times and how powerless women were.


    P.S. There seems to be glitch with my comments so I'm putting this under Anon.

  18. I am sick of people touting Roe v. Wade and killing babies as a good alternative to having your baby ripped from your arms. Ripping a baby from the womb is no better.

    Why must it be one evil or another? Women and children should be supported all along.

  19. Megan,

    I believe it is common for profs in women studies program to adopt and I suspect most are oblivious to the pain and exploitation common in adoption. I don't this is unique to BYU. These women may sincerely believe they are helping other women and children as well as meeting their maternal needs.

    There are exceptions. Ellen Herman, a University of Oregon history prof who teaches in women's studies, is an adoptive mother. She writes an online adoption history, The Adoption History Project. Although I don't recall that she uses the term "Baby Scoop Era", she does write about these events.

  20. I'd like to call our readers' attention to an excellent article by Katie Leo, a Korean adoptee, on how she came to the conclusion that adopting was incompatible with her commitment to feminism and social justice. Feminist Lens on Adoption

  21. I don't think that jargon-like insider terms like "baby scoop era" help in getting our cause taken seriously by feminist historians and others. Which is not to say that there were not large numbers of coerced surrenders in the time between WWII and Roe V. Wade, but there is a lot more to the story. We need to get the stories, injustices, and numbers out there, but in a way that is mainstream and takes our own cause as seriously as it deserves.

    Babies were not "scooped" cute as that sounds, they were made a commodity that the market at the time demanded, and the idea of "reforming" or even "revirgining" bad girls caught on with social reformers who thought they were doing everyone a favor.

    Except it did not work, and large numbers of us suffered. Linking adoption with abortion, or implying that coercion ended with legalized abortion, has been a mistake, and another reason why feminists have not understood or taken us seriously. By and large they are so focused on abortion rights, and the rights of women not to be tied down by children, that we just do not fit that narrow focus.

    As seen even in comments here, not all mothers who surrendered are pro-choice, so to strictly tie the two issues together creates animosity and does not work.

    Yes, there are many adoptive mothers among feminist academics, and some of them would rather not deal with how adoption has caused grief to many women. The concept of an "era" that ended with legalized abortion diminishes the ongoing saga of abuse in adoption, making it a sepia-toned picture of "long-ago" and "wasn't that a shame" rather than the ongoing problem that it still is.

    There are some rays of hope though. Lee Campbell, founder of CUB, is working on a project with current CUB board members to compile as complete as possible a history and papers of CUB to add some already there at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, among other women's history and women activists collections. The late Carole Anderson, former CUB president, left her papers to that library, and the papers of BJ Lifton are there as well. Jane has already mentioned Ellen Herman and her Adoption History Project. Slowly we are infiltrating academia, we just need to keep at it. Our stories at Harvard where generations of scholars can study them is no small thing.

  22. Thanks for the additional information, maryanne.

  23. Jane wrote "There are exceptions. Ellen Herman, a University of Oregon history prof who teaches in women's studies, is an adoptive mother. She writes an online adoption history, The Adoption History Project. Although I don't recall that she uses the term "Baby Scoop Era", she does write about these events."

    Karen Balcom is another exception. Ellen Herman has positively reviewed Karen's book, published only last year and which includes coverage of the so-called BSE period.

  24. Thanks Anon, for letting us know about Prof. Karen Balcom's important work. I read something recently about her new book "The Traffic in Babies: Cross-Border Adoption and Baby-Selling Between Canada and the United States, 1930-1972." I put it on my "to read" list but don't know when I'll get to it.

  25. Karen Wilson ButerbaughFebruary 12, 2012 at 10:42 PM

    The book "Adoption Healing, a path to recovery for mothers who lost children to adoption," contains a great deal of historical information regarding the Baby Scoop Era and surrendering mothers. You can also go to www.babyscoopera.com The Baby Scoop Era (like the term or not), is firmly established (see Wikipedia) and exists because at no other time before or since have so many newborns been removed from young, unprotected, at-risk "unwed" mothers, the overwhelming majority of which were white. There are other criteria as well.



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