Thursday, November 3, 2011

Telling Herstory

Even when I signed the papers to become a women's studies minor, I despised stupid cliches like "herstory". I even hated how the feminist group was called Center for Womyn's Concerns. It made us look unnecessarily angry, when we mostly passed out condoms, and sponsored speakers with an "admission charge" of personal items for the battered women's (sorry, womyn's) shelter.

But "The Girls Who Went Away" is an important piece of women's history that hasn't been examined much. During the 1950s and 1960s, a solution was imposed on the thousands of teenage girls who got knocked up: have them stay with a "sick aunt" at a home for unwed mothers, put their baby out for adoption, and then return to the community, with the secret kept. Many kept the secret for the rest of their lives.

Ann Fessler interviewed women who were "the girls that went away". Their stories are interspersed with a comprehensive look at what led to the rise of the homes for unwed mothers as a way of dealing with teenage pregnancy; what life at one of these homes was like; what drove the demand for adoptable white babies; and the lasting effects on everyone.

It's a very sad book. One of the first things that jumps out at a reader is how much the women in the book fail to conform to any stereotype about unwed mothers. They weren't all poor, or even mostly poor. They weren't all promiscuous: many got pregnant during their first time having sex, and others got pregnant by their boyfriends. And most of them wanted very much to keep their babies, but weren't allowed to.

That part was also very depressing, and what messed with the mothers the most. One woman compared the psychological pressures in the home for unwed mothers to those exerted on a soldier in basic training, explaining that they broke you down to rebuild you into what they wanted, a woman who would give up her child. They were reminded repeatedly how irresponsible they'd been, how much their stay was costing their parents, and how much better off their child would be with a "decent" family. Almost no one resisted. When they were back to their old lives, though, they were left to wonder why not.

Another notable thing about the book was how shockingly restricted information about sex and contraceptives were, so very recently. One woman said she wasn't worried about pregnancy, because she knew that pregnancy was for married women, so since she wasn't married, didn't think it'd be a problem. Another woman asked her mother how the baby was supposed to come out of her stomach. Condoms were kept behind the counter at pharmacies, and their use wasn't encouraged. It wasn't until 1965, with the Supreme Court case of Griswold vs. Connecticut, that some state laws banning the use of contraceptives were struck down. It wasn't until 1972 that that right was extended to everyone, not just married couples.

This book is compelling, important, and destined to become a classic. It's a powerful reminder, too, of how far women have come. Read it, and you'll have another reason to respect your mother's generation.