Archive for June, 2012

Race, in the end, was the most accurate predictor of an unwed mother’s parents’ response to her pregnancy; of society’s reaction to her plight; of where and how she would spend the months of her pregnancy; and most important, the most accurate predictor of what she would do with the “fatherless” child she bore, and of how being mother to such a child would affect the rest of her life.

– Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe Vs. Wade 

Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade is certainly one of the books I enjoyed most in 2011. Fessler, an adoptee herself, writes movingly about these women, using first-person accounts in many cases, to construct a tapestry composed of many heart-rending stories. I am fairly sure that it was while reading this book that I came upon a reference to Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe Vs. Wade, and added it to my TBR pile.

Wake Up Little Susie, written by Rickie Solinger, is more a socio-political commentary, a history of unwed mothers and the social construction of unwed motherhood in America, focusing on race-specific distinctions during the post-war, pre-Roe Vs. Wade decades, from 1945 to 1965.

Illicit motherhood in the pre-war years

What was lost could not be regained; what was acquired could not be cast off.

While single mothers weren’t uncommon before World War II, social attitudes towards these women and their fatherless children were excessively punitive. The mother was considered morally deficient and permanently ruined – her marriageability was not restorable, her sin was not pardonable, and her shortcomings were not rehabilitable. She was condemned to spend the rest of her life as a fallen woman, bringing up her illegitimate child. Children were not separated from their mothers. Single mothers were expected to keep their children, irrespective of race. The child of sin was also tainted by its association with its mother and was generally considered undesirable and unsuitable for adoption.

In the post-war years, the American Family Ideal began to be increasingly emphasized. Under this family agenda, which romanticized a two-child family that included a mother and a father, unwed mothers were perceived as a threat to the integrity of the family. With the family imperative requiring children to complete a family, (white) babies were almost suddenly in great demand to make whole the normative family. Solinger conjectures that other related factors might have contributed to this clamor for babies – rising infertility, or increasing acknowledgement of infertility. Babies became market commodities.

In postwar society, which glorified couples, marriage, children, families, and conformity, this prospect [of a large number of ruined girls and women] would not have been a happy one.

Adoption of these babies offered a happy solution.

White girls

A white unwed mother in the post-war years usually had one of two options – she could try to obtain a therapeutic abortion, which required her to be declared psychologically unfit to be a mother, or, as was more common, disappear into a maternity home for the duration of her pregnancy. Few chose to endure pregnancy and childbirth alone or surrounded by disapproving family. A few kept their babies. After the war, psychological explanations became common to account for pregnancies that were the result of unhealthy non-marital relations that many women engaged in. An unwed mother was considered neurotic, often the result of an unhappy home environment, specifically because of mothers who were “insufficiently deferential wives”. However, her neuroticism was treatable as long as she followed the prescribed course of action: “casework treatment in a maternity home, relinquishment of baby for adoption, and rededication of the offending woman to the marriage market”. Her marriageability now restored, she could now the leave the home as a lady. Not only had she provided a baby to an eager childless couple, she was herself available to play the role of a wife and mother in a legitimate American family. (These were the expectations, but the reality was certainly much more difficult, and these birth mothers no doubt endured long-term psychological consequences).

Black girls

Most black families, on the other hand, accepted the pregnancy and the resulting child. In any case, most maternity homes did not welcome black girls, and there was hardly any demand for black babies in those early years. While a white unwed mother, the treatable neurotic, occupied a state of shame, Solinger writes, the black unwed mother was stereotyped as the wanton breeder, who was not as much shamed as she was blamed for rising welfare costs, population explosion, juvenile delinquency in inner cities and other social issues. The black single mother did not have a chance for redemption. Black illegitimate babies did not evoke any tenderness in the public either.

Black illegitimate babies, like their mothers, aroused the anger and racism of white, taxpaying public, while white illegitimate babies, if not their mothers, aroused the public’s compassion and their interest in seeing these children well placed.

Not only were black mothers regarded as unrestrained breeders, they were deemed calculated breeders, making a “career out of illegitimate childbearing”. Solinger writes that, “Despite the fact that by 1960, a growing percentage of white unwed mothers and their children required such aid, and despite the fact that most black women with illegitimate children did not receive ADC [Aid to Dependent Children], ADC was, in the public consciousness, a black-identified program…In addition, the most persistent charge against ADC was that these benefits were incentives for black women to have illegitimate children. In short, white politicians and taxpayers claimed that black women used their bodies in ways that were morally and fiscally destructive to the nation”.

Unwed mothers as aggressors against society

By the 1960s, the rate of illegitimate childbearing showed no sign of slowing down. Public discourse shifted to use new language to talk about black and white unwed motherhood. As in the previous years, the metaphors used were racially distinct and radically different. White girls were labelled the rebels, the sexual revolutionaries. However, not all of them were privileged co-eds, or revolutionaries, and were simply girls in trouble with little or no resources. Black girls, were the breeders, the population bomb, and many representatives of the public advocated birth control to be used to halt excess reproduction in them.

“Unacceptable” rates of black illegitimacy became a powerfully convincing explanation for unacceptable welfare expenditures, unacceptable demographic changes in the big cities of the United States, unacceptable levels of juvenile delinquency and poverty.

This is where the book leaves us, in the mid-1960s, with female reproductive activity linked to social problems. I spent a good part of the last six weeks on this insightful book. The Girls Who Went Away was from a white perspective, as far as I can remember, and it was refreshing to learn about the experiences of girls whose skin was colored differently. As with other works of non-fiction, I hope this book is historically accurate.


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