Essay: The Girl Who Wouldn’t Go Away

by Carolyn McConnell

In the summer of 1971, my mother, age 24 and many months pregnant, came to Seattle. I don’t know how she got there, but she had little money, so she must have copped a ride or taken Greyhound. She didn’t have a place to stay, so she went to Seward Park in southeast Seattle, where there were other young people camping out, to sleep under a weeping willow along the shore of Lake Washington. Sometime that night, the police swept through, booting people out of the park. But they let my mother be.

Perhaps she was hidden by the willow’s drape, or the police saw her belly and chose to ignore her. She liked to think it was the latter, that they honored her pregnancy. It seems just as likely that seeing a pregnant woman sleeping in the park horrified them, but my mother had a powerful ability to hold her own vision of things. This made all the difference.

My mother was unmarried. If she had been like so many young single pregnant women in 1971 and the years around it, she would have gone to one of the many homes for unwed mothers in Seattle, to birth and then give up her baby. She could have walked from Seward Park to the Seattle Florence Crittenton Home, where that year more than a hundred young single women and girls lived while they waited for the birth of their children and then, within a few days of birth, gave them up to strangers.

Like my mother, most of the women at the Seattle Crittenton Home were from out of town. Families wanted their unmarried pregnant daughters hidden from sight, often sending them to homes in other towns where no one would recognize them. A brochure from a Montana Crittenton society illustrates this impulse; although there were unwed mothers enough in Great Falls, Montana, to prompt Crittenton supporters to request that a home be established there in 1903, the Crittenton society refused to establish a new home there, on the theory that families wanted their unwed pregnant daughters elsewhere, not in their small home town.

When Meredith Hall, in 1965, got pregnant in high school, from a first and only sexual encounter that resembled a rape, her small town shunned her and her mother sent her away to live with her father and his new wife. She describes in her memoir that she was forbidden to leave their house during daylight, for fear someone would see her in her embarrassing state. During dinner parties, she was instructed to hide in her room and stay still, lest her footsteps betray her presence. Eventually, she was banished altogether to a home for unwed mothers, where she gave birth and then was made to give up her baby.

She was never allowed to return to school in her hometown and never really readmitted to her family, her bond with her mother forever broken by the act of breaking her from her baby. She was, in the evocative phrasing of Ann Fessler’s book of that name, a Girl Who Went Away. Fessler interviewed hundreds of these women, who felt in fact thrown away. Nearly every high school class had one, nearly everyone knew some girl who had mysteriously left school to visit an aunt or recover from an illness. People knew in some sense what had really happened, yet at the same time no one spoke of it openly, least of all the girl to whom it happened, so it was secret, known-and-not-known, an unspoken threat of the consequences of misbehavior, the more frightening for being shadowy and hidden.

Hannah Arendt describes the central but paradoxical role of secrecy in totalitarian regimes. On the one hand, the point of concentration camps, disappearances, and other punishments is to enforce obedience through fear. So people must on some level know about them. Yet a degree of secrecy is necessary because it “impedes rebellion and any clear, articulated understanding of the thing feared.” Just so, knowing that disappearance would be their fate if they got pregnant induced sufficient terror to keep most girls in line.

It never occurred to me until I was grown up and read Fessler’s book that my mother could have been one of these girls who went away, she from me and I from her forever. Once I understood this, it became a disturbing puzzle to me—how could we have done this, so recently, and why? My mother wouldn’t have been so easy to send away. She had been out of her parents’ house for nearly 8 years. Four years earlier she had been featured in an Esquire article on the shocking new phenomenon of unmarried couples shacking up. While single motherhood still wasn’t done, some people were beginning to do things that weren’t done.

Yet in one of those paradoxes of history, in which opposing forces act at the same time, the imperative to give up babies was just peaking. In 1971, 169,000 American babies were given up for adoption in the U.S., 90,000 of them to unrelated strangers. As it turned out, that year, the year of my birth, a tide began to turn. American adoptions peaked in 1970 at 170,000 and then began to drop, falling to half that number by 1975.

In 2014, only 18,000 children under the age of two were placed for adoption in the U.S. Many, if not most, of these 170,000 babies adopted in 1971 were born to single women, because in that era women were not supposed to be single and pregnant. That was nothing new. It had also long been true that single women got pregnant anyway (look at the plots of nineteenth-century novels). But hundreds of thousands of American women giving up their babies was a new thing. Adoption in the U.S. surged after World War II, hitting 50,000 for the first time in 1944, passing 100,000 in 1959. In the early postwar years 80 percent more children were adopted than before and during the war.

In this era, unwed motherhood was a problem to which adoption became the solution. Part of the reason was that, contrary to popular belief, the sexual revolution started long before the 1960s arrival of the Pill. By the 1950s, 39 percent of unmarried women had “gone all the way” by the time they were 20 years old (by 1973 that figure had risen to 68 percent). For a range of reasons, including the rise of the automobile, courting beginning in the 1920s shifted away from the watchful eye of family—from the porch to the car- and young people made use of their freedom. They began creating their own norms of dating and sexual behavior—mostly the code was that nice girls do but don’t tell.

Of course, if you were caught—by getting pregnant—you were no longer a nice girl. Yet contraception was largely illegal and unavailable. At the same time, as historian Leslie Reagan has documented, the 1940s saw a shift in social policy regarding abortion. Until then, abortion had been quietly tolerated except in cases in which patients died, and most towns had an experienced, competent abortionist who practiced only barely under cover. But in the forties, authorities began hunting out and prosecuting both abortionists and women who received abortions. Safe abortion that had been available, if not always easily so, was suddenly unavailable to the growing numbers of pregnant, unmarried women.

The predictable result was that a lot of women got and stayed pregnant. Many got married. But many didn’t. An estimated 200–300,000 American women and girls illegitimately pregnant in an average postwar year didn’t marry or abort. So there were simply more out of wedlock births than there had been. Nonmarital births spiked sharply during World War II and didn’t drop off. In 1940, there were 89,500 nonmarital births, or 3.8 percent of births in the U.S. By 1965, 291,200, or almost 10 percent of all births, were out of wedlock.

Until the mid-twentieth century, a single pregnant white woman was a ruined woman, forever outcast. But hundreds of thousands of women is a lot of outcasts to tolerate. Society was maintaining increasingly unrealistic standards for the sexual purity of women, and so it needed a safety valve. At the same time, the postwar era valorized the nuclear family. In earlier eras, people had often married late and many not at all. During the first three decades of the 20th century, the average age of marriage and the proportion of the population that was unmarried both declined; in the 1950s and 60s the rate of marriage was higher than it was ever before or has been since. By the 1950s, the command was for everyone to marry and at a young age.

It was only in the 1920s that, for the first time in U.S. history, the majority of children lived in families in which the man was the primary wage earner, the wife was not involved in full-time labor for wages outside the house or alongside her husband, and children were in school instead of in the labor force.  At the same time, perhaps because so many functions were emptying out of it, the family also shrank. Formerly, those who did not breed had vital roles to play within families, as aunts, uncles, cousins.

These roles withered in importance as the nuclear family took over. Once upon a time, everyone simply found themselves in families, perhaps eventually extending them by producing children; by the mid-twentieth century all were commanded to “start” families. This created a problem for the infertile. In the postwar era, when marrying and having 2.5 children defined normal, to be infertile was to fail to achieve normalcy. These two new problems—rising nonmarital births and the infertile unable to obey the imperative to start nuclear families—were potential solutions to each other. But other pieces of the puzzle were required.

Bastards had traditionally been considered forever tainted by their origins, tethered to the ruined women who birthed them and carrying the bad blood that had led to the sin. It was said that women who got pregnant out of wedlock were, as a result of being low- class, biologically incapable of resisting seduction; studies found a high correlation between “mental defect and illegitimacy.” No one else wanted these children. But in the 20th century, a psychoanalytic notion of deviance gained currency in place of the older theories of blood taint.

It was a newly women-centered theory—the older moralistic framework had placed the causal origin on the man. Of course, since men were simply obeying their natural urges,women had always born the brunt of the blame, for failing to successfully resist men. The difference in the new theory was that it entirely blamed the woman’s abnormal psyche for her condition. It psychologized the problem. Once upon a time, “he ruined her,” but in postwar America “she got herself in trouble.” In fact, in the literature on single motherhood from the time, men are weirdly absent. It is as if single women impregnated themselves by pure force of disordered thinking, producing babies Zeus like from their heads.

The Seattle Crittenton Home, for example, by mid-century employed a staff psychiatrist as well as trained caseworkers. Its 1954 newsletter insisted that “treatment not punishment was the answer.” Single pregnant women must be viewed “in light of current psychiatric thinking and see it was not by ‘chance’ a girl became pregnant out of wedlock. As we review the girl’s life we see that she slowly moved toward this pregnancy out of wedlock with almost the finality of a Greek tragedy…. We see casework service as an opportunity of exploring with her the forces in herself and her environment which brought her into this conflict with society.”

The newsletter described one client, whose “pregnancy was undoubtedly an attack at the mother and not only was she desiring to punish the mother but also was attempting to make up to her and ‘give’ her this child.” The newsletter approvingly noted that eventually she was brought to “substitute for giving the child to the mother giving the child to the caseworker,” that is, giving the baby up for adoption by a stranger. My grandmother, who was a public health nurse, childcare worker, and social researcher, spoke in just these terms. She said to me once that my mother exhibited the Electra complex.

There were many other homes for unwed mothers besides Crittenton, but Crittenton was the largest network of such institutions, its shifting aims and methods representative of the wider culture’s norms. The Crittenton Society was started in the late nineteenth century by the wealthy New Yorker Charles Crittenton. After his four-year-old daughter died of scarlet fever, he fell into a depression, emerging from it with a religious awakening. He ventured into New York City’s slums to evangelize and was appalled by the misery of the prostitutes he met there. He decided to found homes for “lost and fallen women and wayward girls.” By 1897, he had established 46 homes across the country. He founded the Seattle Crittenton Home in 1899.

In the early days, the homes were not only for pregnant women, but for any of those vulnerable to sin: Crittenton said at the opening of the Seattle home, “It should not be supposed that it is necessarily a refuge only for fallen women. It is intended as much for girls who are homeless and ill or are otherwise in danger of going to the bad.” In the first decades, the Crittenton homes encouraged women to keep their babies, indeed until the 1940s Crittenton homes required mothers to keep their babies for at least 6 months.

Women often stayed for years. The homes provided training to women to prepare them to support themselves and their children through menial work. The job of maternity homes was to help the sinning woman spiritually redeem herself through hard work and dutifully rearing her child, who itself was part of her punishment, a scarlet letter announcing her sin to the world. She could find moral redemption, but not rehabilitation.

In the 1940s the Crittenton mission, and those of other maternity homes, began to change, shifting definitively after the Second World War, along with a shift in the staff from religious to secular. In the 1940s, the Crittenton Society reversed its position from requiring women to keep their babies to insisting they give them up. The Society adopted the views of social reformers that adoption was the answer to unwed pregnancy. In 1960, the Seattle Crittenton home instituted a rule of not accepting anyone who had decided to keep her baby.

In confluence with the new nuclear model of the family, the new psychological framework had the convenient implication that if taken away from their birth mothers, the babies would be unstained. The disorder was limited to the mother’s mind and thus was not communicated to the child. If married couples started families from scratch, then it was possible to imagine babies to be raw ingredients that could be acquired without any reference to family roots. It was convenient, that is, in the context of a demand for babies as commodities.

This solution required a strange new inversion: Mother-and-child would seem to be the “ur form” of the family, the irreducible conceptual core from which more expansive definitions radiate and against which borderline instances are measured. In the past, an unwed mother might be an improper mother, but she was unquestionably a mother. But if families were started only by married couples, an unwed woman and child could not be a family. In the new psychological framework, as historian Rickie Solinger explains, an unwed mother was redefined as not-a-mother. Her surrender of her child to a real mother, that is, a married woman, was the price she paid to mend her conflict with society, readying her to become someday a real mother by marrying a man. Girls absorbed these lessons; one woman in Fessler’s book described her reaction when she got pregnant as a teenager: “I was throwing up and one of my friends said, ‘You’re probably pregnant.’ And I said, ‘Oh no, you can’t be pregnant unless you’re married.’”

This comment echoes one I heard as a child from classmates. Sometime in second grade, I mentioned casually to a couple of classmates that my parents were not married. They were dismayed and nonplussed, their fundamental conceptual categories challenged. “Then you can’t have a father,” one insisted, near to tears, meaning something like “Then you can’t exist.” I thought them very stupid. Still, I learned that it was best not to upset people by mentioning my mother’s marital status.

That it took me that long to learn that the fact was of any note is one of my mother’s gifts to me. As with inherited wealth, the great dividend of my inheritance was obliviousness, total confidence in my own legitimacy. My mother never mentioned what it might have cost her to hold on to me. She treated me not as the source of her many difficulties but as her proudest accomplishment. She was far from a perfect mother, our life was tumultuous, and she had many men over the years, but I always knew I was the most valued person in her life. “If you murdered someone, I’d hide you from the police,” she once said, those green eyes of hers fierce. She meant, My love is unconditional.

As I grew up, I began to see how rare this was. I saw mothers choose men over their daughters again and again, and their daughters absorbing this lesson, growing up to need the attention of men above all, betraying friends for the sake of unkind men, never quite trusting their own worth. This is brutally expressed in Bastard Out of Carolina, in which a mother chooses the man she loves over the daughter he rapes and nearly kills.

For me growing up, feminism was not just a political ideology, but a deeply personal gift from my mother that meant I was precious. So I am puzzled that families would dispose of their offspring. Class was part of the answer, in the context of the growing middle class after World War II. With wages rising, large number of families entered the middle class for the first time. Families were anxious about maintaining their newly gained status, which was threatened by an unwed birth. Too, the new nuclear family was fragile, shrunken and atomized as it was. Concern about maintaining their new class status goes some way toward explaining the shocking willingness of families to send their daughters away and give away their descendants.

Frequently, the pregnant girl’s grandparents were never told they had a great grandchild. That was the case for Meredith Hall and for me; my grandmother refused to tell her mother of my existence, claiming (according to my mother) that it would be too shocking to my great grandmother. My great grandmother lived until I was 13, yet I never met her.

As a child, I did not know this, wasn’t aware exactly that my great grandmother was still alive. It was only later when I looked through some family history documents and saw the dates of her life that I realized what my grandmother had done. My grandmother doted on me. She was full of pride in me. Yet she broke the chain of generations between me and my great grandmother. I do not know how to square these facts.

I first read Meredith Hall’s account of giving up her child shortly after I gave birth to my first child. When I reached the scene in which, parted from the baby who was meant to suckle from her, she expresses milk from her impacted breasts into the bathroom sink, I began shaking, full of the visceral horror at the severing of what I now experience as a living bond between mother and child. That severing is inextricably bound up with the breaking of the bond between Hall and her mother. Hall’s mother, who had largely abandoned her daughter to her own devices the summer Hall was seduced, reacted with anger to the news that she was pregnant, sent her away during the pregnancy, and offered her no choice but surrender of her child. This devastating destruction of the mother- daughter bond is crystallized in that scene in the bathroom. Her mother finds her crying as she expresses now useless breast milk into the sink.

“Oh, sweetheart,” she had said. “My poor sweetheart.” I whipped around and hissed at her, “Get out.” They were the first and only tears I had shed throughout the pregnancy and birth and the terrible, terrible drive from the hospital. We had moved beyond mother and daughter forever. Whatever she felt, watching me cry, could not help me now.

I find reading this part of her story nearly unbearable, the injustice of the mother’s behavior the most intolerable element in Hall’s devastating story. The willingness of mothers to inflict this devaluation on their daughters demonstrates to me the profound depths of self-hatred that women internalized, and it seems to me that at least in this respect misogyny reached its worst depths in this postwar era. Perhaps this is part of why the women’s movement arose soon after.

It was a system that was full of hidden violence. Many of the sexual encounters that got these women and girls pregnant were hardly consensual. Where the Seattle Crittenton Home annual reports reveal the ages of those served they tell a disturbing story: In 1946, the year it reopened after the war, 7 of the 70 girls it served were 13 to 15 years old. In 1966, the home served 6 13-year olds and 13 14-year-olds. In the 1956 report, intimate violence looms under nauseating euphemism: “When Lucy was 13, her father first made advances to her.” Lucy, we are told, felt betrayed by her mother. Lucy then gets pregnant by her boyfriend, although we are to understand that she got herself pregnant as a result of her unresolved psychological conflict, which is resolved by surrendering her baby.

Nor was the decision to surrender a child freely made. Women who said they wanted to keep their babies were told they were selfish. Parents refused to help their daughters keep their babies and instead insisted their daughters give them up. They were aided by institutional power. A maternity home administrator put it this way, “Consciously or unconsciously pressure is put upon her by the caseworker and she accepts the established point of view, namely that adoption is best for the baby and therefore for her, or she is asked to remove her child from the care of the agency.” If mere pressure wasn’t enough, brute compulsion was used. A woman interviewed by Fessler found that, when she decided she wanted to keep her baby and got her mother to agree to help her care for it, the social worker told her she could take her baby only when she paid all the hospital, doctor, foster home, maternity home, and counseling bills, adding up to thousands of dollars. The woman had no money to pay this ransom and so she surrendered her child.

That families would be willing to throw away their grandchildren still seems to me inexplicable—until you add the final, fatal piece of the puzzle. It’s what it always is in America—race. “In 1968 you were considered trash if you were pregnant. The symbol of being a good, white, middle class family was a lily-white daughter,” one woman explained to Fessler. White families were so extreme in excising single pregnant daughters because unwed pregnancy equaled blackness. In this era, most unwed white girls gave their babies up for adoption, but 9 out of 10 black girls kept theirs.

Most maternity homes did not accept black girls (although Seattle’s Crittenton Home did). Black families did not, in general, spurn their pregnant unwed daughters or make them give away their babies. “It would be immoral to place the baby [for adoption]. That would be throwing away your own flesh and blood,” one black woman put it in 1962.Having less than a century before escaped an institution that ripped families apart, the descendants of slaves would have no part of throwing away family members. As Rickie Solinger explains, the black community in this era organized itself to accommodate single mothers and their children, while the white community organized itself to expel them. Yet in one of the many cruel ironies of racism, in this same era white scholars accused African Americans of having a broken family culture. According to the Moynihan report, black family structure was the fundamental cause of worsening inequality between blacks and whites. Just as an unwed mother was not-a-mother, families that held onto their own were not-families.

If black families resisted breaking up families, it was also true that there was less demand from the market for them to do so. Under slavery, black women’s fertility and the babies they bore were valuable commodities. Not so once slavery was ended. Racism associated blacks with sexual license and constructed black women as unconstrained wanton breeders. Resistance to desegregation of schools was linked to anxiety about white girls being “infected” with black girls’ sexual license.

For example, in 1956 Congressional hearings on desegregation of Washington, DC, schools, Southern congressmen focused on an assumed rise in teen pregnancies in the year since desegregation and then triumphantly wrote a report recommending that segregation be restored because of the prevalence of unwed mothers among black school girls. A 1957 editorial in the Richmond News Leader wrote that “one of the more significant reasons for the South’s resistance to integration of the schools” was the “sobering unpleasant fact” of black illegitimacy rates, which were unaffected by advances in blacks’ income, education, and housing.

Of course, white girls were already widely infected with license, as the data on pre-marital sexual experience show. The cultural response to this unacceptable fact was cleansing and excising through adoption: through the surrender of their illegitimate babies girls could regain their whiteness. Once race is added to the mix, the inexplicable becomes explicable: Families were willing to destroy their daughters and throw away their own descendants to avoid blackening the family. It was necessary to destroy the family to save its whiteness.

It was a solution that did not last. In 1965, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that black and white families were diverging, with disastrous implications for African Americans. It turned out that it was the white family that had taken an unsustainable detour. In 1964, white women were 27 times more likely to surrender babies for adoption than black women were. Today white rates of surrender have dropped to about the same rate as those of blacks.

One of the most haunting aspects of this history is how quickly the practice of forcing white girls to surrender their babies ended. It exploded and then suddenly ended: Seattle’s Crittenton Home expanded in 1956 and again in 1965, but closed in 1973 for lack of demand, and the pattern was the same throughout the country. As of 1973, with the legalization of abortion, a single woman could freely end her pregnancy. Or she could keep the baby. If she had the right not to be a mother, the logical corollary was that she also had the right to be a mother. In 1971, in Ordway v. Hargraves, the Supreme Court ruled it illegal to expel pregnant girls from school, and in 1975 Title IX barred schools that didn’t follow Ordway from receiving federal funds. An unwed girl who in 1970 had no choice but to give up her child could by 1975 simply keep her child. Lorraine Dusky, for example, recounts that she gave up her daughter in 1966 in total secrecy, not even informing her family, but by 1974, still single, was publicly searching for her daughter. Between 1945 and 1973, one and a half to two million babies were relinquished to stranger adoption.

Thinking of these numbers is like walking along Maya Lin’s Vietnam War wall. I imagine reading the final names and think, so much pain in the service of a failed war to preserve—what exactly? Control of women’s reproductive capacities, racial hierarchy, a rigid, man-centered definition of family. By all accounts, the pain of surrendering of a child is profound. “The grief was so intense that I remember thinking that I would die,” one woman recounted to Rickie Solinger. Another said, “I never even read the relinquishment form. I was too crushed and just signed it…I was already a zombie just going through the motions of being alive…I felt dead inside.”29 Most women who give up children find a measure of healing only in being reunited with them. A quick internet search yields list after list of adoptees seeking birth parents, birth parents seeking surrendered children, siblings seeking siblings adopted away. There are many from the time of my birth, several of adoptees given up at Seattle Crittenton Home.

In the morning, stiff and cold from a night under the willow tree, my mother did not walk to the Crittenton Home. Instead, she got on a bus to California, toward, not away from her disapproving mother, refusing to be hidden, insisting that she was a mother and that we were family. After I was born, she went on welfare, lived on rice and beans, located the local women’s movement, helped found a feminist newspaper. My grandmother soon forgot her disapproval of my existence and became a doting grandmother, showing me all the love my mother felt she never got. Lucky, because I would be the only grandchild.

My mother always said she could heal her relationship with her mother only by loving me. I never knew my great grandmother. My mother and grandmother could never love each other as they ought. There are leaps and tears in the warp of our family. But the fabric holds.


One thought on “Essay: The Girl Who Wouldn’t Go Away”

  1. I was put up for adoption in 1970. Found my Mom and 3 sisters a few years back. It has been a wonderful reunion, although I know this is often not the case. Thank you for writing and sharing this.