Rave On: Jennifer Baumgardner on The Girls Who Went Away

Welcome to "Rave On," a new Page Turner series that asks feminist writers, artists, musicians, activists, leaders, and scholars to talk about a book that completely rocked their world. The series highlights books that led people to first identify as feminist, shaped their feminist ideology, radically transformed their view of feminism and our world, or just moved them so deeply that they read the book a bunch of times and then made all their friends read it, too.

Our series kicks off with writer Jennifer Baumgardner, who raves about The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, by Ann Fessler.

Around Christmastime 2006, I attended a book party hosted by Karenna Gore for Ann Fessler. I had already read the New York Times Book Review review of The Girls Who Went Away—and it was a rave—but I think my main motivation to go to the party was to hang out with my friend Amy. Fessler, the author, is an adoptee and also an artist (she teaches photography at Rhode Island School of Design). She interviewed women who had surrendered their babies pre-Roe (i.e. before there was any semblance of reproductive options for women) and played an audio-pastiche at the party of the women's stories, in their own voices.

I had recently had a child out of wedlock, and it was wrenching to hear from women for whom that was not an option. So many of them were coerced into giving up their children, told that there was no way they could possibly be a good mother, that the most maternal thing they could do was to allow another "proper" family to have their baby. They lived in maternity homes, gave birth without any emotional support, and then were told to just go back to their lives (finishing high school, often) as if "nothing had ever happened." I was sobbing as I listened.

So, I bought the book. But each time I began reading it, the tears came and I had to stop reading. Finally, on a flight from New York to San Francisco to begin my 2007 book tour for Look Both Ways, I read the book cover to cover, not worrying about what a scene I was creating with my sniffles. Each story was more heartbreaking than I thought imaginable. The level of societal denial (my own ignorance!) around birth mothers, particularly back then when it took unbelievable fortitude to be an unmarried mother (and you were destined to be a pariah), was a revelation for me. I had always been so drawn to reproductive freedom and justice as a catalyzing issue—but had never understood or really thought about the adoption piece.

I don't feel like having a child is in any way hardwired for women or the most meaningful thing we can do. I think you can have a great life without children, as Ann Fessler's own life proves. But I do think it is an unbelievably profound experience to become pregnant, to feel another human being growing inside you for the better part of a year, to undergo the dramatic hormonal and physical transformation required to make a baby, to labor for 24 or so hours and experience some of the most intense pain and unfamiliar sensations possible, and to squeeze out a wriggling, autonomous human being. It's hardly something you can treat—want to treat—as if it never happened. The women in this book were told that they were lucky someone else was there to pick up the pieces of their "mistake." They were never acknowledged as mothers.

Later that year, I contacted Ann Fessler, the author, to interview her for a book I was writing called Abortion & Life. I said I had seen her once in person at the aforementioned book party. "I was the woman sobbing on the couch," I said. "Ah, yes," said Ann. "I remember you."

Jennifer Baumgardner is a New York-city based writer working on a film project about rape, called "I Was Raped," and new book with Amy Richards, called The Family Bed. She teaches writing at The New School.

Related

Rave On: Anne Elizabeth Moore on Dirty Plotte

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Rave On: Jessica Hoffmann on Women, Race, and Class

Rave On: Julia Serano on Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75

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Comments

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I just finished this book

I just finished this book about a month ago. I was struck by how hidden this history really was. I had no clue that these women had to face so much coercion, intimidation and manipulation, that many of them would never consider giving up their child had there been a place for them in society. Honestly, I hadn't thought of all this before. These girls were vilified for becoming pregnant, their histories erased. Many of their families refused to speak of the pregnancy or birth.

They were punished for the ills of a society where women were supposed to be the gatekeepers of chastity, while men could rape them or get them pregnant with no similar consequences. It was absolutely shocking the lack of sex ed these women had. One pregnant girl didn't even know how the baby was supposed to come out during birth!

Reading the book I found myself thanking my lucky stars I wasn't around for those days. And I felt sympathy for the women whose emotional wounds took decades to heal.

Book

I read this book during a plane ride over the pacific and was riveted. I can't recommend it enough, I'm grateful we've come so far, and aware of the journey that is still ahead of us.

I started choking up just reading this post

So I'm not sure, much as I want to read this book, that I can do it. I burst into tears watching the episode of Mad Men where Peggy gave birth to a child and then refused to even look at it. It seems impossible to us now that a woman could have gone to term with a pregnancy without knowing it, but when you consider how little women knew about their bodies and the workings of reproduction until fairly recently, that probably wasn't so uncommon.

I know a lot of feminists who scoff at the idea that pregnancy and motherhood really can change you, but it does—physically, emotionally, and often spiritually. You can support a woman's right to choose, and you can disagree with the conservative position that motherhood is the be-all and end-all of defining life experiences for women. But you can't deny that those changes are very real. To think of the number of women who had to tamp all that down and erase their experiences is heartbreaking.

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the girls who went away

I went away the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I went to an unwed mothers home, had a little boy and gave him up. Sure, I guess I was coerced, but at the time it was the answer to a nightmare of what to do with my blossoming life. A few years later my 15 year-old niece became pregnant and her family's answer was to keep her little boy. Three decades later, here's the result. My son, who found me 2 years ago, is a happy father of 2, with a sister (also adopted), and a mother and father. We have developed an honest and loving relationship and I have flown across country to visit his family. His children call me gramma and are delighted to have discovered yet another gramma. My niece's son had a tough childhood. What can be expected of a 15 year old mother? She left the child raising to her mother who kept him fed, clothed, sheltered and loved, but he didn't really have a role, in the sociological sense, in her family. Eventually, he dropped out of high school and now does incidental highway construction work. I think the years of not having a real, single human not playing the nurturing role, which is a 24 hour a day, sometimes subtle, sometimes despotic, his sense of self tied up with sense of belonging, fell between the cracks. He is on his own now in making it in the world, but lacking those childhood years of learning and affirmation, I'm not betting on a happy ending.
So, which choice was right? Of course it's complicated and each case has its own variables. But, no one should think for one minute that those past years practices were so simplistically wrong. Perhaps the motives were superficial, saving face socially, but the outcome should not be judged by that. I would hope the same decision facing young women toI went away the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I went to an unwed mothers home, had a little boy and gave him up. Sure, I guess I was coerced, but at the time it was the answer to a nightmare of what to do with my blossoming life. A few years later my 15 year-old niece became pregnant and her family's answer was to keep her little boy. Three decades later, here's the result. My son, who found me 2 years ago, is a happy father of 2, with a sister (also adopted), and a mother and father. We have developed an honest and loving relationship and I have flown across country to visit his family. His children call me gramma and are delighted to have discovered yet another gramma. My niece's son had a tough childhood. What can be expected of a 15 year old mother? She left the child raising to her mother who kept him fed, clothed, sheltered and loved, but he didn't really have a role, in the sociological sense, in her family. Eventually, he dropped out of high school and now does incidental highway construction work. I think the years of not having a real, single human not playing the nurturing role, which is a 24 hour a day, sometimes subtle, sometimes despotic, his sense of self tied up with sense of belonging, fell between the cracks. He is on his own now in making it in the world, but lacking those childhood years of learning and day should be one with eyes wide open, envisioning the future for self and baby.