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Over My Shoulder #43: how professional social workers colonized the maternity home movement, and what came after. From Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away.

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from the book I’ve been reading on and off most mornings this week, 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. This is from chapter 6, Going Away, which focuses on the institutional set-up of the maternity homes themselves and the experiences that pregnant women had when they arrived in them. Although this passage doesn’t discuss it, elsewhere in the book Fessler notes a couple of things which may help put the rest in context: first, Fessler points out elsewhere that, in all the social-work discussion of the causes of illegitimacy, every new wave of theory offered a different explanation of the unwed mother’s defects. Never discussed was whether unplanned pregnancies had anything to do with the personal characteristics, social position, attitudes, psychology, or actions of unwed fathers. The development of theory after theory by the self-styled experts was not a good-faith intellectual effort, and it didn’t emerge in an ideological vacuum; it was theorizing driven by the need to rationalize a social process of shaming and blaming. Second, she also mentions elsewhere the emerging notion of social work professionalism, and the kind of coercive tactics they used, didn’t emerge in an institutional vacuum, either; they were caught up with the fact that maternity homes were increasingly being transformed into intermediaries in health and social services spending by state governments. Women mentioned how social workers would coerce them into surrendering, if they expressed second thoughts, by saying that they would have to pay the state back thousands of dollars for their stay in at the maternity home and for their hospital bills. At the far extreme, one of the women she interviews mentions a case she had heard of, in which a mother who refused to relinquish was forcibly committed to a state mental hospital (on the grounds that she must be crazy) until she agreed to surrender her baby, months later. Anyway. Keeping that in mind, on with the quote:

For most of the women I interviewed, however, especially those who were younger, being sent to a maternity home was a traumatic experience. They had been banished from their schools and homes, they were soon to give birth to a child, and rather than being surrounded by caring family members they were living in institutions among strangers. Although many felt camaraderie with the other young women who were there, they also felt that the environment was cold and demeaning and that the disapproval of those who looked after them was palpable.

The philosophy and mission of maternity homes had changed considerably since the early 1900s, when the maternity-home movement began. The religious women who first ran the homes saw themselves as sympathetic sisters who were there for women who had no other place to turn. The home was a place of refuge and spiritual reform for women who had, in their eyes, been seduced and abandoned. Motherhood, they believed, would increase a woman’s chances of living a good and proper life. During this time, babies were not separated from their mothers except under extreme circumstances, as when women cannot be helped or compelled to meet their obligation as parents. The homes generally encouraged bonding through breast-feeding and they helped the women find employment–usually as domestic servants–which would enable them to care for their child and to work. Well into the early 1940s, some homes still encouraged, if not required, the mother to breast-feed her baby to ensure that a bond developed between mother and child.

But by the end of World War II, a sea change had occurred in the mission and philosophy of the homes. Maternity homes of the 1950s and 1960s were, to a great extent, a place to sequester pregnant girls until they could give birth and surrender their child for adoption. If a young woman was unsure of or uninterested in relinquishment, the staff attempted to convince her that it was her best, and perhaps only, option. Though maternity homes were the only place a girl in trouble could turn for help outside of her family, by the 1950s they best served her interest if her interest was in giving her child up for adoption at the end of her stay.

The change in philosophy was highly contested among those who ran the homes and did not come about uniformly. To a great extent the views at individual homes changed as the staff changed. Between the turn of the century and the 1940s, the women who had founded the homes were supplanted by professional social workers who reshaped the understanding of nonmarital pregnancy.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, social work evolved into a genuine profession, and those who helped professionalize the field were eager to differentiate themselves from charity workers and reformers, whom they saw as overly sentimental and old-fashioned. These professionals formulated what they considered to be more rigorous approaches to social problems, rather than basing their practices on religious perspectives. As the professionals took positions at maternity homes and began to work alongside religious reformers, philosophical clashes resulted. Social workers claimed expertise. As trained professionals, they considered themselves better equipped to diagnose the problems associated with illegitimacy. While their religious predecessors had generally attributed out-of-wedlock pregnancy to the social circumstances of the women’s lives and to outside social forces, the new breed of social worker focused on the women themselves. Over many years, they posited a number of theories about why single women became pregnant, all of which were predicated on the problems inherent in the women themselves.

In the early 1900s, most social workers argued that women who became pregnant out of wedlock were feebleminded; their pregnancy was proof of their feeblemindedness. This made them seem especially dangerous to society because it was believed that these women were not only likely to be repeat offenders, but that they would produce offspring of low intelligence, claiming that the country was in the midst of moral decay and that the family was breaking down, as evidenced by lower birthrates among the better classes of people. They believed that unwed mothers were both the product of bad homes and the cause of broken homes. During this time the concern over nonmarital pregnancy was so great that many feebleminded unwed mothers were either institutionalized or sterilized.

Classifying all unwed mothers as feebleminded, however, proved impossible. Social workers had to acknowledge that many of the women who became pregnant were normally intelligent and relatively well-balanced young women. So a new category was identified, that of the delinquent. This type of womanhad a parallel in the male population. But where delinquency in the male was identified by criminal behavior, female delinquency was defined in sexual terms. The young women who fell into this category were largely seen as those belonging to the working class. By the 1920s, many single women were working in factories, offices, and department stores. They enjoyed a degree of independence and opportunities to fraternize with men. Their sexual lives did not always conform to middle-class standards and in those cases were labeled sexually deviant. This behavior, incidentally, was soon to invade the ranks of the middle class.

Despite the widespread characterization of unwed mothers as either feebleminded breeders or sex delinquents, letters and internal correspondence from Florence Crittenton homes operating in the 1940s offer evidence to the contrary, and the personnel at the homes were still generally supportive of and empathetic to the girls in their charge. A concrete example of such support was found in the application materials for the Kate Waller Barrett Scholarship, which was sponsored by the Crittenton homes in the early 1940s. These scholarship funds were described in materials printed by the Florence Crittenton Mission as being available to a girl who wishes to continue her education to enable her to care for her child. The application required support letters from the superintendent of the home and if the application was successful, the agreement stipulated that the staff at the Crittenton Home would assume responsibility for the care of the child, if necessary, while the mother attended school.

. . .

The kind of support and compassion demonstrated by maternity-home staff in these letters seems to have all but evaporated in the years after World War II. The ongoing struggles between those who aligned themselves with the sentiments of maternity-home founders and those who adopted newer professional strategies came to a symbolic if not an actual end in 1947, when the National Florence Crittenton Mission abandoned its policy of keeping mother and child together.

As the philosophical differences narrowed in the 1940s and social workers coalesced towards agreement on the best course of action for unwed mothers and their babies, efforts to identify the cause of out-of-wedlock pregnancy took a new turn. With the dramatic rise in premarital pregnancies after the war, and as greater numbers of middle-class women became pregnant, it became increasingly implausible to label all of those women as either feebleminded or sexual delinquents. Social workers noted that many of these new unmarried mothers were middle-class girls from good families. A Crittenton social worker wrote about these girls that the sizeable numbers further confound us by rendering our former stereotypes less tenable. Immigration, low mentality, and hyper sexuality can no longer be comfortably applied when the phenomenon has invaded our own social class–when the unwed mother must be classified to include the nice girl next door, the physician’s or pastor’s daughter.

Social workers turned to the growing field of psychiatry for their answer and, as early as the 1940s, began to classify middle-class girls who became pregnant as neurotic: the unwed mother was a neurotic woman who had a subconscious desire to become pregnant. This theory dominated much of the diagnosis and treatment of unwed mothers in the decades that followed the war. Though social workers had been quick to condemn working girls as sex deviants, this new explanation was more appealing in explaining middle-class pregnancy because it downplayed the issue of sexual drive. By identifying the young woman’s goal as pregnancy, rather than sex, the diagnosis of deviance could be bypassed. Though a young woman’s peers, family, and community may still have attributed her pregnancy to loose morals or an overactive sex life, professionals determined that the problem was in her mind.

One of the outcomes of this new professional diagnosis was the justification of the separation of mother and child: a neurotic woman was seen as unfit to be a mother. Given the stigma of illegitimacy in the 1950s and 1960s, many middle-class parents were quick to agree that the solution to the problem was relinquishment and adoption. Following this course, their daughter would be given a second chance. Her pregnancy would effectively be erased from her history and she could expect to go back to a normal life as if it had never happened. Without her child she would be able to marry a decent man and have other children. She would not have to live with her mistake. Adoption also came to be understood as being in the best interest of the child. Rather than growing up with the stigma of illegitimacy and an unfit, neurotic mother, the child would be raised by a stable, well-adjusted married couple.

And though some maternity-home workers were still empathetic to young women who did not want to surrender their baby for adoption, in the postwar years this breed of social worker was rapidly becoming extinct. Internal struggle at the maternity homes continued even into the 1950s, and are evident in correspondence between the leadership of the Florence Crittenton Association of America and the newly hired staff of individual homes. In a letter dated December 23, 1952, Robert Barrett, the chairman of the Florence Crittenton Mission, expresses his concern over a move to shorten the minimum length of a girl’s stay in the maternity home postpartum. The purpose of a mother’s and child’s returning to the home after birth was, Barrett asserts, to give the mother time to be with her baby before making a final decision to surrender. He writes:

Personally I feel very badly that a girl in our Homes shall not be given every opportunity and help to keep her baby if she wants to. Often a girl who has made up her mind to give up her baby feels different after the baby comes and her mother’s instinct is aroused. Not to give her that chance seems a cruel and unnatural proceeding. I am not sure but I feel it would be better for the girl if she tries to take her baby and fails and has to give it up later.

The new policies were shaped by the experts–primarily psychiatrists, social workers, and medical professionals–and promoted by social organizations that had the power and the means to disseminate the ideas. The women whose babies were being placed for adoption were not in any position to influence the policies made on their behalf. Shame is a very effective way to silence individuals, and those who are less socially or economically powerful are rarely in a position to influence the decisions that affect them.

. . .

In theory it was not the social worker but the mother who made the ultimate decision whether to parent or relinquish. A Florence Crittenton brochure from 1952 reads, The mother is under no compulsion, either to leave her baby with us, or to take him with her. There is no priority for either. But it also states that although the mother should perhaps make the choice, not always is she well qualified to make this last decision. And though maternity homes were thought to be safe havens and the goal of all these efforts combined is to induct into society a mother and child, each well started on the road to successful living, in reality this goal was often not fully realized.

Rather than young women being given a realistic picture of the responsibilities and costs of raising a child and allowing them to weigh that information against the resources available to them so they could participate in making an informed decision, they were rendered powerless. And though it might be easy to empathize with a social worker’s efforts to try to persuade a young woman of few resources to be realistic about raising a baby, especially if she lacked family support and did not understand the difficulty and sacrifice involved in raising a child as a single parent, the persuasive techniques were often quite forceful. The degree of pressure put on the women to surrender sometimes crossed the line from persuasion to outright coercion. Many of the women I interviewed recalled high-pressure campaigns waged by the maternity-house staff.

I remember the woman at the adoption agency, a very pleasant woman, smiling, always smiling, and using comforting tones. She sat there and said that I had nothing to offer a baby. I had no education, I had no job, I had no money. Oh, God, they really knew how to work you. Talk about no support, it was how far can we beat you down while we’re smiling?

The social worker was telling me, No man is going to want to marry you, no man is going to want another man’s baby. She proceeded to tell me that the adoptive parents they would find for the baby would be college educated, degreed, they would be much older, they would own their own home, have high incomes. They would be able to give the baby everything that I could not.

They told me I was unfit because I wasn’t married. I didn’t have this, I didn’t have that. Well, it turns out her adoptive parents were just a couple of years older, and neither one had a college education. Nothing against them, but the adoption agency lied to me. They also divorced when she was fourteen. I’m with the same man for thirty-eight years. Financially, her adoptive family was better off than we were, but other than that it wasn’t anything like what the agency promised.


The argument that others would be better parents presumed, of course, that the mother’s own economic standing would not improve anytime soon, if ever, through further education, job or career training, marriage, or family support. It also presumed that the adopting couple’s status would not deteriorate through divorce or job loss. Essentially, the gap in economic and marital status between the mother and adoptive family was seen as fixed, whereas only a decade earlier the mother’s circumstances had been viewed as temporary and improvable, and steps were taken to help her become self-reliant.

In the postwar years, most of the homes aimed simply to ensure that the physical needs of the women were met until they could give birth and relinquish the baby. And despite the momentous life change that they were about to go through, most were sent to the hospital knowing nothing about childbirth, nor were they counseled about the impending separation. Most were completely unprepared for the emotions that would follow their transition from pregnant girls to mothers.

. . .

Of course, the pregnant women who went into hiding were not of one mind; nor were the staff of the institutions they entered. A few women reported that they were counseled in a respectful manner and came to their own decision. But the majority of the women I interviewed did not make a decision to surrender. Many women, even those in their twenties, followed the only path that was available to them–the one prescribed by society, social workers, and parents. After all they had been through, and all they had put their parents through, they felt that, more than anything, they needed to regain their family’s acceptance. Some women decidedly did not want to surrender but were unable to devise a plan that would allow them to care for their baby without some temporary assistance. Many of the women who wanted to parent would have been capable of doing so with a modest amount of support, the kind offered to Bea only a decade or so earlier. But by the mid-1960s professionals were no longer offering this kind of support, and more than 80 percent of those who entered maternity homes surrendered.

–Ann Fessler (2006), The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. New York: Penguin. 142–153.

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