How it was for women |

How it was for women

special to the daily
Special to the Daily

More than 25 years ago, a television commercial debuted, targeting women with the message “you can have it all.” I will spare you the whole jingle, but the most popular verses were:

“I can bring home the bacon

Fry it up in the pan

And never, NEVER, let you forget you’re a maaan

Cause, I’m a Woooooman” (Enjoli by Revlon, you can see this old commercial on YouTube)

I admit to being one of the young women singing this song, dreaming of opportunities highlighted by this commercial. In the ’70s and ’80s many women started to get a glimpse of growing opportunities as access to education and subsequent jobs and careers increased for our gender.

It was finally socially acceptable to pursue an education, career and family … all at once or in whatever order we chose. But it was our choice.

In 1982, I was a young married woman, in my early 20s, and I was expecting my first child. During my seventh month of pregnancy, the manager of my department wanted to know why I was still working. Women, he informed me, did not come into the office of this company when they were “showing” this much.

My first reaction was to laugh, as I thought it was a joke. Quickly I realized he was serious and I respectfully provided him the option to let me continue to work in the office or he could just send my full paycheck home as I did need to contribute to my family. This event was a generational learning experience for both boss and employee. It gave me an early appreciation for the unintentional bias present between generations, genders and cultures.

At the time, I remember reflecting on the meeting, wondering how women in the 1950s or 1960s coped with bias in the workplace and society.

Ann Fessler’s book, “The Girls Who Went Away,” answered some of those questions.

This is a book every woman should read as it documents society’s bias during the 1950s and 1960s. It highlights a part of women’s history most of us were unaware of or chose to ignore. It provides a glimpse of society’s lack of tolerance for unconventional situations.

Fessler interviewed birth mothers in the present who “gave away” their children more than 30 years ago. This documentary chronicles the struggles of 18 women who were forced to give their children up for adoption. Per Fessler, 1.5 million adoptions occurred between the end of World War II and the legalization of abortion nationwide in 1973. Most of these adoptions were supplied by unwed mothers, many of whom had no choice but to part with their babies.

Fessler interviewed 100 of these birth mothers who in many cases were forced by adoption agencies, parents or courts to relinquish custody of their newborns. From the emotional interviews, most of these young girls were not aware of their legal rights. No system of advocacy existed for them and both families and society were not providing the support needed.

It was near impossible to go forward and raise their child alone. Some of us may be quick to pass judgment on these young women ” by thinking these women got themselves “in trouble.” But these were turbulent times for young women.

While many reflect on the good times and family values of the ’50’s and ’60’s, Fessler’s book documents the gut-wrenching issues not open to public discussion. The post WW II sexual revolution preceded access to sex education and birth control.

Doctors would not provide birth control to unwed mothers.

Fathers could deny responsibility as DNA testing did not exist. Unwed mothers-to-be were tossed out of public schools and college due to their “condition” once they started to show. They experienced quick banishment from society. Agencies and well-meaning family members made it clear babies would be better off in adoptive homes, and these young mothers would soon “forget” and move on with their lives.

Parents of these girls “in trouble” faced their own social stigma. They went to great lengths to hide their daughters’ condition so their church, work or social life was not negatively impacted. The harshest form of social shunning was expected.

These young women “went to care for sick Aunt Sally many states away” or “went to a private school out of state.” These stories were meant to protect the daughter and families reputation. These young, scared women typically were sent to homes for unwed mothers.

When it was time to give birth, they were transported to the hospital via cab, alone. When they were admitted to the hospital, they were alone. They went through contractions, alone. Birth, alone. Often waking to find their child already gone. If they raised issues and protested, they were presented with huge hospital bills in exchange for keeping their babies.

These mothers did not “forget and move on” as well-meaning social workers or pastors advised. Some of them still struggle with depression, self-esteem and alcoholism or drug abuse. A legacy of shame and guilt continues for these women ” they never felt comfortable sharing their emotional turmoil, and so never healed.

They did not receive counseling when they gave up their children and are still trying to cope with their loss. Fessler includes uplifting stories of children finding their mothers, mothers finding their children and those still searching, including her own experience.

This book is not an easy read. It is not meant to be. It is a book and a topic that leaves you enlightened, empathetic and hopefully compassionate toward women who’ve held this inside for many years. Many books and articles have focused on adopted children seeking out their biological parents.

Much less has been published on the experience of these young, frightened women who gave up their children for adoption. Fessler brings their 18 voices into our hearts with grace and compassion.

This book is available at The Open Book in Frisco. Dorothy Yundt is available at the store at (970) 668-5399 or by e-mail at

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