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
In this deeply moving work, Ann Fessler brings to light the lives of hundreds of thousands of young single American women forced to give up their newborn children in the years following World War II and before Roe v. Wade. The Girls Who Went Away tells a story not of wild and carefree sexual liberation, but rather of a devastating double standard that has had punishing long-term effects on these women and on the children they gave up for adoption.
Visual artist, filmmaker, and author Ann Fessler has spent nearly four decades creating work that deals with the stories of women and the impact that myths, stereotypes, and mass media images have on their lives and intimate relationships. Her interest in the gap between official histories and lived histories has led her not only to collect and contextualize the stories and voices of individuals who have been negatively affected by misrepresentations, but also to critique the institutions and systems that have perpetuated the practice.
She has spent the last twenty-five years bringing the first-person narratives and hidden history of adoption into the public sphere through her writing and visual works. She turned to the subject after being approached by a woman who thought Fessler might be the daughter she had surrendered forty years earlier. Though the woman was not her mother, Fessler, an adoptee, was profoundly moved by the experience. The conversation that ensued shifted the focus of her work to adoption and she has since produced three films, several audio and video installations, and written a non-fiction book on the subject.
Between 2002 and 2005, Fessler interviewed 100 women who lost children to adoption during the 28 years that followed WWII, when a perfect storm of circumstances led to an unprecedented 1.5 million surrenders. With the support of a 2003–2004 Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard, Fessler continued interviewing as she researched the history of adoption and the social climate of the time. The result was her non-fiction book, The Girls Who Went Away (Penguin Press, 2006), which places the women’s stories within the social history of the era and her own story as an adoptee. Her book was called “wrenching, riveting” by The Chicago Tribune, “a remarkably well researched and accomplished book” by The New York Times, and “a blend of deeply moving personal tales, bolstered by solid sociological analysis—journalism of the first order” by The San Francisco Chronicle.
The Girls Who Went Away was chosen as one of the top five non-fiction books of 2006 by the National Book Critics Circle, and was awarded the Ballard Book Prize, given annually to a female author who advances the dialogue about women’s rights. In 2011, The Girls Who Went Away was chosen by Ms. magazine readers as one of the top 100 Feminist Books of all time.
Her latest film, A Girl Like Her (2011) combines the voices of the women she interviewed with footage from the era—including educational films about dating, sex and “illegitimate” pregnancy, and newsreels about adoption—that both reflected and shaped the public’s understanding of unwed pregnancy and surrender. Fessler’s film has been subtitled in five languages and shown at colleges, adoption conferences, and film festivals in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Poland, Israel, Korea, Holland, Spain, Canada, and the United States. In 2012, Geneva Anderson writing for Art Hound said, “Fessler’s documentary offers a sociologically rich and important deconstruction of a devastating double standard in effect in those days. By revealing the painful legacy that permanently impacted so many mothers, Fessler has finally and respectfully given them a voice”.