Thoughts on Wake Up Little Susie by Rickie Solinger

This past month, I finally got around to reading Wake Up Little Susie by Rickie Solinger, a book that has been highly recommended in the adoption community. The book’s focus, though, isn’t adoption, but rather the ways in which unmarried pregnant women and girls were dealt with in the United States between 1945 and 1965.

I want to say two things about this book. First, the information it presents is important for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of women’s rights in this country. It was eye opening for me to learn how political and social policies have determined two separate fates for black vs. white women who have deviated from accepted norms. I came to Susie knowing that, in most cases during this time frame, white unmarried pregnant women and girls were convinced to relinquish their babies for adoption while black women and girls in similar circumstances kept and raised their own children with the help of their families, but I did not know why that was the case or how the system was designed to punish those black women at every turn.

Having myself been born to an unmarried white girl in the late 1960s, I was most familiar with the narrative expressed by the women interviewed by Ann Fessler for her book The Girls Who Went Away. Solinger’s book, however, reveals how social support systems across the country aimed to diagnose women like my mother as psychologically impaired and then rehabilitate them via whisking their babies off to respectable, married couples, thereby satisfying two goals: supplying infertile couples with children who could blend into their white families and providing a means for fallen women and girls to become eligible again for marriage and respectability.

Black women and girls were not offered this same chance at rehabilitation. They were deemed to be immoral by nature, and were therefore required to deal with the consequence of their immorality. Services that might have helped them in raising their children were denied to them, because officials decided that to offer assistance would be akin to encouraging illegitimate pregnancies. Thus, the trope of the welfare queen took hold, due largely to a desire within the white establishment to keep black mothers, and, by extension, all black people, in their place. In reality, most financial assistance to single mothers went to white women, because authorities created onerous roadblocks to keep black women from receiving aid. Black women were also denied space in maternity homes or the option of offering their babies for adoption.

What can a woman in crisis do except to utilize the options that are available to her? What better way to control women than to limit their options.

The more I learn about this period in US history, the more obvious it is to me that control of women’s health and financial options has been used repeatedly as a means of trying to shape our society according the vision of white men in power (and the women who go along with them), without too much concern for the individual people or families affected by those political decisions. And this continues today. We see the current administration attempting to cut back or eliminate services related to sex education, birth control, and women’s health, services that have been in place now for several decades and that have been successful in reducing unplanned pregnancies and enabling women to make informed choices for their own lives. There are people in positions of power in this country right now who want to take us back to that time when women had very little say in what happened to their lives because they had so few options when it came to giving birth or raising children. We cannot allow them to force us back there.

The second observation I want to make about Wake Up Little Susie concerns its format, the actual written words in the book. As I said, this book has been highly recommended, however it was clearly written for an academic audience. Solinger’s research consists of studying a slew of sociological studies along with historical documents. Even when she quotes individual women affected by the policies she’s describing, those quotes are taken from previous studies in which the women were interviewed, so it feels as if the women’s voices exist only in service to answering the academic question that’s been put forth. This is not to deny the relevance of Solinger’s work; her synthesis of all this information is still quite valuable, as I’ve already described.

But, here’s the thing. The way the information is presented is so dry and so academically worded that I fear many lay readers would not have the fortitude to stick with this book long enough to fully grasp the enormity of the very important conclusions Solinger reaches. We need researchers and historians like Solinger, but we also need creative writers and other artists who can find ways to better communicate important information like this to a much broader audience. I believe the key to real change in this country lies in raising the awareness and understanding of a broad swath of regular, everyday people.

Everyday people in large numbers demanding change is what makes things happen. It’s up to those of us who first recognize the need for change to figure out how to communicate that need in a way that many others will feel in their bones. Action requires passion. We must inspire in order to effect change.

What’s It About?

Thanks for asking.

Lyrical and informative, An Adoptee Lexicon is a glossary of adoption terminology from the viewpoint of an adult adoptee.

Contemplating religion, politics, science, and human rights, Karen Pickell, who was born and adopted in the late 1960s, intersperses personal commentary and snippets from her own experience with history and statistics pertaining to child development and the adoption industry. The collection of micro essays is presented as an organically ordered glossary, along with a robust list of sources and suggested reading as well as an alphabetical index, creating layers of association between words commonly used when discussing adoption.

Pickell draws connections between contemporary American political issues and the social climate that led to a tsunami of adoptions in the decades following World War II through the early 1970s—a period known as the Baby Scoop Era—and also touches on the complexity of transracial and international adoptions.

Throughout An Adoptee Lexicon, the focus remains firmly on adopted people—their perceptions, their needs, and their right to fully exist in exactly the way non-adopted people do.

Continue reading “What’s It About?”

Talking about Adoption in Public Spaces

My journey into the public realm of adoption discourse began with two life-changing interactions: I found and reunited with my birth mother during the time frame that I was getting to know my husband’s adult adopted son. I was in my thirties.

Reuniting with birth family meant I learned for the first time about the beginning of my life, that missing piece that had prevented my story from being whole. I heard my mother say she had not wanted to relinquish me, that she was given no other option. I heard her say she had not understood that the name she gave me would ever be changed. I wanted to understand what she’d gone through during her pregnancy and my birth, so I sought information about adoption in the late 1960s and I discovered Ann Fessler’s book The Girls Who Went Away. I learned that I was a product of a historical period in the U.S. called the Baby Scoop Era, so I sought information on what that meant. I wanted to understand how I had lost my original name, and I discovered that I’d had another birth certificate when I was born. For more than thirty years of my life, I had not known that I originally had a different birth certificate than the only one I’d ever seen.

Hearing my new stepson’s story meant I learned for the first time that my experience of being adopted was not an anomaly. I first heard his story from my husband’s point of view, so I heard that he had been adopted from Korea in the mid-1970s; that he was estimated to be four years old though his actual birth date was unknown; that he understood no English when he arrived in the U.S.; that he preferred sleeping on the floor rather than in a bed; that when he first saw a TV he inched over to it and held his fingers out to touch. This story was far different from the one I’d been told about myself. Continue reading “Talking about Adoption in Public Spaces”

Search, Research, Self, Connection

ROAR2013I used to think of myself as unique in a not-so-good way. I thought of myself as different from everyone else because of not being physically related to anyone. Of course, there were people out there who shared my DNA, I just didn’t know any of them. I saw myself as an anomaly that probably no one could understand.

Over many years of searching, reuniting, and processing the aftermath, I’ve done a lot of research on adoption. Of course, I didn’t think of it as research at the time. I only wanted to satisfy my curiosity, find answers to my many questions.

Along the way, I learned that I wasn’t unique the way I’d previously thought. I wasn’t alone in my condition. Actually, the exact opposite was true–I discovered I was of the Baby Scoop Era, a period of nearly thirty years when 4,000,000 or so babies were relinquished to adoption. I also found out that for no other reason than the year in which I was adopted, I was not entitled to see my own original birth certificate in Ohio.

Current law says that we who were adopted between 1964 and 1996 cannot see our birth records, but those adopted outside of this period can. Of course, I wanted to know why this was the case, so I searched some more and found that adoptee birth certificates were sealed in 1964. Before then, they had been accessible. And in 1996, they were opened again, but not retroactively.

A man named Brad Norris, an attorney from my hometown of Cleveland, had drafted the bill that eventually sealed my original birth certificate. Ironically, Brad was the father of Betsie Norris, who founded Adoption Network Cleveland, the organization that helped me find my own birth mother.

No, I was not unique. Betsie herself was adopted as an infant and went through a similar search to find her birth parents. She looked for the answers to her questions, and decided her calling was to advocate for adoptees and adoption reform.

Last spring, I chose the story of Betsie Norris, her adoptive father, Brad, and their relationship to Ohio’s law concerning adoptee birth certificates as the topic of a biography project for one of my graduate writing classes. A short version of that piece can be read on Lost Daughters. Talking with Betsie about her story has had a profound impact on my life: I see myself now not merely as one unique individual adoptee, but as a member of an entire community of people who must somehow navigate between two families, and sometimes even between two cultures or two countries. When I write about adoption now, I no longer write only for myself, but for the many others like me as well. My identity as an adoptee is not all of me, but at the same time, it is a part of everything I do.

Now Betsie is leading the fight to open records for those of us from Ohio who were adopted between 1964 and 1996. I’m doing what I can to support the passage of House Bill 61 and Senate Bill 23, although it never feels like enough. It’s hard to be out of state at a time like this when I’d like to do more. I am indebted to Betsie and all the others like her who have given so much of their time and energy to fight for my rights.