Canadian Council of Natural Mothers' Library

Wake Up Little Susie

Ricki Solinger

Talk at Brisbane Conference on Adoption based on this book

I'm reading Wake Up Little Susie, Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade. There's not a lot about feminism in this book, but in the preface Solinger links the political and social climate of post-WW II to the US Supreme Court's decision, Roe v. Wade when abortion was legalized in the US in 1973. She says, " political project here is to show that the treatment of unmarried girls and women in the era that preceded Roe, a period contemporaneous with the post-war phase of the civil rights movement, reflected a powerful and enduring willingness in our culture to use women's bodies to promote conservative political goals."

"An unwed mother was not part of a legal, domestic, and subordinate relation to a man, and so she could be scorned and punished, shamed and blamed. She gave birth to the baby but she was nobody's heroine," (p. 4) whereas women who gave birth in the context of marriage were heroines. After WW II, nonmarital sex increased and many unmarried mothers were white and middle class. By 1950 professional social workers managed the maternity homes which became increasingly accountable to the community since that's where they got much of their funding.

In the early decades of the twentieth century most maternity homes excluded blacks; most black families and communities did not "require each other to expel their unmarried pregnant daughters, as white families and communities did." (p. 17)
"Until the late 1930s, cases of illegitimacy were generally handled by child-centred agencies charged with making sure that children born out of wedlock were accorded care as nearly equal to other children as possible, mainly by ensuring that illegitimate children remained with their birth mothers." Some states legislated breast-feeding for six months. "The post depression, postwar agenda... gave a prominent role to the family and thus to female conformity." Those who attacked women insisted that all contemporary forms of 'social disease' from juvenile delinquency, to homosexuality, to unwed motherhood, to henpecked husbands, were caused by 'women's misplaced sexuality,' which meant her reputed unwillingness to be subdued within the family. A woman's assertion of self was equated with perverse and dangerous sexuality." (p.21)

"...[In] the 1940s [we see] the shift from child-centred agencies to woman-centred agencies to manage the outcomes of illegitimate pregnancy. It was at this point that public and professional attitudes about who was a mother emerged as racially variable. Women-centred social agencies introduced casework treatment for white, single, pregnant girls and women, with the effect of redefining illegitimacy for this population as a psychological rather than a sexual issue... Consistent with social attitudes about single women, white unwed mothers became, by definition, unfit mothers, in fact, not mothers at all. By professional definition and diagnosis, white unwed mothers who wanted to keep their babies were diagnosed as particularly immature, or more usually, mentally ill." "White unwed mothers ... were viewed as socially productive breeders whose babies, unfortunately conceived out of wedlock, could offer infertile couples their only chance to construct proper families." (p.24)

"... [The] vast majority,...the leadership of the Salvation Army, Florence Crittendon Association of America, and Catholic Charities, psychologists, psychiatrists, and clergy, were largely in agreement that white unmarried mothers must, for the sake of their own futures and the future of the illegitimate child, put these babies up for adoption." (p.26)

"The state's view of white unwed mothers as desirable reproducers, which supported and in part created the postwar adoption craze, is closely related to the views of some in the anti-choice movement today." (p. 40)

In the 1960s, "both the [population] bomb and the [sexual] revolution... cast unmarried females... as aggressors against American society and diminished appreciation of their true vulnerability, particularly when they became unwed mothers. By constructing unwed mothers as aggressors, the public was justified in meting out punishment, scorn and disrespect..." (p. 230)

It seems to me that the modern women's movement has given natural mothers virtually no attention. Perhaps this is because in the early days of the movement, the 1960s, motherhood was something to be avoided, not embraced. The ideal woman was strong and free, unfettered by children. Many early feminists chose to be childless. Plus, there was no tradition of supporting "unwed mothers" to draw on from the past as the suffragists were intent on getting the vote. Now that the early feminists are older and had delayed having children, they found themselves infertile and they adopted. Whatever the reason, the consequence is that we exist outside both mainstream society (which still insists on punishment of unmarried mothers, especially those who "gave away their babies") and the women's movement, despite the fact that most of us resemble those in that movement, being white middle-class women. Maybe we're just a little too close to home.


Reviewer: Karen Lynn


The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers