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

If you have preconceived notions of adoption and the young birth mothers forced to relinquish their children during the post World War II years in America, you’ll not have them when you finish The Girls Who Went Away.  This book grew from an audio and video installation project that Ann Fessler began in order to interview women who surrendered their children for adoption.  An adoptee herself, Ms. Fessler begins and ends her book with her own successful search for her mother, which she chronicles with painful honesty and clarity.  Each section is devoted to a different aspect of being the invisible birth mother: “Breaking the Silence” / “Good Girls v. Bad Girls” / “Discovery and Shame” / “The Family’s Fears” / “Going Away” / “Birth and Surrender” / “The Aftermath” / “Search and Reunion” / “Talking and Listening” and within each section are the stories of two different birth mothers.  Over and over, these women speak of the anguish of parting with their newborn infants and the purgatory of living in society’s imposed silence of their ordeal.  Each birth mother expresses in her own way her rage, terror, and feelings of abandonment by her family and society in addition to the intense love she experiences for the child she is forced to give away.


Some of these women find peace, others are still angry, and others reunite with their lost children, but all of them will live in your heart long after you put this book down.  The Girls Who Went Away is so terrifying because the comfortable lies we have told ourselves over the years are shattered by nineteen women and their courageous stories.


My Rating: 

4 thoughts on “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

  1. Thank you for this review.

    As a “modern day” mother who relinquished a child, I sobbed reading the book. I wish more people understood how desperately most of us love and want our children.

  2. It was refreshing and encouraging to see myths broken by the truth of this book and by women like you who are brave enough to say how you feel about your children. I was very deeply moved by these women and their stories, and even had to put the book down at times because of the intensity of the emotions that overwhelmed me. Before reading this book, I never considered the abandonment issues that birth mothers must have felt, but as woman after woman reiterated how abandoned she felt by her family, I gained a whole new perspective on the matter.

  3. Ann Fessler is a true advocate for exiled mothers and I, as a mother she profiled in her book, owe her a great deal for giving me a voice!

    We did not want to have our babies taken by adoption. During the Baby Scoop Era (Post-WWII through 1972), more babies were removed from unprotected mothers than at any time in history before or since. We mothers were given no choice. In order to have a choice you must be given more than one option. We were given one: adoption.

    We are no longer minors, under the power and control of others. We are now women in our fifties and sixties… not afraid to speak out about the horrors and injustices of our experiences, especially those of us who were “inmates” in maternity institutions. We are angry and we will make sure that people are educated about these crimes of monumental proportion.

    “… the tendency growing out of the demand for babies is to regard unmarried mothers as breeding machines…(by people intent) upon securing babies for quick adoptions.” – Leontine Young, “Is Money Our Trouble?” (National Conference of Social Workers, Cleveland, 1953)

    Please learn more at

    Karen I, Virginia (
    (in Ann’s book)
    Firstborn daughter taken in 1966
    Interred in Florence Crittenton Home, Washington, D.C.

  4. I had chills when I read of the birthmother who told about leaving a maternity home after being forced to give up her child. She said she stopped at the car and screamed and screamed, because it was the only way that she could express her anguish in relinquishing the baby she wanted to keep.

    Thank you, Karen, for telling your story in Ann Fessler’s book and for posting here. –BD

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