Crimes Against the Unmarried Mother Post WWII

The Collective Consciousness of Society: Crimes Against the Unmarried Mother in Canada Post WWII

After World War II  countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UK, and the United States created adoption policies and practices which included illegal, unethical, and  human rights violations against unmarried mothers.  Although these practices continued until the late 1980s, the years 1942-1972 are often referred to the “Baby Scoop Era” and mothers of that era as “BSE Mothers” (Wilson-Buterbaugh, 2002).  In Canada it is estimated that over 350,000 mothers were affected by these policies and practices. (Origins, 2012)

After both world wars, it became the social duty of women to provide offspring to  re-populate the nation.   During WWII, women in western societies had become highly skilled workers in manufacturing and other sectors while men were at war.  When the war ended, women were encouraged to give up their jobs and return to the domestic sphere.  Federal government propaganda supported this model and also financed and encouraged the growth of female professions such as Home Economics and Social Work.  Social conventions of the time argued that “women’s most basic satisfaction came through service to others in the domestic sphere” (Strong-Boag, 1994). In Commonwealth countries, the new youthful monarch Elizabeth II and her family became an ideal to emulate.  Birth rates increased dramatically.

Suburbs were created as increasing car purchases provided the ability to live further from employment and the city core.  In this suburban setting, women nurtured family life as men took on the role of provider. (Stong-Boag, 1994)  Popular culture supported this model through mass media and popular “experts” such as Dr. Marion Hilliard of Women’s College Hospital claimed that “a cheerful and contented woman at home, even one who must pretend gaiety gives a man enough confidence to believe he can lick the universe” (Strong-Boag, 1994).  Church attendance and enrolment in church schools in Canada was at an all time high and the morality of the neighbourhood was closely watched and enforced by the women in these suburban homes.  “Good” women were constructed as married homemakers and mothers.

Unmarried pregnant youth and women were considered a blight on this idyllic society.  Mostly in secret and hidden from view even until today, the human rights violations and crimes against unmarried mothers have little been discussed, or acknowledged.  The unmarried pregnant woman was in violation of societal expectations regarding sexuality and motherhood.  The social stigma for the “unwed mother” during the period was severe.

Earlier in the 20th century, unmarried mothers were viewed as “fallen women” and their children as “illegitimate”. Society marginalized both mother and child legally and socially.  Adoption was not considered safe as it was thought that the feeble-mindedness and immorality of unmarried mothers was hereditary.  Mothers were encouraged to bond with and mother their offspring.  In addition, the importance of breastfeeding for the prevention of infant mortality was an important factor in mother and baby remaining a dyad.

As the professions of Psychiatry and Social Work grew, new theories emerged.  As pointed out by Kunzel “appointing themselves the new experts, social workers sought to claim the field of illegitimacy as their proper domain” (Kunzel, 1993).  The deviant mother was no longer considered feeble-minded or morally unredeemable, instead she was ill.  The unmarried mother could be rehabilitated by keeping her pregnancy a secret, learning her lesson by relinquishing her child for adoption and returning to society to fulfill her role as “bride, coquette and co-ed” (Solinger, 1992).  Further, with a renewed emphasis on tabula rasa or clean slate theory, adopters were assured that hereditary was no longer a threat and that adopted children would be “as if born to”.  The availability and increasing acceptance of the use of infant formula also allowed for safe separation of babies from their mothers.

A social experiment emerged whereby the unmarried mother would surrender her child for adoption.  The unmarried mother would simply forget about her child and be transformed from an aberration of society to a respectable and marriageable woman once again.  She would learn her lesson and pay her debt to society through punitive measures which included harsh and inhumane treatment designed to teach her not to duplicate her behaviour, including the loss of her child to adoption.  A harsh punishment indeed.  As articulated by Joss Shawyer, “adoption is a violent act, a political act of aggression towards a women for committing the unforgivable act of not suppressing her sexuality, and therefore not keeping it for trading purposes through traditional marriage” (Shawyer, 1979).  Dr. Marion Hilliard of Women’s College Hospital stated that “when she renounces her child for its own good, the unwed mother has learned a lot.  She has learned to pay the price of her misdemeanor and this alone, if punishment is needed, is punishment enough.”(Toronto Telegram 1956).

This “method” was endorsed by all aspects of society and each segment of society met the terms:

Christian religions and charitable organizations met the terms through the creation Maternity Homes for Unwed Mothers (Andrews, 2009), Magdalene Laundries, (Finnegan, 2004), Reform Institutions for Wayward Girls, and Wage Homes to house the unmarried mothers and  redeem their souls by transforming them from Magdalenes to Marys.  Some homes required mothers to agree to adoption before they were admitted and most required mothers to register with Social Service Agencies prior to admittance, thus putting them on track to adoption.

In these facilities young women were required to change their names resulting in the loss of their identity. Many were required to wear apparel provided by the institution.  Although not legally incarcerated, unmarried mothers were labeled inmates in government reports.  Their movements, telephone access, and visitors were severely restricted.  Mail was often censored.  They were locked in at night.

In these institutions unmarried mothers in Canada report being subjected to physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse (Origins). Their self esteem was systematically eroded and their ability to parent was ridiculed and undermined.  The expectant mothers were consistently told their baby would be better off with strangers and that they would be selfish to consider mothering their own child. They were counselled to give their babies as “gifts” to more deserving people.  These young women were required to attend religious services daily, and work as indentured servants even though governments paid per diem rates for their care.  They were labelled sluts, whores, and sinners. It was repeatedly reinforced to them that redemption lay in the surrender of their child.  Further, maternity homes kept mothers unaware of their rights and any resources that may be available to them to parent their child.

Working closely with Social Service agencies these institutions were coercive in nature.  Mothers were psychologically groomed for adoption and secrecy, as revealed by a Toronto Maternity Home Director in an article in The Toronto Star in 1965.  “Mrs. L.H. Doering, Executive Director of the United Church’s Victor Home for Unmarried Mothers says they are counselling their girls not to keep their babies” (Toronto Star, 1965).  These facilities provided little if any information about labour and delivery.  Young women were routinely dropped off by Maternity Home matrons at hospital admissions and left alone with little knowledge and no support for labour and delivery, rendering them terrified and traumatized. Some mothers returned to these homes for a few days post-partum.  Olivia Langford, the Executive Director of Humewood House in Toronto in 1963 stated,   “At Humewood the girls return to the home for 10 days but do not bring their babies with them.  They are taken for adoption without the mothers seeing them“(Toronto Star, 1963). The process was designed to make the experience so terrifying that they never returned.  Repeaters were not tolerated.  “Repeaters, married women, mental defectives and venereal disease cases shall not be admitted” (Victor Home, Toronto). It was also designed to make it easier to obtain signatures from terrified, traumatized, medicated, young women.  Most of these facilities were either wholly or partially financed by provincial governments.

Hospitals and the medical profession met the terms by keeping mothers segregated from married mothers in hospital, by the use of restraints on mothers during delivery, by removing babies from their mothers “while still in the primal act of birth, still in labour, bound, awaiting the expulsion of the placenta culminating in a violent trauma to the female psyche from which no mother is able to recover” (Wellfare, 1997).  Eye contact was prevented between baby and mother by the use of pillows, sheets or other apparatus, and lactation prevented by administering medications without consent and barbaric breast binding. Hospital staff and medical personnel sedated and drugged mothers, denied  mothers free access to their own babies, removed either babies or mothers to remote locations, and traded live babies with stillborns.  Medical assault included extensive sexually transmitted disease testing and other tests without permission and unmarried mothers were commonly used as “teaching tools” for residents and others.  Unmarried mothers were routinely exposed to sexual, verbal, and physical abuse in medical office settings and hospitals.  (Origins Canada, 2011).

Governments met the terms by denying assistance to unmarried mothers.  Government Social Workers, often in collusion with maternity homes, denied the unmarried mothers knowledge of their legal rights regarding parenting, adoption, foster care, and visitation. Overt and covert methods of coercion were used to obtain consents, and mothers were not advised of the long lasting severe psychological damage of separation to both mother and child although known at the time.  In 1966, Diane Kemp of the Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto told other Social Workers at the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies that “unwed mothers who give up their children may mourn a lifetime” (Toronto Star, 1966).  Information and resources readily released to visible minority mothers were withheld from Caucasian mothers as their babies were considered “blue ribbon babies”, “a term used in adoption as a trade euphemism for a white, healthy infant” (Gaily, 2010).  Social workers consistently ignored mothers who explicitly stated they wanted to mother their children, and instead groomed mothers throughout their pregnancy to “unbond” (Ruane, 2003) with her child.  Social Workers and Maternity Home workers referred to babies as “the” baby or “that” baby, never “your” baby in order to psychologically separate mothers from their babies.  Social workers and Maternity Home workers presented adoption as the only “loving option” and used the term “realistic plan” as adoptionspeak in their notes, brochures, and writings.  Surrenders were extracted using physical force, pressure causing duress, threats, fear, trickery and falsehoods. “The mothers desperately wanted to keep their children and were perfectly capable as loving souls to do so, but were forced, literally, to surrender the most precious little one they protected and carried into full life from their own bodies.  Between harassments, betrayals, demeaning treatment, being told they were incapable and withdrawing all resources in order to prove the point instead of bending to help keep mother and child united, the mothers and children were given no choice but severance.”  (Estes, 2010).

Society met the terms by complicit agreement.  Western culture refused to recognize the motherhood of unmarried mothers separated from their children by adoption, and condemned and judged them for having unprotected sexual relations outside of marriage.  They were also constructed as cold uncaring “birthmothers” whose babies were unwanted and who had made a choice to “give them up” for adoption.  A a multi-billion dollar adoption industry emerged which promotes adoption in western society to create “forever families” for those who cannot create a biological child.  “Regrettably, in many cases the emphasis has changed from the desire to provide a needy child with a home, to that of providing needy parents with a child.  As a result a whole industry has grown, generating millions of dollars of revenue each year, seeking babies for adoption and charging prospective parents enormous fees to process the paperwork.”(Petit, UN Report, 2003).

When it was all over, what happened to the mother who was released from hospital without her child?  Severely traumatized, her bound breasts flowing with milk, stripped of her child and motherhood, still recovering from birth, and told never to tell a living soul of her secret; told that she would forget about this child and would go on to have “children of her own” in the future, sent home without even a piece of paper as proof of the act, and no counselling to help her, her grief disenfranchised…..a throwaway mother, a by-product.  What happened to the child who was experienced the trauma of separation as an infant from her mother’s smell, heartbeat, voice, skin and touch….a child who lived with strangers and was supposed to be “grateful that her mother gave her away because she loved her”; a child who was never allowed to grieve her mother but was expected to just fit in “as if born to”; a child with no one to mirror; a child who felt different, abandoned and rejected, and stigmatized. A child who becomes an adult without the right to her records, is considered a perpetual child by society,  and who risks the stigma of being bad or ungrateful for searching for her natural family.

We now know the answers to many of these questions.  We know that mothers never forgot their children.  Many suffer long lasting permanent effects including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Wilson-Buterbaugh, 2010),  unresolved and pathological grief, Clinical Depression, Post Partum Depression, Secondary Infertility, unresolved anger, and relationship issues.  They suffer from Fibromyalgia, Migraines, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and other illnesses exacerbated by the trauma and the secret they kept.   The mothers simply never recovered.  (Kenny, Higgins, et al 2012)

Many of their now adult children report issues surrounding identity,  abandonment, attachment, anger, and low self esteem. (Kenny, Higgins et al 2012). We also know that these mothers and children search for each other in the thousands, which attests to the strength of their bond.

In the last decade mothers and adopted persons began communicating through social media and other resources. Sharing their experiences, they came to the realization that they were victims of a set of systems and ideologies with few differences in the method between commonwealth countries. There is now a worldwide adoption reform movement underway and the international group, Origins was instrumental in obtaining a Federal Inquiry into these policies and practices in Australia. A Senate Inquiry, which handed down their findings on February 29, 2012 and which included recommendations for reparation, reform, acknowledegment and healing for those affected resulted in State apologies and funding for healing initiatives. Further, a national apology to those separated by adoption was given by the Prime Minister of Australia on March 21, 2013. Origins Canada continues to push for a similar Inquiry in Canada. Interdisciplinary work is being done at Universities all over the world, acknowledging this social history. No longer can the facts be ignored.

These events took place with the sanction of the collective consciousness of society.  It might be considered that many atrocities and human rights abuses take place with the sanction of societies.  In Canada, Japanese Internment and Residential Schools are examples of events which occurred with the sanction of society and its institutions.  The fact that a society endorses a policy or practice does not prove the ethical or moral value of that practice.  The crimes, unethical  practices, and human rights violations perpetrated against the unmarried mother in Canada cannot and will not be diminished or erased by implying they were norms and mores of society at the time.  In fact, the acts perpetrated against unmarried mothers were illegal, unethical, and human rights violations during the very period in which they took place.

It is time to listen to the accounts of those affected.  It is time for validation and acknowledegment of these events.   It is time for governments, churches, and others to acknowledge their part in the forced separation of mothers from their beloved children.  Some mothers are beginning to speak out, to move past their secret and their shame, but for many mothers this is still not possible.  The shackles of the secret they were told to keep, the emotional trauma, and the shame still binds their soul, their spirit, and their very lives.

Copyright Valerie Andrews 2010.


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