- Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives
A self-proclaimed “declaration of independence” for the new field of adoption history, this collection shows how interesting work on this subject already is while underlining its future potential. It showcases some excellent scholarship and helps to establish the chronological and interpretive infrastructure necessary for additional work: an empirical foundation, a periodization that makes sense for the modern decades, and conceptual frameworks through which to compare family-making over time and enrich our understanding of well-worn subjects, from indentures and orphanages to social work and human services.
These goals are consistent with editor Wayne Carp’s own work. Carp’s Family Matters (1998) tracked the heated debate about adoption information through careful work in case records from the Children’s Home Society of Washington, documentary sources previously inaccessible to scholars. Sealing adoption records, the most notorious of modern adoption reforms, has been as problematic for historians as for adoptees because the secrets they contain constitute social as well as personal history. One ironic consequence of such “progress” is that, until recently, we have known more about the movement of children between adults and households in colonial and early America than during the twentieth century.
Carp’s substantial sample of cases challenged the assumption that adoption had long been an anonymous, confidential transaction. Secrecy was a remarkably recent innovation in adoption law and practice, put into place between 1917 and midcentury. It reversed patterns of relative openness in adoption and transformed the people who arranged adoption from agents of disclosure into guardians of secrecy. In this volume, Patricia Hart as well as Carp and his colleague Anna Leon-Guerrero continue to debunk myths with descriptive statistical data about the children and adults who came together in Washington adoptions. Their numbers confirm popular impressions that adoption is closely tied to illegitimacy and infertility, but they facilitate a nuanced timeline that points to World War II as a turning point. During the first decades of the century, adoption was a last resort, precipitated by chronic poverty and crises such as death and desertion in natal families. Before 1940, a significant majority of adopted children were born to married parents. By the 1960s, however, the overwhelming majority of birthparents who surrendered children were single mothers. Most adopters were still childless, as they had been earlier, but the trend toward placing children in families “with room for one more” was well underway, a byproduct of efforts to find homes for children whose “special needs” had previously disqualified them from family belonging. [End Page 1079]
Barbara Melosh, a very talented scholar, has also authored an important book, Strangers and Kin (2002), grounded in a cache of rich Delaware case records. In this volume, she considers the autobiographical adoption narrative as a genre of self-making that illuminates two distinctive eras: the 1945–1970 period, when secrecy was at its height, and the post-1970 period of vigorous critique and reform. In stories of adoptive parents, adoptees, and birth mothers, she traces the crumbling consensus that adoption was “the best solution” to illegitimacy and infertility. Since 1970, narratives have chronicled a sea change in thinking about adoption. Rather than celebrating the wholesale substitution of natal ties, as “matching” and its corresponding policy of secrecy did at midcentury, narratives underscored the urgency of search and reunion, emphasized grief and loss, and figured blood as an essential component of healthy identity.
That the conversation about adoption has been dominated by women is a point made by Melosh and several other contributors to this volume. Julie Berebitsky’s essay on the Delineator’s 1907–1911 “Child Rescue Campaign” argues that adoption matters because it illuminates who could (and could not) legitimately claim “mother consciousness,” a crucial resource during the Progressive era, when maternalism was the chief vehicle for women’s public mobilization. Similarly, Paula Pfeffer’s essay comparing Jewish and Catholic child welfare services in Chicago argues that the plight of parentless children forced both immigrant communities to respond to assimilation and discrimination while enhancing the authority of Jewish...