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Journal of Women's History 18.1 (2006) 219-232
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Constructing Families, Creating Mothers:
Gender, Family, State and Nation in the History of Child Adoption
In the introduction to Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption, historian and literary scholar Barbara Melosh describes her new book as "a cultural history of the family as it is refracted through the kinship of strangers." "The law and practice of adoption," she argues, "reveal the larger historical changes that shape all families; the intersecting histories of child welfare, sexuality, upward mobility and assimilation" (11).1 Melosh not only follows this ambitious agenda but also presents the history of adoption as a cultural narrative of borders crossed and boundaries reaffirmed in the formation of adoptive families. All families are, of course, social institutions shaped by culture and public policy but in the intentionality and public surveillance of adoption there is an opportunity for scholars to see the possibilities and the limits in our ideas about family, motherhood, identity, and belonging. All four books in this review explore these large themes through the history of child adoption in the United States. Neither that history nor the questions it raises, however, can be contained within the borders of the United States, not least because the United States remains the greatest receiving country in international adoption.
The practice of turning "strangers" into "kin," of raising the child born into another family "as one's own," can be traced to the colonial period [End Page 219] of Euro-American history and much further back in the history of Native America. However, the legal practice of adoption as it exists today was not a part of the colonies' English common law inheritance. The first "modern" law of adoption in the United States (severing previous family ties, incorporating the child legally into the adopting family, and including a provision that the courts must adjudge the adoption to be "in the best interest of the child") was passed in Massachusetts in 1851. In Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood, 1851–1950, historian Julie Berebitsky picks up the history of adoption in the late nineteenth century when, she argues, adoptive parents, child welfare workers, and legal experts were still working out the precise meaning and status of adoption in American law and society. Berebitsky reads the history of adoption in the first half of the twentieth century from the perspective of adopting parents, emphasizing the often fraught relationship between adopting parents looking for children and social workers seeking to extend their professional and legal authority over the adoption transaction.
Berebitsky argues that "adoption . . . has served as a public site on which the culture at large has thrashed out meanings of family and parenthood," but the part of parenthood she is most interested in is motherhood. Her chapters read as a series of vignettes in the intellectual history of motherhood in the twentieth century. (Indeed, this book is best seen as a series of stand-alone essays, rather than a single narrative.) Both Berebitsky and Melosh cite the work of anthropologist Judith Modell, who argues that the dominant cultural model for the adoptive family in the (contemporary) United States has been the "as-if-begotten" family, that is, the adoptive family which mirrors the "blood" family as closely as possible...