by Mirah Riben
by Mirah Riben
Rickie Solinger’s Wake Up Little Susie helped many a mother who surrender a child to adoptio, such as myself, put our personal experiences into larger historical and sociological backdrop, lightening for many of us the heavy burden of guilt, shame and personal responsibility we carried was lightened.
Beggars and Choosers gave us yet a stronger voice, allowing mother after mother to speak in her own voice, as well as her scathing views on the exploitation of poor women in foreign countries to supply the demands of American and European adopters…continue to endear her to the mothers for whom she speaks. It is no wonder this historian of adoption (as it relates to parenting “choices”) has been an honored keynote speaker at several adoption conference.
Yet, interestingly, online reviewers of Beggars and Choosers focused solely on Solinger’s choice vs. rights argument nearly ignoring the adoption aspect leaving questions regarding where Solinger stands on: adoptee rights, which are being stymied by the alleged right of mothers to privacy.
Solinger graciously accepted my invitation to interview her on these issues and I am very appreciative for her taking the time and for being very frank and forthcoming in her answers, a transcript of which follows.
M.R.: In saying that “adoption only exists on the backs of resourceless women” regarding adoption’s exploitation of women…would you say that it pits women against one another? The haves and the have-nots? Takers and losers?
R.S.: When I say that adoption exists on the backs of resourceless women, I am underscoring the class dimension of adoption, and also the racial and gender aspects – the conditions which make groups of women, some in this country and many others around the world, profoundly vulnerable to losing their children. I want to underscore that adoption, as a social practice, absolutely depends on the existence of groups of women rendered deeply vulnerable most essentially today because of their poverty.
When adoption first emerged as a legitimate social practice in the postwar era, it was constructed on the backs of white, American girls and women rendered fatally vulnerability by their publicly visible association with premarital sex and pregnancy. The association defined this group of girls and women as resourceless –that is, defined them as lacking resources females needed at that time to claim maternity, such as the protection and recognition of relatives and community authorities as well as the right to decide for themselves whether or not to be the mothers of the children they gave birth to.
The experiences of white “unwed mothers” in the postwar era illuminates a mechanism for defining a source of babies that can be transferred from resourceless women to women with resources, that is, identifying a source for babies who can be adopted. The basis of resourcelessness for girls and women in the U.S. and around the world has changed since the postwar decades, but the necessary conditions for adoption have remained the same. For adoption to take place, there must be groups of women who are so profoundly resourceless that they cannot claim or protect their status as mothers of their own children.
M.R.: How has positing this position affected your relationships with other feminists and peers?
R.S.: Asserting this position has been central to establishing my status as a prominent feminist historian. My books and articles, which make this argument regarding adoption – and other matters related to the class and racialized qualifications for “legitimate” maternity in the US – are regularly assigned in Women’s History and Women’s Studies courses in colleges and universities around the country. I am invited to speak on a number of campuses each year. I have curated related exhibitions (“Wake Up Little Susie: Pregnancy and Power before Roe v. Wade” and “Beggars and Choosers: Motherhood is Not a Class Privilege in America”) that together have been hosted by over 70 college and university galleries. Each year I encounter a richer and heftier body of legal and scholarly literature that comports with – and extends – this fundamentally feminist perspective on adoption and related issues.
For example, a major academic/legal/activist conference called “Reproductive Justice for All,” was held at Smith College in November 2005. The participants from all over the country at this huge conference, many of them prominent academics and others, generally accepted the proposition that adoption is a feminist issue, that is, an issue that engages fundamental issues about reproductive rights, reproductive dignity, the right to be a mother, and related matters.
M.R.: If you, as a feminist, see adoption as exploitive to women, why do you think this position is not more widely supported by the majority of feminists? And, how do you suggest the tide could turn to get more support from feminists to see that adoption exploits resourceless women?
R.S.: As I have said many times, I do not accept the proposition that “most” “feminists” do not believe that adoption is a feminist issue. This is not to say that I disbelieve the experiences that many “birthmothers” report, in which “feminists” and other women dismiss the horrors of adoption and deny adoption as a women’s or feminist issue, deny the exploitative nature of adoption, and so forth. I believe those stories.
But I am personally aware of many feminists – prominent feminists – who “get it.” I absolutely believe that, for a number of reasons, since the emergence of adoption as a “solution” to problems of female un-chastity and family formation, the practice has been presented to and received by the public as a matter of “child rescue.” The source of “adoptable” babies – resourceless women – has always been eclipsed or effaced. The media and public policy and other opinion-builders have invariably/relentlessly conditioned Americans to “see” the baby and “overlook” the woman who gives birth to this baby. It will surely take a couple of generations to change this picture, foregrounding the woman, and making the right to be a mother – even for poor and otherwise resourceless women, here and abroad—a legitimate reproductive right.
Reproductive rights, including the right to be a mother, the right not to be a mother, the right to prevent pregnancy, and other forms of reproductive self-determination, have been very hard for women to secure in the United States. I humbly recommend my new book Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America (2005), for those who want to understand the complex meanings of “reproductive rights,” why the right to be a mother – and to right of women to command the resources they need to resist adoption— must be counted as one of those rights, and why these rights have been so profoundly difficult to secure.
M.R.: Feeling as you do about adoption being exploitive, would you classify yourself as “anti-adoption”? Or, do you think the corruption and commercialization of adoption can be remedied, and if so, what do you suggest to accomplish that?
R.S.: As long as the really vast majority of adoptions in the U.S. and in other rich countries depend on transferring babies away from the poorest women in the United States and around the world to much richer women or families, I am “anti-adoption” because adoption is a damaging and dangerous social practice. Most fundamentally, adoption justifies the idea – and justifies supporting public policies ensuring – that motherhood should be a class privilege, reserved for women who have enough money, an attitude that endangers the maternity of millions of women, here and around the world. The practice of adoption depends on a perspective regarding maternity that says, motherhood is not a biological status. Motherhood is not an affective status. Motherhood is an economic status, or a status defined by “adequate resources.” Who decides what’s “adequate”? How does this attitude toward “Who is a legitimate mother?” comport with the values of a democracy?
M.R.: Since the publication of “Wake Up”, you have become a fairly regular speaker at adoption reform conferences, where the major theme is the unsealing of adoption records and restoration the rights of adult adoptees. Yet, you have been criticized for not taking into account the feelings of adoptees:
The birth parents profiled in the adoption chapter had given up their children mostly in the 50’s and 60’s when being a single mother was not acceptable. Many of these women tried to find their birth children through private detectives. Solinger interviewed them to find out how the reunion went, but did not interview a single child. The children’s desires and rights were not even mentioned. She continues this indifference throughout the last two sections.
Jessa Crispin, BookSlut reviewing Beggars and Choosers
[I would like to interject here that it is hard to believe that Ms. Crispin, or anyone else who holds this position, actually read Beggars and Coosers: How politics of choice shapes adoption, abortion and welfare in the United States. The title alone makes it obvious this is a book that focuses – as does all of Solinger’s work – on mothers and motherhood, rather than the “rights and desires” of their children. Yet, Solbner speaks of Florence Fisher and the pain she felt reading about the “Baby Lenore” DeMartino/Scarpetta case of the 70’s, and goes into ALMA’s mission and how its membership grew to a national registry of 340,000 by 1982. Does this not say something about the independent rights of our adopted children to their roots?]
R.S.: I’m not aware that I’m criticized very much for this aspect of my work. I am a historian of women, of reproductive politics. I never claim to be a historian of other subjects, including the full arena of adoption, including the experiences of adoptees.
It’s tempting for a reader to want the writer to address “her” issue, but I feel totally committed to my subjects – women, motherhood, reproductive politics, poverty, poverty policy – and confident about my consistent attention to the issues that I set out to explore.
I am not, by the way, a “fairly regular speaker” at adoption-related forums. For some years after “Wake Up Little Susie” was published, I was often asked to participate in these conference, especially CUB-related meetings. When I decided to include two chapters about CUB in “Beggars and Choosers” because I thought some CUB members were brilliantly able to articulate the reproductive-politics aspects of their adoption-related exploitation, and because I thought that the foundational principles of that organization, as I understood them, really captured the issues, I continued to attend that group’s meetings. Since “Beggars and Choosers” was published, however, I have rarely attended adoption-related meetings, and I don’t actually think of myself as a scholar of adoption-related matters.
M.R.: Where do you stand on the issue of open records for adult adoptees?
R.S.: I don’t really have an “official” position, nor have I adequately followed the various ideological and public policy debates – but, having said that, I support open records.
M.R.: Do you believe that mothers have a right to privacy and if so, do their rights supersede the rights of adoptees to their birth records? Do you feel that a woman’s reproductive rights or choices extend long after pregnancy and delivery and thus she has a right to protect herself from discovery, and hide her “shameful” past?
R.S.: Again, we are moving here outside of my areas of expertise. I don’t want to position myself as an authority in this area. Again, having said that, my interest is in women’s history and women’s issues. I have not personally encountered women who want to hide their “shameful” past. The women I’ve been exposed to are claiming a right to dignity and to self-determination, and a right to their past, including the right to know the children they lost because of their vulnerability and resourcelessness. I haven’t met women who use the concept of “privacy” as a synonym for “secrecy,” although I am aware that some organizations and individuals are attempting, mostly for reasons I don’t understand, to conflate these terms. I suspect that the bogus “privacy” argument is an often unrecognized attempt to keep the notion of female “shame”— associated with sexual “misbehavior” – vibrant and meaningful.
M.R.: Do you believe that the majority of women want to raise the child they carry to term or abort it, and that women only “chose” adoption when they have no other choices and/or are pressured or coerced overtly or covertly? What of women who are unfit or unable to raise their children?
R.S.: I am completely convinced that most women who lose to adoption today do so because of poverty and/or other forms of profound social resourcelessness. If transferred babies came, roughly equally, from women of all or most socio-economic classes, then I am sure I would have a different attitude toward adoption. As it is, the very high correlation between adoption and maternal poverty forces me to understand this practice as a form of class exploitation.
There are women in every social/economic class who are “unfit” to be mothers. The only ones who lose their children today because of their “unfitness” are the poor ones.
M.R.: What are your opinions on international adoption? Should it banned totally? Banded until, if ever, the US ratifies the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?
R.S.: I am a historian. I feel much more comfortable writing and thinking about the past than I feel about making contemporary public policy recommendations. I have indicated, in answers to almost all the questions here, that I deeply disapprove of the practice of taking babies from the poorest women on earth so that people in the richer countries can make “families.” This will be a very, very difficult practice to alter because Americans are largely convinced that international adoption is generally a perfect example of “child rescue.” Most Americans are comfortable believing that there is no contest – a white professional couple in Boston, for example, will surely make better parents and give a Columbian child a vastly better life than the child’s destitute mother in Bogata. And so on. Again, the practice of international adoption reinforces the idea that motherhood should be a class – and race – and national privilege, and the best mothers are the rich ones in North American and Western Europe. And again, this idea spells danger for women around the globe.
M.R.: Anything else you’d like to add?
R.S.: I'm going to tell you one more thing, Mirah, for your "readers": as long as your constituency sees its particular traumatic experience -- adoption -- as singular and unique, and refuses to imagine connections and associations with other women whose reproductive autonomy has been differently but also profoundly compromised, then people in the adoption arena will continue to be isolated among themselves and their distance from "feminist" and other women and people concerned about a woman's right to be a mother will stay in place.
Which is more awful and traumatic -- a "coerced adoption," managed by adult authorities against the expressed intentions of a woman who has just given birth? Or the sale of an enslaved baby away from its enslaved mother in 19th century America? Are these events similar? comparable? Does the 20th or 21st century mother have something to learn by thinking about the 19th century mother? Why have I never heard a person in the adoption arena raise this comparison?
Have "feminists" been narrow-minded alone? Or is the person harmed by adoption often fatally narrow-minded as well ? I have never ever thought to ask that question before. But your questions and their singular perspective have pushed me to ask it….. I hope you think this question above is productive.
Solinger’s point is well-meaning and well taken, and I think she has done an excellent job of placing our issues in this broader context for us, and that is welcome help. In going back and re-reading Beggars Solinger selected quotes from Lee Campbell, and Carole Anderson (founder and early president of CUB, respectively) in which they compare themselves to the women’s rights and civil rights movement. While single parenthood and adoption/relinquishment issues go hand in hand, our other hand is also grasping adoptee rights issues. I see myself, as a crusader following in the footsteps of mothers’ movements such as The Mothers of the Disappeared, or Gold Star Mothers for Peace, in that these are mothers who loss children and didn’t want others to suffer the same loss. We, and our issues, seem to overlap several paradigms and gratefully welcome support from any and all, such as that which comes from Ms. Solinger, as our issues fall clearly within the realm of her area of expertise. Subsequent to this interview, Ms. Solinger added in an email to me: "I do favor open records, as I think I wrote to you."
A version of this interview appeared in the CUB Communicator, Spring 2006