Written by Kim van Alkemade
In my novel COUNTING LOST STARS, Rita Klein is a pioneering woman in the new field of computer programming when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant. It’s 1959, and as a Barnard College student, she’s required to undergo a yearly medical exam by the college physician, Dr. Marjory Nelson. At a time when birth control was illegal for unmarried women and abortion a crime, Rita become one of thousands of girls who “went away” to Unwed Mothers Homes where social workers and adoption agencies pressured young women into surrendering their babies for adoption. The practice was so widespread, the time in American history from roughly the end of World War II through the 1960s is referred to as the “baby scoop era.” The impact on these young women was often traumatic, as documented in Ann Fessler’s book The Girls Who Went Away and heraccompanying documentary film, A Girl Like Her. I based Rita Klein’s experience in my novel on sources like Fessler’s, but also on the recollections of my mother, who graduated from Teaneck High School in New Jersey in 1960. My mom told me the story of a friend who “went away” to give birth in secret and surrender her baby for adoption, never to speak of her experience again.
The specter of unplanned pregnancy hung over young women’s heads during this era, reinforced by popular culture. In her bestselling 1958 novel, The Best of Everything, which was released as a blockbuster film the next year, author Rona Jaffe realistically depicts the pressures on sexually active women. After a passionate sex scene during which the woman asked the man to use a condom, she has the man say, with amused annoyance, “This damned thing…I haven’t used one of these things since I was sixteen years old.” To which to the woman replies, “You’re speaking of the sixteenth of an inch between me and the Home for Unwed Mothers.”
Films like Unwed Mother, released in 1959, and a 1965 ABC news report about unwed mothers that obscured the faces of the women they anonymously interviewed, reinforced the shameful consequences for unmarried women who did become pregnant. Although illegal, abortion was an option some young women who had the resources were able to choose. A 1967 article in the college newspaper The Columbia Daily Spectator titled “Abortion Laws Don’t Prevent Barnard Girls’ Getting Help” a student is quoted saying “My experience has been that if you have the money and the nerve, it’s pretty easy to get an abortion, and a good one…not one of those baseball bat jobs.”