The Baby Scoop Era – young mothers

This is Part 2 of the Baby Scoop Era, the first part is here.

The treatment of many of the young women in the Baby Scoop Era is nothing short of wholesale misogyny and abuse. Abuse that was carried out by Church &/or State (independently or together). This goes well beyond mere stigma of unmarried motherhood, it was an abuse of these young women’s civil and human rights, often labour exploitation, and the situation was frequently an excuse for abuse and misogyny. As well as wholesale baby stealing.

In the first instance Church/State frequently lied to these young women, telling them there were no state benefits available for them (in 1960s England, there were benefits, so this is an outright lie). There may also have been similar options for benefits or assistance in other countries too, but this remained a closely guarded secret.

Legal abortion was not readily available in most countries until the early-mid 1970s. Hence the gradual end to the Baby Scoop Era, as well as the availability of the pill (first mainly only available to married women in the 1960s, then to single women in the 1970s). These pregnant teenagers and young women were advised by a variety of sources (doctors, social workers, religious advisors) that their only option was to “go away somewhere, give the baby up for adoption, then put it behind you and start your life again”. The expectation was that after this ‘mistake’ many of these young women would go on to find a husband and start ‘a real family’. As I mentioned in Part 1, one survey revealed that 35.3% went on to suffer subsequent infertility, most probably in part due to the draconian way that these young birthing mothers were treated.

Then, the ‘catch’ with this arrangement of unwed mother’s homes – most of these institutions would not take in the pregnant woman unless she agreed that the baby was going to be put up for adoption. The ‘choice’ that wasn’t really much of a choice at all. If these women had been given full disclosure of their options (availability of benefits) and if there were a greater number of places to stay without this ‘catch’, then most would have chosen to keep their babies. These establishments were run by the Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, other religious groups, and some were attached to maternity hospitals (the State-run version of the religious run ones).

The most well-known of the religious run institutions was The Magdalene Laundries run by the Catholic Church (although the other religious ones were really not that much different). The female Irish journalist who exposed The Magdalene Laundries scandal, Mary Raftery, died in January this year.

The Magdalene Laundries and the other religious-run ones like them, were little different from the 19th century workhouses. The pregnant young women were expected to work to ‘earn their keep’ by doing chores or laundry, regardless of their duration of pregnancy or state of their health. Doing laundry work before the advent of more modern washing machines in the 1960s/70s was actually hard labour, boiling coppers, hand wringing devices. Many of these institutions (because of the bulk of the laundry) still used those old ways. In the thesis by Merryn Moor there is even a description of pregnant teenagers tarring a driveway (pp145-6). Scrubbing floors back in those days was on one’s hand and knees, a scrubbing brush and a bucket of soapy water – this was also another common ‘chore’ that these young women had to do. To describe the work as ‘chores’ is to make invisible the hard physical labour that it really was.

Once in these Homes, the treatment of these young women and teens could only be described as a form of imprisonment. Some Homes allowed contact with the outside world, others did not. Some monitored letters of the inmates, they had any money confiscated and controlled, and if lucky, had a small amount of pocket money allocated to them. Some of the institutions allowed the women to leave the grounds, others did not. Their lives were regimented like a military boot camp, up at six, prayers, breakfast, chores, lunch, chores, dinner, and probably more prayers. Overall, not that different to a prison really, yet these young women had not committed any criminal offence – although they were seen as having committed a ‘moral crime’ and were treated like ‘disgusting criminals’. The incarceration in many of these institutions became an opportunity to remind these young women and girls how ‘sinful’ and ‘immoral’ they were deemed to be, particularly in the religious run institutions.

Treated just like indentured servants, because that was what the arrangement was even if never promoted as such. The young women and girls were sometimes further dehumanised by losing their identities. Most were not allowed to use any last names (or given a fictitious one) and even their first name could be arbitrarily changed, particularly if there was already another inmate with that name already.

Medical examinations and birthing was usually done by the (primarily male) misogynist Ob/Gyns. Most of us can relate to the contempt that male Ob/Gyns have treated us in the past, but there was even less attempt for them to hide their contempt towards ‘unwed mothers’. Some of the women report how there was a noticeable change in the demeanour by the attending doctor (and other medical staff) once he found out she was ‘one of those’ unwed mothers giving up her baby for adoption. It was fairly routine for hospital staff to note if the birth involved adoption or possible adoption (see p197 Moor thesis).

During delivery, and most were first time mothers without a clue what to expect, many received little help – either guidance or pain management. Some were tied to the bed and put in stirrups. In short, they were dehumanised to the point where they were just a baby-making object, breeding stock, and of no importance. The only thing deemed important out of the event was an adoptable baby.

At delivery, many had their babies taken away at the moment of birth, in spite of their protests to hold their newborn. Others had a brief time with the baby after the birth. And some mothers were able to breastfeed and care for the infant up until adoption day. All of these are cruel in their own way, particularly when most wanted to keep their babies and were told there was no other choice other than adoption. Most were never told of any adoption revocation rights that may have been available to them. It was in effect, a done deal as soon as the young mothers entered these institutions.

Of course the young women were lied to. They were told that giving up their baby to be raised in a ‘normal’ two-parent family was in the best interests of the child. This was an even greater tragedy for this woman:

My daughter was adopted at 16 months…she was placed with a family where the father has now been convicted and found guilty of being a paedophile…I feel my life and my daughter’s life has been partly destroyed
(page 95 Moor thesis)

The women were told there was no other option if they were unmarried. They were lied to on an emotional level too, that they would be able to just ‘get over it’ and move on with their lives. Many women went on to suffer PTSD, and described the experience as being like the death of a child, but without any closure – most probably too because they were not allowed to have any grieving period. Some women attempted suicide, and likely some succeeded.

Their mental states could not have been helped by carrying around a ‘secret shame’ of the time. Whilst many of the young women were pregnant by ‘consent’ – dubious because many males would use the promise of love and marriage to bed them, then ‘disappear’ or break contact, others were in the situation non-consensually, by incest (which we now call CSA) or rape. Even so, at least one incest victim wanted to keep her baby. Not all the males did a disappearing act when the pregnancy was known, some couples were too young to legally marry at the time. The tragedy there was when the couple married a few years later and the older sibling was already adopted out, gone. Regardless of the circumstances of the conception, the teens and women were made to feel like dirty sinners. Ironic that the same act of intercourse outside of marriage is ‘wrong’, yet within marriage it is not only expected, but a frequently a duty. The (wedding) ring must be magic!

It is not known how many of the teenaged girls were actually victims of incest-rape, or Child Sexual Abuse. Something that was not talked about then, but it went on. Even today, the general public seem blissfully unaware of the prevalence, this comment, which is an extract talking about middle class attitudes to children out of wedlock:

I found out in recent years that several of my aunts on my mother’s side were pregnant outside marriage – one as young as 11!

(page 107 Moor thesis)

I’ll eat my radfem hat if the then eleven year old wasn’t the victim of incest-rape.

Even when the condition of ‘no adoption, no staying’ was not the pre-agreement, or agreement to the adoption was not yet obtained, various means were used to railroad the young women into signing away their babies. The psychological means (described above) were a means of wearing her down and undermining any self-confidence she may have had. The women were discouraged in telling the biological father if he didn’t already know as this would streamline the adoption process with only the mother’s signature required. A large number of women report being heavily sedated or overly medicated around and after the labour, no doubt some adoption signatures were procured in this manner, certainly some were sedated so that they couldn’t kick up any sort of fuss. Many were not told or properly informed of their 30-day revocation rights – or outright lied to that it was only conditional if the baby had already been placed. These lies were told by social workers and the religious institutions alike. The word is conspiracy.

One wonders if many of these adoptions were even legal, in the case of underage teenagers. The level of coercion, deceit, bullying, blackmail, drugging is utterly astounding. One then-teen explains:

I was not discharged from hospital until I gave consent to have my baby adopted. I remember so well the day I signed. [Matron 1] came to the hospital and took me to a room to wait for a man to come with the papers…I remember signing with my eyes filled with tears…I remember being escorted back to the ward and being given a drug to calm me down because I was quite hysterical…at the time of signing I was a minor, just seventeen and a half years of age…I certainly was under a legal disability…I question the legality of the adoption as I was unable to sign a consent form a week before when I was admitted to hospital and yet I signed a consent for the adoption of my child…after the consent form was signed, I was allowed to leave Horsby Hospital…
(page 179 Moor thesis)

Rather chilling, after she signed she was then able to leave the hospital. Very much a “no sign, no discharge” policy in order to bully/blackmail the teenager into signing, which in itself was probably illegal given she was under age.

Another woman recalls:

The ten days until I signed the papers on the verandah were a blur…no wonder since I recently obtained my medical records showing huge amounts of pentobarbitone administered three to four times daily…notations were made each day on my medical papers: “Adoption papers still not signed”…I continued to refuse to sign the papers and finally, on the ninth day, the social worker told me that if I signed the papers I could see my daughter…all I wanted desperately was to see the daughter that I had given birth to…I signed these papers and was taken to the nursery and my daughter was held up to the glass window wrapped in a bunny rug for what seemed to me to be the shortest moment in time…I felt as though I had traded my soul for that one brief moment…the following day I was released and the last notation on my medical papers was: “Patient still uncomfortable”…I was so heavily sedated that I barely remember even leaving the hospital that day.
(page 190 Moor thesis)

Both these recollections, and many others, show a system of imprisonment, blackmail, coercion, and drugging to part mother from child by social workers and medical staff. The religious institutions basically held the mothers prisoner too.

All the staff involved in adoption-deliveries were complicit in the deception – the one where the mother was told she would have the baby, sign the papers, and get on with her life. Most of these institutions would either whisk the baby away straight after birth or very soon after to prevent maternal bonding. Many mothers were not allowed to see the babies in the nursery. During delivery, sometimes a sheet or pillow was put over the mother’s face so she could not see the child, or staff would block her view. Sometimes the mother was restrained to the bed also. Basically they were doing everything they could to prevent any bonding with the child – that child was earmarked for adoption, and nothing or no one, not even the natural mother, was going to get in the way of that.

I was alone in a small ward…door locked for 12 days…nurses and other staff escorted me to the bathroom, waited for me to finish what I had to do, then took me back to my ward, locking me inside again…my ward was locked at all times, day and night as my baby was in the nursery not too far away from me, presuming I would sneak in the nursery looking for my baby…I never saw him
(p104 Moor thesis)

Sounds very much like a prison story than of a mother supposedly freely giving up her child for adoption. Another method of keeping the mother imprisoned in the hospital or Home was to keep her street clothes from her until she had signed the papers. Some mothers were even told their babies had been stillborn (only to be contacted by the ‘stillborn’ child many decades later). Some of the mothers, heavily drugged, thought they had been signing death certificate papers and not adoption papers. The number of lies and amount of deceit going on in the adoption racket is truly unbelievable.

Chapter 5 of Moor’s thesis gives a lot of details to what happened to these young women and teenaged girls. Although Moor identifies as a Marxist feminist, she is very much a radical feminist in her thesis, going into many other areas including pornography’s role in men’s views of women as disposable objects.

The Catholic-run Magdalene Laundries went beyond the pregnancy/birth/adoption model, and “fallen women” were put to work in the laundries to “atone for their sins and cleanse their soul”, and excuse of soul redemption in order to secure an unpaid workforce of young women. A dramatisation of the Irish-run Magdalene Laundries is on YouTube. I recall seeing a documentary years ago, probably also Magdalene Laundries in the UK which seemed to have a similar set-up of using these young women as a slave labour force sometimes for many years.

The Unwed Mothers’ Homes had been around in some form since the Victorian Era (19th century). Many of those were run by religious organisations and were basically workhouses for unmarried pregnant women. Possibly the only thing that distinguishes the 20th century Homes from the 19th century is the scale, and how all sections of Church and State actively conspired to snatch these babies from their young mothers. Very much a production line style of adoption. Certainly unmarried young women in the 19th century had no form of state benefits available to them and their choices were limited, although I am sure that many still suffered the trauma of separation.

The Magdalene Laundries may be the most well known of the 20th century, but there were so many similarities in many of the other religious-run Homes, regardless of country. All of the quotes above are from the various institutions in Australia. This commonality of experience is beyond individual anecdote, and shows a system of institutional misogyny, abuse, and indentured slave labour, perpetrated by Church & State, either independently or together.

15 thoughts on “The Baby Scoop Era – young mothers

  1. I wonder if any of the men and/or boys who impregnated these young women and girls were ‘punished’ for their ‘sin’ (sic) of creating a child out of wedlock? Assuming of course men are always the ones who create a child whereas women and girls are just empty vessels needed to carry the man’s child until such time as he (sic) is about to be born.

    Patriarchy/male supremacist systems have always colluded with institutionalised religion in order to maintain its male dominant strangle hold over policing and controlling women and girls. Magdalene Laundries is just one of many male created institutions specifically created by men for the purpose of punishing, controlling and profiting from the suffering men continue to inflict on women and girls.

    I recognise that some young women and men were not allowed to legally marry because they were under the age of 21 which was legal age a male/female could marry without parental consent. However, legal age a female/male can marry without having to provide written parental consent was created by men for the benefit of men. It was created to prevent unscrupulous men from ‘marrying’ underage wealthy young women and disappearing with their money.

    However, men and boys were not commonly subjected to scorn; shame and imprisonment because they fathered a child out of wedlock. No as always male supremacist system/patriarchal system demonises women and girls and punishes them for men’s ‘sins.’


  2. This is a really revealing and important piece of work. Thanks.

    Most people have no idea what really went on in their own families because the women were completely silenced. Many people have siblings they have no idea exist, born to their mothers while still in their teens and removed from them. The only way to keep access to your children was to be married to a man. Women would give up marriage on mass if they were entitled to select any father they wanted and then allowed to raise their children with the women of their families.
    The p can’t allow that because so many men would never get chosen at all, and an army of disgruntled rejects would form and use their numbers to capture and force women to have their children. It’s such a terrible system.


  3. Ah yes zeph, not sure why (there were 3 identical in the spam bin, oh noes!). Now that I have marked you ‘not spam’, hopefully you won’t end up there again! Silly spamulator, it should be able to recognise a radfem comment when it sees one!

    Yep, the entire baby scoop era (and I keep wanting to call it baby snatch era) was about upholding marriage, and not allowing young unmarried women to keep their babies, even if they really wanted to. And yes, if left entirely up to woman’s choice, without enforced marriage, then yes there would be a hell of a lot of dudes rejected in the genetic stakes.


  4. Unfortunately, it’s been going on for ages. It happened on both sides of my family. My mother and her siblings were taken by the Catholic church and placed in a Catholic orphanage because my grandparents weren’t married. My paternal grandmother and her sisters were also confiscated by the Catholic church after my great-grandmother was widowed. I don’t know much about it. No one spoke about it. I didn’t find out until I was in my 30’s. My mother was quite upset when my aunts told me about it. She obviously never intended for me to find out. I was more than a bit puzzled by my mother’s reaction. My mom took everything life threw at her right in stride and nothing ever seemed to faze her. But this did. Which hinted at much deeper and darker secrets. Whatever it was, my mother thought the knowledge would do more harm than good and wanted to protect me from it. Due to my mother’s reaction, I didn’t probe further, so I guess I’ll never know.

    All of this does start to give me more pieces to the mystery and the puzzle. Like why I was named to appease the Catholic church. A name my parents never intended to call me by and never did. I just can’t imagine my mom kissing anyone’s ass. The other thing that has always puzzled me is how the Catholics got their hands on me in the first place. I had to go catechism, confession, communion, and church every week. The strange part is, my parents never ever took me. I found out later, my father was an atheist. So what’s wrong with this picture? But when I start to put the pieces of the puzzle together, I start to realize my parents may have had a healthy fear of the Catholic church due to what the Catholics had done to them and their families. Perhaps they feared the Catholics would march in and confiscate my brothers and I too?

    Whatever the case, I gave the church a much harder time than they ever gave me. The nuns basically thought I was the anti-Christ by the time I turned 7.


  5. Thanks for sharing your family’s experiences Lucky.

    The Catholic Church had been doing this sort of thing to some degree since the 19th century (or perhaps earlier). I guess one point is that by the post-war period, the scale was unprecedented, and not just the Catholic Church any more, but the other churches and the State also joined in. The post-war timing was deliberate to ensure that the institution of marriage was upheld (even though there were not enough ‘husbands’ to go around, and the war-time circumstances had produced a lot of sex outside of marriage). By the 1950s, TV and movie propaganda also got into full swing to push the marriage agenda. The sex-ratio did not equalise until about the mid 60s.

    The Catholic Church, prior to about the late-60s to mid-70s, had a policy of Catholics marrying Catholics, I gather to keep the ‘purity’ of the whole thing. With the change of policy, allowing Catholics to marry ‘outsiders’, they could, but the couple had to vow that they would raise all children from the marriage as Catholic. This strategy was a deliberate strategy to increase the numbers of Catholics. Their numbers may have also dwindled due to such baby-snatching tactics, many of these young mothers gave the two-fingered salute to the Church after such treatment. Who could blame them?

    I would make the assumption also, that in your family’s case Lucky, they were afraid that the children were not being brought up ‘Catholic enough’, hence the Church stepped in and ensured that the children were brainwashed with Catholicism.


  6. When doing my family tree I did uncover (with much finger counting) that my great-grandmother had a “5 month pregnancy” in 1900. The marriage certificate listed her as 17, but she was only 16 3/4. The great-grandfather was 25. They did go on to have another eight kids over the next sixteen years. It was only ‘shocking’ in that great-granny was a strict religious type, so I am told.


  7. That is sad, but not unusual at such a young age. Many babies were born to young girls off the record, in both rich and poor families. Those babies would be owned by the men around them and either raised incognito or disposed of into adoption or worse.


  8. In my family, my great grandmother – second wife to my great grandfather – was someone I was very close to during my childhood. She became ill and died when I was about 9… Many of the family were then surprised and perturbed that she left our grandfather’s house and land to her little sister, who none of us knew, thereby cutting us off effectively from a home that had been in our family. There was some resentful talk about how she’d spent the last year of my great-grandmother’s life in her hospital room and that she’d “done it on purpose” to get the money.
    But a few years later I found out after the whispers finally got back around to me – her “little sister” was really her daughter. In the early part of the 1900s she had “gotten ill” and been sent away until she got better, and when she returned, her mother had “had a new baby”. She kept this secret her entire life, I didn’t find out until years after her death.

    She was 14 years old when her “little sister” was born. She never had another child.


  9. I am finding these stories very moving, thanks Jenoir.

    The secrets the p forces us to keep, also make it invisible to the younger generation, who are the people it needs to control. All our mothers and grandmothers lied to us to some extent, because they had to, and a few because the pain the system inflicts, caused them to buy into that system and want to emulate men.


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