Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh was 16 in the fall of 1965 when she got pregnant by her steady boyfriend. Terrified and in denial, she hid her growing body under an oversized sweater for five months. When she could no longer hide the pregnancy, she finally told her parents.
They shipped her off to a maternity home without telling her where she was going.
Janet Mason Ellerby, who grew up in California, was also 16 in 1965 and was so naive she didn’t realize she had had sex with her boyfriend. Three months later, her mother figured out Ellerby was pregnant.
“She packed all of my clothes and put me on a plane to Ohio,” Ellerby said.
Wilson-Buterbaugh and Ellerby are among an estimated 1.5 million unwed mothers in the United States who were forced to have their babies and give them up for adoption in the two decades before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in 1973, according to Ann Fessler’s book “The Girls Who Went Away.” Mostly white, middle-class teens and young women were systematically shamed, hidden in maternity homes and then coerced into handing over their children to adoption agencies without being informed of their legal rights.
Wilson-Buterbaugh, who lived in Annandale, Va., stayed in the Florence Crittenton Home on Reservoir Road in Washington, D.C., for almost three months. She called the home a “shame-filled” prison where mail was read and censored, no visitors were allowed and caseworkers practiced “mind control” to get the teens to relinquish their babies to couples. The home closed in 1982.
The parents of Wilson-Buterbaugh and Ellerby were ashamed and embarrassed about their daughters’ pregnancies, a typical reaction for most families at the time.
Wilson-Buterbaugh said that sending a pregnant daughter to a maternity home “was a way for parents to hide their shame.”
But maternity homes weren’t originally created to secret away pregnant teens from prying neighbors and judging communities.
In 1883, New York businessman Charles Crittenton founded the Florence Crittenton Mission, which ran the largest number of charity homes in the United States at the time that claimed to assist women in need.
The homes originally served prostitutes and unwed pregnant women whom the organization aimed to lift up through evangelical efforts. The mission’s earliest leaders believed keeping mothers and babies together helped accomplish this goal.
In the 1930s and 1940s, as more young women became pregnant out of wedlock, social workers began to classify them as “neurotic” instead of as “fallen women” or “morally bankrupt,” according to Fessler’s book. By the 1950s, professionals said that the problem of unwed mothers was a psychological one, making them unfit to raise children.
By the 1950s, the Florence Crittenton Association of America, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and other organizations operated more than 200 maternity homes in 44 states. Altogether, the homes housed about 25,000 young women a year (and turned away thousands more), according to “The Girls Who Went Away.”
Young women who stayed in the homes say they were subjected to many layers of secrecy. In some homes, phone calls and visitors were restricted to a limited list. The women went by assumed names, even with each other.
“The rationale was, if the other girls knew your name they could tell others about your pregnancy,” said Wilson-Buterbaugh, author of “The Baby Scoop Era: Unwed Mothers, Infant Adoption and Forced Surrender.”
When the young women left the homes on outings, they had to wear wedding bands dispensed by staff members. In addition to having to deal with people staring at their bulging stomachs, some of the women were met with violence outside the homes.
In “The Girls Who Went Away,” a woman named Pam said she stayed in a Florence Crittenton home in a rundown section of Los Angeles in the 1960s. “When we would leave the home to go places, the neighbor’s kids would throw things at us — rotten fruit, eggs — and eggs hurt, the shells would actually break the skin,” she said.
To keep up appearances while they were away, Ellerby and Wilson-Buterbaugh engaged in elaborate ruses to cover up the fact that they were in maternity homes.
Ellerby told her friends she was visiting her aunt in Ohio for the school year, and she sent postcards and letters to her friends describing an imaginary life in her new high school.
Wilson-Buterbaugh’s mother purchased a cap and gown with her high school’s colors, and had Wilson-Buterbaugh pose for photos to make it seem as though she graduated. She had to face the camera from the front so no one could see her pregnant profile.
Once admitted to a maternity home, usually in their seventh month, young women were required to meet with caseworkers regularly to talk about options for their babies. But the caseworkers pushed for just one choice: Give up the babies for adoption, Wilson-Buterbaugh said..
“We were all told our children would be called bastards on the playground and that would be an awful thing to put a child through,” said Ellerby, who stayed in a Florence Crittenton home in Akron, Ohio.
“The personnel and social workers told you constantly that you could not keep your child,” Wilson-Buterbaugh said of her experience. “All I heard was, ‘You’re not worthy, you’re not responsible enough, you can’t afford it.’ Instead of helping you keep the baby, it was the opposite.”
“Most people think we willingly gave up our babies — it’s a myth that these adopted children were told,” Wilson-Buterbaugh said. “We were given one choice: Surrender your baby. It was like having a gun to our heads.”
Under coercion of social workers, parents and sometimes even the courts, by the mid-1960s more than 80 percent of those who entered maternity homes surrendered their babies for adoption.
The maternity home system mostly served a white clientele during the decades before Roe v. Wade, according to “The Girls Who Went Away.”
Unmarried, pregnant African American girls had a different experience. Most of the maternity homes were segregated, and fewer options were available to African American women.
“Presumed to be ‘naturally’ sexually promiscuous and ‘naturally’ maternal, black women were expected to keep their children and live in their parental homes,” Rickie Solinger writes in “Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade.”
“Caseworkers fed us the idea that we were supplying white babies for white people,” Wilson-Buterbaugh said. “Back then, no one wanted babies of color for adoption. White babies were a valuable commodity.”
When a girl went into labor, she was dropped off at a hospital, where most labored alone, often strapped, spread eagle, to a hospital bed, according to “The Girls Who Went Away.” After birth, some were allowed to spend time with their babies, while others were never allowed to hold or feed their newborns.
After years of post-traumatic-stress syndrome, low self-esteem and failed relationships, Ellerby set out to find her daughter. More than 30 years after giving her up for adoption, Ellerby found her. They now have a close relationship, but it couldn’t make up for Ellerby’s anguish when she was forced to give up her daughter.
Wilson-Buterbaugh’s odyssey did not end as well. In 2001, her biological daughter contacted her, years after Wilson-Buterbaugh searched and came up with dead ends. But her daughter just wanted health information, not a relationship. Tragically, in 2007 her daughter died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
"I lost my daughter three times,” Wilson-Buterbaugh said.
The years before Roe v. Wade “was a really tragic time,” Wilson-Buterbaugh said. “I never stopped grieving the loss of my daughter.”
“There never was an adult who told me I had a right to keep my child,” Ellerby said. “I was forever traumatized about being forced to give away my baby.”
Diane Bernard is a freelance writer based in the Washington area. Maria Bogen-Oskwarek is a New Jersey-based writer who is working on a novel about a young, unmarried woman who gets pregnant in the early 1960s.