Wealhtheow's Reviews > Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe V Wade

Wake Up Little Susie by Rickie Solinger
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Apr 26, 2010

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bookshelves: non-fiction, historical, sociology, didn-t_finish, race, health
Read from March 15 to April 26, 2010

What it meant to be pregnant and unwed in the US from 1945 to 1965. Basically, it sucked. But, it sucked for white women and black rather differently. Both were expected to be ashamed, but white women were usually forced into maternity homes, where they could be pregnant in secret, and then give their infant up for a secret adoption (nevertheless, according to a 1957 survey, some ~30% of white women kept their babies). But because there was a demand from prospective adopters for white babies, but not black babies, black women were not offered places in maternity homes, and were expected to raise their babies. Amazingly, white women who petitioned to be allowed to raise their babies were judged unfit by reason of mental instability (after all, what sane woman would ever want to be an unwed mother!), while black women who tried to give their babies up for adoption had a hard time of it--some where even charged with child abandonment! And as for abortions--just by petitioning to have one, a woman proved herself to be so lacking in morality that she deserved the punishment of bearing and raising a child.

So many white unmarried women had the pain of a forced adoption, whereas many black unmarried women had the pain of forced child-rearing. And then, for extra fun, the black women who were forced to keep their children were thought to prove that black people were just naturally so animalistic that they couldn't think straight enough to not have sex and bear lots of babies. And ooh, also, they were the cause of all social programs and poverty in America! Which is particularly funny, cuz most social programs not only paid barely enough to keep people alive, but also, excluded people of color!

This was a stunning book, and I pretty much wanted to cry and rage half the time I was reading it. I found it such hard going, in fact, that I ran out of library time and have to return it, having only skimmed the last few chapters. I'm sure there's some important stuff in here that I've missed.

A few quotes I found particularly worthwhile:
"Race, in the end, was the most accurate predictor of an unwed mother's parents' response to her pregnancy; of society's reaction to her plight; of where and how she would spend the months of her pregnancy; and most important, the most accurate predictor of what she would do with the 'fatherless' child she bore, and of how being mother to such a child would affect the rest of her life...race-specific public and private responses to single pregnancy, between 1945 and 1965, have profoundly influenced the race-rent politics of female fertility in our time."
"An unmarried black pregnant girl looking for help in the early decades of the twentieth century could probably have found assistance only within her own family and community. Most maternity homes excluded blacks; most of the few government assistance programs that existed excluded unmarried mothers."
"White illegitimacy was generally not perceived as a 'cultural' or racial defect, or as a public expense, so the stigma suffered by the white unwed mother was individual and familial. Black women, illegitimately pregnant, were not shamed but simply blamed, blamed for the population explosion, for escalating welfare costs, for the existence of unwanted babies, and blamed for the tenacious grip of poverty on blacks in America. There was no redemption possible for these women, only the retribution of sterilization, harassment by welfare officials, and public policies that threatened to starve them and their babies."
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Reading Progress

03/15/2010 page 5
1.49% "Mid 1950s, drs would almost never agree to an abortion without sterilization as well...75% of abortions at a hospital also had sterilization"
04/06/2010 page 13
3.87% "illegit. birth rate triples between 1940-1957.#of illegit births increased by 125% since start of WWII. Rate growing fastest for whites"
04/06/2010 page 18
5.36% "1940s Aid to Dependent Children--finally, public money becomes available to unmarried mothers and their children, many of them black"
01/23/2014 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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Wealhtheow Ooh, thankee for the recommendation! And yeah, I loved The Story of Jane, because not only was it righteous and awesomely inspiring, but it also had personalities and narratives--it was a nice shift from the usual sociological treatises.

message 2: by Sam (new) - added it

Sam Grace Is this book just Black and White? Does it have anything on Latinas?

Wealhtheow Sam, I didn't manage to read the whole thing, but it didn't seem like it. It is a very focused book; no digressions into other ethnic or racial groups, very little about the men involved...I think at least part of the problem was that the author was hampered by what surveys and data had actually been collected at the time.

Are there any books you'd recommend that do talk about Latinas' reproductive health? I'd love to educate myself!

message 4: by Hazel (new)

Hazel Great review, Wealhtheow, thank you.

Wealhtheow Thank you Hazel! It always fascinates me that though our society has been constructed, often by very conscious public policy or by assumptions based on prejudice, people today often view our society as though it all developed perfectly naturally and unconstrainedly. As though the racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, colonialist practices implemented at all levels of government and unofficial societal practices of the past had nothing whatsoever to do with the modern USA! (And as though those very same prejudices don't afflict us to this day.) I find that a good grasp of history can be an antidote to that sort of "disparities are just natural" sort of thinking.

message 6: by Hazel (new)

Hazel Wealhtheow wrote: "I find that a good grasp of history can be an antidote to that sort of "disparities are just natural" sort of thinking. "

Agreed. We're really quite ignorant of our own history. I'm not from the US, but I think this applies to human history. Reading is part of the cure, and I learn a great deal from the Goodreads community. :-)

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