Slut Shaming 101

| Myra Ann Rutledge |

This excerpt comes from an article that Myra recently published on American News X in response to Jeb Bush’s inflammatory position on unwed mothers. We’re publishing this story along with Myra’s heartbreaking reflection on giving her own son up for adoption in an era where women had virtually no reproductive rights. As the political attack on women’s bodies continues to rage on, Myra reminds us why we must continue to raise our voices, share our stories and refuse to be silenced by shame and stigma. 

 “One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame.” Jeb Bush, Profiles in Character

Back in the days before legal birth control, in the times before legal abortion, plenty of young women and girls had babies sans marriage. I know. I was one of them. In the internet age, many of us came to realize that we were not the only ones who went through this, which is what the powers that were wanted us to believe back then: that only a tiny handful of women were such miscreants. I know the stories, I’ve heard them all from other women who were “unwed mothers” like me. Let me tell you how we sluts were shamed back then. Let me tell you all about the stigma and the shame and the condemnation that Jeb thinks is so wonderful and is such a deterrent.

Once a girl “got herself knocked up,” in the charming vernacular of those idyllic times, she was shuttled off to an institution where she lived in secrecy until her baby was born. There were hundreds, possibly thousands, of “homes for unwed mothers” throughout the nation, and in the best of these we were treated reasonably well, received proper pre-natal care, and gave birth on-site. In the worst, the girls were hired out to local businesses and individuals basically as slave labor, received precious little medical attention, and were sent to public hospitals to have their babies. More on that later. Most of these institutions were somewhere in the middle. We knew each other only by our first names or by pseudonyms; absolute secrecy was the rule. In some of these homes a girl could not even leave the facility at all until after her child was born, in others she needed parental consent to leave at all, even to walk to a local store to buy a soda.

The women who were sent to public hospitals to give birth fell primarily into two categories. Some were so heavily sedated throughout birth and labor to the point where some who gave birth late at night or early in the morning didn’t even know what day their child was born. Others were left screaming in hallways and offered no pain killers and no local anesthesia during the episiotomy if they received one at all. Some girls were just allowed to tear during birth. Most were not allowed to see their baby, let alone hold him or her, and most were only told their child’s sex if they asked and then the answer came reluctantly. Some were told outright that both the physical and the emotional pain would make them “think twice about doing this again!”

Florence Crittenden Maternity Home

Florence Crittenden Maternity Home

Sometimes the legal documents for relinquishing her child for adoption were brought to the new mother to be signed minutes after birth, but usually it was within 48 hours. The law allows for any natural mother to sign any legal document relating to her child regardless of her age, even if she is a minor in the eyes of the law. Rarely did any “unwed mother” receive advice from an attorney regarding these papers.

I was lucky: the home for unwed mothers (and isn’t that a lovely anachronistic term) was one of the better ones I’ve heard about. We did receive proper medical care, we were treated with some respect, and deliveries (unless medically necessary) were done on site. Yet the secrecy was tantamount and strictly enforced. I was able to see my son, to name him, and to assist with his care for the first week of his life. This was highly unusual. About a week after he was born I was called into the office where the house mother, the social worker, and one of the staff nurses were waiting for me. The social worker shoved a stack of papers across the desk to me and I was handed a pen. They told me where to sign and checked each page to make sure I had signed in all the proper places. No one suggested that I read them, no one told me of my rights under the law, no one suggested that I could seek legal representation if I wanted, no one suggested that perhaps my parents should be there. I was 13. I did what I was told.

Yes, you read that correctly. I was 13 years old, the product of small town Indiana in the 50s and early 60s, along with seven years of Catholic school. As we all know, sex does not exist in the Catholic Church except in marriage and then only for procreation. My mother’s take on sex education was, and still is, “Don’t tell them about it, they won’t find out about it, and they won’t want to try it.” As you can see, it worked so very well with me, didn’t it? The hardest thing for me now is to admit that I was so ignorant and had no idea that what I was doing is how babies are made. I was over four months pregnant when my parents and I found out. That was how sex education was handled back in those halcyon times!

When our child had been born and the papers signed, we were told that we would go on with our lives, go back to school or to work, go back to our homes where no one except immediate family knew our shameful secret, lest “…. neighbors and communities would frown” on us. We were told to forget “it,” the “it” being the child we carried within us for nine months. We were told we would never, ever see our child nor know what became of him or her. Some women were of an age where they could have kept their child and raised him/her. Some tried to get their children back, even when the law was clearly on their side, yet were denied and lied to.

Eventually, we wondered. All of us. Did my child get placed in a good family? What does he/she look like? So we searched and in doing so we found others like us who searched. Some of us were reunited with our children, and I was one of these. My son, my only child, passed away almost two years ago, but we had 15 years together in reunion. I met his wonderful adoptive family who welcomed me, as he was welcomed into his birthfamily.

I also put him in touch with his birthfather. Notice that “back in the day” no one ever spoke of birthfathers; they had no legal rights unless they were savvy enough to demand them, that is, if they were even allowed to be told that their girlfriend was pregnant. Many weren’t. The spot on the official original birth certificate where the father’s name goes almost always read “Unknown.” Sluts such as us could not be trusted to name just one male of the many we presumably had been intimate with, whores that we were.

So as you can see, Slut Shaming 101 back in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and even into the 70s, was an intricate web of secrets and lies. Ssssssssh! No one will ever know, mustn’t tell a soul! Your shame will live only within you, your scarlet “A” will be imprinted only on your soul. No one suffered more than the child, however, no matter how loving their adoptive family may be. He or she never knew anyone who looked like them, they had no idea what hand that genetics would deal them. And if they dared to go looking for answers, the doors were slammed shut in their faces and they were made to feel guilty and disrespectful of their adoptive families. They were told we birthmothers were promised lifelong absolute secrecy and that we had forgotten all about them. It was a lie. We never forgot.

 

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