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The Body Politic : WAKE UP LITTLE SUSIE: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade, By Rickie Solinger (Routledge: $25; 231 pp.) : LIFE ITSELF: Abortion in the American Mind, By Roger Rosenblatt (Random House: $20; 194 pp.) : BITTER FRUIT: Women's Experiences of Unplanned Pregnancy, Abortion, and Adoption, By Ann Perkins and Rita Townsend (Hunter House Publishers: $21.95 cloth, $12.95 paper; 304 pp.)

June 14, 1992|Deirdre English | English is the co-author, with Barbara Ehrenreich, of "For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women" (Anchor/Doubleday)

In recent weeks it has been as if Little Susie herself, the sleepy 1950s teen-ager, woke up from her back-seat slumber to find that it is 1992 and she is Murphy Brown. Although she is still a mere figment of the white middle-class moral imagination, she is now an independent career woman with a new baby. She no longer worries that her parents will be mad at her for staying out late with her boyfriend, but a headline in a New York City tabloid screams, "Quayle to Murphy: You Tramp!" The attack word "illegitimate" is back in use after the Vice President of the United States clobbered her with it. But America's poor black women and children were the real objects of his advice: "Just have two-parent families."

Those who want to put today's debates on race, poverty and pregnancy into historical perspective should read "Wake Up, Little Susie," Rickie Solinger's timely and perceptive analysis of the years after World War II and before the legalization of abortion. They will have to slog through some clumsy academic language, but this is urgent reading in light of the likely recriminalization of abortion in America. What will become of unwed mothers and their babies-to-be besides getting stamped with more angry labels ranging from "slut" to "black matriarch," "man-hating feminist" to "welfare cheat," "unwed baby" (Quayle actually said this) to "bastard"? Are we making progress here?

In Solinger's book we revisit an era when, if a woman wanted to get a legal abortion, she generally had to plead psychiatric illness to a hospital panel. The doctors (usually all male) frequently rejected the appeals, sometimes recording their unconcealed contempt ("she wants us to wash her dirty laundry . . .").

The dominant Freudian gloss, applied by psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, was that girls had "gotten themselves in trouble" (and even "got themselves raped") out of unconscious motivations--often hostility toward their boyfriends or families, especially their mothers. (This notion helped let men off the hook. One fellow, on being told by his girlfriend that she was pregnant by him, responded: "God help me, I'm ashamed of you.")

A pregnant white woman would be informed that only by acknowledging her emotional maladjustment and unfitness for motherhood (proved by the very fact that she was pregnant) could she hope for a "second chance" at appropriate femininity, marriage and maternity. Usually expelled from high school by law, she was often sequestered in an austere maternity home on condition that she never tell anyone where she went. She would be urged or, if necessary, forced (and sometimes tricked) into giving the child up to the booming postwar adoption market as a sign of her new-found "adjustment."

African-American women were spared the pseudo-psychologicaltheorizing about their rejection of the feminine role in favor of a cruder assumption that they were only "doing what comes naturally"--to oversexed Negroes, of course, not to pure white virgins. But they, too, had little access to sex education, birth control or abortion, few maternity homes, and--in striking distinction from white women--virtually no access to adoption services. In 1960, Solinger tells us, approximately 70% of white babies born out of wedlock were adopted, while only 5% of such nonwhite babies were placed; in fact, one African-American woman who tried to give her baby to a hospital for adoption was arrested for desertion. Partly in the absence of any alternative and partly by choice, the black community mostly made room for its newest members and accepted the mothers without stigma.

The treatment of white and black unwed mothers did converge on one point: Both were seen primarily as potential threats to the stability of middle-class home life. The white woman was shamed for her sexuality unless and until she gave up her baby, while the black woman who kept her baby was blamed by the white taxpaying public for causing everything from rising welfare costs to poverty and so-called "black pathology."

Despite these demeaning attitudes, postwar non-marital sexual activity, illegal abortions and out-of-wedlock birth rates all rose steadily (perhaps in part because males were exempt from most of the shaming and blaming and so had little motivation to reform typical practices, such as shunning the use of contraceptives). Population experts, along with some feminists, doctors and social-service providers, campaigned long and hard for abortion reform, yet the nation seemed psychically unprepared for their success in 1972 when the Supreme Court made abortion legal.

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