A couple of years ago, I had a character in one of the novels “go to her aunt’s” when she was young. I’d heard the phrase somewhere along the way and remembered it was a common cover story for young, unmarried women who were pregnant.
In my novel, the woman is old, and she’d “gone to her aunt’s” as a teen, more than 50 years before, so it seemed appropriate. And she really had gone to her aunt’s, giving the excuse that her aunt needed someone to help look after her young children. No one outside her immediate family suspected the truth. In fact, her father may not have known the truth.
Reading this book, I discovered how very accurate my sad story was.
Gone to an Aunt’s: Remembering Canada’s Homes for Unwed Mothers
The author of this book, Anne Petrie, is an award-winning Canadian broadcaster, best known as the host of Canada Live and Coast to Coast on CBC Newsworld.
In 1966, Anne was an unwed mother who gave up her baby for adoption and moved on her in life.
Thirty or more years after giving birth, she decided to tell her story along with the stories of six other women from across Canada. Her focus was on the experiences of the women in the homes where they had been hidden away between the discovery that they were pregnant and giving birth.
I was a couple of chapters into the book when I suddenly realized that Anne was only a couple of years older than me, and that I could very easily have walked in her shoes. She found out she was pregnant in the fall of 1966—the year I graduated from grade 12.
Mini-skirts were in. Looking sexy was in. Movies like Blow-up; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; and Georgy Girl. Music like “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, “We Can Work It Out and more by the Beatles, “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys. The Platters. The Monkees. The Dave Clark Five. Best-selling books included The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The next year was the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury. Woodstock was just over the horizon.
I still remember watching both Blow-Up and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. While the latter repelled me, the former totally blew me away (no pun intended). I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in our small theatre holding my breath as the photograph was made larger and larger.
I also remember reading The Valley of the Dolls. It was the second book I’d “borrowed” from my mother’s night table when she wasn’t around. (The first was Marjorie Morningstar.) I still remember The Valley of the Dolls. In some ways, it’s the saddest book I’ve ever read. It made me realize that there were things going on that I didn’t know much, if anything, about. And that you couldn’t rely on what was on the surface.
For many, the late sixties were a time of change. A time of trying new things. Of learning. But, as Anne shares in her book, it wasn’t a good time to get pregnant if you were young and unmarried. While I can’t possible cover everything I learned while reading this book or help you feel the emotions I felt as Anne shared her own story and those of the six other girls/young women, I’ll pick out a few key things that struck me.
1. The primary thing that stands out is the way most of these young women—some of them very young—were judged by their families, other members of their community, support people, and even by each other.
Anne says, “I have collected these stories and told my own in the hope that it will remind us of how we used to treat each other—the harshness with which we judged and the harm of even the best intentions.” P. 9-10
Later in the book, she says, “Writing a book like this one with any honesty means you have to face up to your past, not only what was done to you, but what you might have done to others. I have often asked myself why I didn’t make more of an effort to connect with those other girls. At school I had overcome a natural shyness and had always taken leadership roles. I was often at the centre of some new activity. I knew what effort that usually took, and at the home I had no energy for performance and, more important, no desire for recognition. Although I had always sought approval, now I did not want it. Another self emerged at Maywood—an odd mixture of old and new. In many ways, I retreated to being a quiet, insecure, thin-skinned girl who felt any criticism as a mortal blow. I projected my own shame onto the other girls and then kept my distance.” P. 116
And then, “I was just like the society and the system that did not want to hear or believe their stories. I blamed, I dismissed, I did not want to see myself in them. But each of these girls had a tale of love or betrayal, or something far worse. I like to think [this book is] at least a start to the listening I didn’t do thirty years ago.” P. 116-117
I like the phrase she used. “Each of these girls had a tale.” So often, we lump people into groups and talk about “them.” And it was no different for these your women. They were “unwed mothers,” girls who were having babies “out of wedlock,” “easy.” But each girl or young woman was a unique person with a unique story. And while some of their stories were truly heartbreaking, most of them—once the truth about their pregnancy had been discovered—were left alone and defenceless against a judgemental world. Anne says, “You might have no idea how your boyfriend or lover would react, but you knew, or thought you knew, all too well how your parents would. It would be easier to say you had murdered someone… This the great crime of youth, especially for a girl. It meant that you had had sex ‘out of wedlock.’ And now everyone would know. You were a slut. Pure and simple. There is no other explanation…. You had done the unforgivable. It went without saying that it was entirely your fault. You knew the inevitable punch line: ‘What will people say?’ You had been bad, as bad as you could be. These were the images in my head—I was sure I knew exactly what would happen, and so I put off telling anyone for as long as I could. For a while I couldn’t even tell myself.” P. 13
2. Avoiding pregnancy wasn’t as easy as some people made it out to be
Even today, I see comments that make me see red and want to scream. “All you had to do was keep your legs together” is a common one. As if that’s so easy to do when a man decides he doesn’t want you to. Or when the boy you love asks you to prove it. Or when you have no clue what’s going on.
In her book, Annie says, “My only official sex education was a few tense minutes with my mother that took place for some reason in our kitchen broom closet. It came to a merciful end when she gave up trying to explain anything and handed me the pamphlet that the Kotex company used to publish, ‘You’re a Young Woman [sic] Now.’ Other details I learned from girlfriends, who usually had it wrong.” P. 111
I know some people will find this hard to believe. But I can verify what she says. Only I didn’t even get the broom closet talk. What I got was a pamphlet—the same one as Anne, I expect. I still remember the cover. Although I think I was given more than one. Possibly one of these, too. Likely the one from 1948.
If you look at the pamphlets closely, you’ll see that they focused entirely on what to do when you began to menstruate, and while the second one did talk about eggs and being fertilized, it didn’t mention how that happened or what happened if they did get fertilized.
I was in my bedroom when my mother and her friend Eve, who was a public health nurse, knocked on the door and came in to give me the small booklets. They left, and then I read the booklets. Once I was assured that this was normal, and I knew how to use the pads, that was pretty well that. I’m guessing my mother or Eve might have asked me if I had any questions, but I’m quite sure I’d have said no. I’d have been too embarrassed to say anything. And no, I never had any girlfriends I could or would talk about that sort of thing with. Anything I learned, I learned from books.
Oh, my mother said one more thing. A day or two before I got married, she told me that the only “sex education” she got from her mother was the night before her wedding, when her said that it would hurt, but she’d get used to it.
So, no, I have no problem believing that a young girl in those days might not be very clear as to how one got pregnant or even how to know she was pregnant.
In the book, Anne goes on to talk further about the confusion of living in those times.
“Girls were under intense pressure to date and to have boyfriends. To be popular was everything, to ‘go steady,’ nirvana, and so the quandary arose: How could you attract a boy or a man, or preferably a flock of them, and still follow the prohibition against having sex? It is not the whole story, of course, but no wonder many a boy pushed his luck and many a girl gave in. We were both getting double messages.” P. 6
“In the 1950s and early 1960s, we all knew what it meant to be pregnant and unwed. The warnings were loud and clear: your life would be ruined; you would be kicked out of school, perhaps out of home, and branded a slut or a tramp. You would bring indescribable shame on yourself and your family. You were supposed to just say no. But no was not a fail-safe contraceptive, and many girls found themselves pregnant—and mortified. There were options, of a sort. Abortions could be had, but they were illegal, expensive, and usually dangerous. You could get married, but a shotgun wedding brought its own kind of shame—your family and friends either knew or suspected that you’d to get married. If you could get married. Frequently the boy or young man ducked or denied his responsibility. Or the parents said no. Their daughter was too young to marry or this was not the son-in-law they had imagined. The idea of a girl keeping her baby on her own was almost unthinkable. Most often, and regardless of their class or economic circumstances, parents treated their daughter’s pregnancy as a secret to keep. No one could know—not friends, relatives, neighbours, or schoolmates, sometimes not even sisters or brothers.” P. 2
“Perhaps it is hard to believe now at a time when condoms are available from dispensers in high school washrooms, but until 1969 the dissemination of contraception—or even information about contraception—was illegal. A Toronto pharmacist was jailed in 1960 for selling condoms.” P. 120
3. The girls who got pregnant and “went to visit an aunt” were, for the most part, normal teenagers or young woman.
Anne says, “The girls who ended up in the homes were as varied as girls are. They came from families rich and poor, from urban and from rural settings…. Some had loving parents; others came from nightmarish families. Yes, there were missing fathers—and the trauma of a separated family in those days shouldn’t be underrated—but did any postwar family see much of Dad? And there were certainly mothers who were not there for their daughters. If we were neurotic or emotionally immature, isn’t that the definition of a teenager? As for sexual experience, some of the women I’ve talked to had had sex just once, others had taken chances before. Some were brutally attacked, some firmly seduced. I hope some were genuinely loved. There is only one generalization I can make about all these girls. They were the ones that got caught. That’s our distinguishing trait. We got caught.
“It is the only conclusion I can come to. Otherwise, I would have to believe that we were the only girls who had sex. But any honest look at those times tells us that the standard of no premarital sex was more a matter of rules than reality. Alfred Kinsey had already told us by 1953 that fully half of white, middle-class women (the only group he studied) had had premarital sex.” P. 19
I wasn’t in that half. I think one of the things that helped me was that I never felt any pressure to have sex. Maybe because I was a nerd before the word existed, and my friends were mostly nerds too. Who knows? I had boys who were friends, for sure, and even boyfriends, but I always knew I was going to university (as were most of them) and I had no desire to even think about getting married, nor had I met anyone who made me consider it. Plus by that time, I had a strong faith in God and I’d read a wide variety of books and I had no intention of letting anyway get to first base, never mind further, until there was a wedding ring on my finger. And perhaps the fact that I had been adopted acted as a bit of a deterrent, too, even subconsciously.
But while I was fortunate not to go through an unwanted pregnancy, many other girls weren’t. Anne says, “There was a lot more sex than people who yearn for a return to 1950s morality want to believe. No one who was there can forget the enormous pressure from boyfriends to ‘go all the way.’ We have no idea how many girls did. We don’t know how many girls had abortions. How many had a shotgun wedding? Maybe some girls had the knowledge and the nerve to use contraception. A lot more were probably lucky. The girls who ended up in homes were just the visible tip of a very big iceberg. Of course, we wouldn’t be visible for long. The moralists of the day would soon see that we were hidden away.” P. 20
“The girls just disappeared. The cover stories were vague. ‘Gone to visit an aunt’ was typical. Occasionally there was a family member in another city you could be trusted, who would take in a niece or a granddaughter, but often parents could not share the secret with anyone. The daughter was shipped off—from her own home to another home, a home to hide in until the baby came. A home for unwed mothers.” P. 3
In those days, most cities in Canada had at least one such home, while larger cities had as many as five or six. Most of the homes were run by religious organizations—primarily Roman Catholic or Salvation Army. The purpose of the homes was to keep the women hidden from view and their babies safe until the babies were born and (in most cases) given up for adoption. Then the girl would return home and forget she’d ever had an unwanted baby.
As for the babies’ fathers, Anne quotes from The Unmarried Father, by Norman Reider. “Nowhere does the biological difference between men and women stand out in it social implications so much as in the difference between an unmarried mother and an unmarried father. The biological burden is entirely upon the unmarried mother, as it is on all mothers, but in the great majority of instances the unmarried father escapes any responsibility.” N. Reider, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 1948. P. 110