The Adoption History Project
The Adoption History Project
By Ellen Herman. http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/%7Eadoption/
Reviewed by Simone M. Caron, Wake Forest University.
Ellen Herman, associate professor of history at the University of Oregon, has designed a fine website devoted to the history of adoption. The Adoption History Project has two goals: to provide historical context and primary sources for both scholars and students; and to make resources available to the general public regarding the legal, social, and personal aspects of adoption. In both respects, Herman achieves her objectives. This site, however, is not just about adoption: scholars interested in race, ethnicity, gender/women's/men's studies, the woman's movement, eugenics, the American West, and mental health will want to bookmark it as a favorite.
The Adoption History Project is well organized, user-friendly, and easily navigated. The home page lays out seven areas of concentration. The Time Line begins with the Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act in 1851 and ends with the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. Not simply a list of important dates, this time line conveys an overview of the history of adoption in the legal, political, and social realms, with links within each entry to further information on the given topic. A section on "People and Organizations" has biographies of, primary documents written by, and links to further reading on Viola Wertheim Bernard, Charles Loring Brace, Pearl S. Buck, Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Gesell, Bertha and Harry Holt, Justine Wise Polier, Jessie Taft, and Sophie van Senden Theis. Each organization listed-Bastard Nation, Child Welfare League of America, Concerned United Birthparents, and U.S. Children's Bureau-includes a brief history, examples of letters to and documents about these agencies, and a useful list of further readings. The third category, Adoption Studies/Adoption Science, includes four subsections with primary sources for scholars, teachers, and students: field studies by Helen Lucile Pearson (1925) and Ida Parker (1927); outcome studies by Ruth W. Lawton and J. Prentice Murphy (1915), Sophie van Senden Theis (1924), Catherine S. Amatruda and Joseph V. Baldwin (1951), Margaret A. Valk (1957), Helen Witmer (1963), and Benson Jaffee and David Fanshel (1970); nature-nurture studies by Margaret Cobb (1922); and psychopathology studies by Harry F. Harlow (1959) and Marshall D. Schechter (1960). The fourth section, Topics in Adoption History, offers complete coverage of adoption narratives, statistics, race and ethnicity, eugenics, welfare policies, illegitimacy, single parenting, orphan trains, and special-needs children. The twelve-page Further Reading category is a must beginning spot for anyone interested in any aspect of adoption, from prospective adoptive parents and adopted children searching for birth parents, to serious scholars seeking relevant primary and secondary sources. The topical organization of the reading list serves the user well. The Site Index is a hot-linked table of contents. The Document Archives offers 195 published and unpublished primary sources, including some images. This latter section is a true gold mine.
Herman intends this website to be of interest to students and teachers concerned with welfare policies and the history of the family in the twentieth century. Yet this site is much richer than this description. Gender historians will appreciate the primary sources dealing not only with female social workers and the woman's movement, but also with documents on unmarried fathers and young men searching for birth parents. Scholars of African-American history will find many relevant sources, such as "Homes Needed for 10,000 Brown Orphans" (1948); Louise Wise Services, "Press Release Announcing Recruitment of White Parents for Black Children" (1963); Harriet Frick, "Interracial Adoption: The Little Revolution" (1965); Clarence Fisher, "Homes for Black Children" (1970); and National Association of Black Social Workers, "Position Statement on Trans-Racial Adoption" (1972), to name just a few. Historians of the West will benefit from nineteenth-century documents detailing the orphan trains and the placement of eastern urban children in western frontier homes. Native-American scholars will welcome documents such as the Indian Adoption Project Evaluation (1958-1967); Louise Wise Services, "Our Indian Program" (1960); Navajo Tribal Council, "Tribal Policy on Adoption of Navajo Orphans and Abandoned or Neglected Children" (1960); Arnold Lyslo, "Suggested Criteria to Evaluate Families to Adopt American Indian Children Through the Indian Adoption Project" (1962); David Fanshel's Far from the Reservation (1972); and the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. Researchers interested in eugenics will find useful Henry H. Godddard, "Wanted: A Child to Adopt" (1911); Albert H. Stoneman, "Adoption of Illegitimate Children: The Peril of Ignorance" (1926); Ida Parker's Fit and Proper? (1927); Paul Popenoe, "The Foster Child" (1929); and Sheldon Reed and Esther B. Nordlie, "Genetic Counseling: For Children of Mixed Racial Ancestry" (1961).
Herman contextualizes each of these documents, and nearly two hundred more, in the Adoption History section of the site. For the Indian Child Welfare Act, for example, she informs the reader that with this act, the federal government reversed its rather genocidal Indian Adoption Project whereby the government removed Native American children from their families to be placed in "white" homes. The new act defined Native children as crucial to group survival, a unique aspect of federal legislation given its communal concern versus the otherwise strong protection of individualism in American legal history. The Indian Adoption Project mentioned in the discussion of the act is hot linked to the project itself, with an extended summary of it followed by five relevant primary sources. Similarly, the history of eugenics is concise and up to date with the most recent scholarship on the topic, which confirms that eugenics did not die out with the decline of Nazism but lived on in the postwar era, albeit in a subtler form. The five eugenic documents chosen by Herman exemplify the similarities and divergences among leading eugenicists.
The documents themselves are not only useful to researchers, but also to teachers of high-school through graduate students. "An Adopted Mother Speaks" (1922), for example, serves as a constructive classroom tool. It is short enough to read in less than five minutes, but it is packed with important themes, from heredity and eugenics, parenting, childrearing practices, to discrimination against alien races. It can therefore serve as a basis for classroom discussion. This document works well with its counterpart, "How It Feels to Have Been Adopted" (1920), told from the perspective of a thirty-year-old woman reflecting on her experience living with a single, older adopted mother. Both documents deal with issues anyone involved with adoption, from the mother to the child, faced during a time when such practices raised concerns with professionals and the public alike. Also very useful are the case studies, all of which are placed within their proper historical context. "The Case of Michael B" (1965) is particularly revealing. An intelligent and athletic young man searching for information regarding his birth mother is interpreted by the assigned psychologist to be an obsessive man with incest issues toward his natal mother, perhaps due to early potty training by his adoptive mother. This document is rich with information for medical, gender, and social historians, and would provoke a vibrant class discussion.
The only criticism of this website, and it is a minor one, concerns one aspect of organization. In both the Adoption Studies/Adoption Science and Document Archives sections, Herman chose to list the material in alphabetical order. This choice is logical if users know exactly for which document they are searching, but not many will find themselves in this situation. For those who want to find a specific document, a search option-not currently included in the site-would be helpful. The Adoption Studies/Adoption Science section would be better organized chronologically within each subgroup to give scholars a more historical progression of theories and opinions. As for the documents, rather than categorizing by A-C, D-F, etc., a more useful cataloging would be by time period: mid-nineteenth century; late-nineteenth century, etc. Such classification would allow researchers and teachers a clear sense of available information for a given historical era.
Overall, The Adoption History Project is a useful website for researchers, teachers, and students of history. In an era of controversy over adoptee rights versus birth parent rights, this site maintains a neutral stance and provides information ranging from the militant Bastard Nation to the long-lived Child Welfare League of America. It is therefore not an instrument of propaganda, but an objective device that serves well the interests of both historians and the public.
Simone Caron is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Wake Forest University. Her teaching interests include Gender in Modern America and Health Care in American Society. Prof. Caron has just completed a monograph focused on reproductive history in the United States, Who Chooses? American Reproductive History since 1830, to be published by the University Press of Florida in 2008.