Address to The Women’s College, University of Queensland by Debbie Terranova, author of Baby Farm, on 10 May 2016.
When people talk about ‘the stolen generation’, they usually mean indigenous Australians who were forcibly removed from their families and raised to be white. They were most commonly the child of an Aboriginal mother and a white father. The practice occurred from the 1880s until the 1970s. Numbers are hard to quantify.
But there was another stolen generation, one that has not been talked about much until recently. They were the children of unmarried mothers – white Australians who were forcibly taken for adoption.
According to the 2012 Senate Inquiry, 150,000 mothers relinquished their babies between 1950 and 1980. That means there were 150,000 fathers and 150,000 children, not to mention their grandparents and siblings. Now do the maths.
In the decade of the 1970s, nearly 65,000 babies were legally adopted in Australia. That number would fill a football stadium one and a quarter times.
In Queensland alone, the peak was in 1972. During that year, 1774 babies were legally adopted. That number would fill a decent-sized performing arts theatre.
Not all babies adopted were ‘stolen’ and not all adoptions were recorded, so the numbers are estimates at best.
Now compare to 2015 when there were just 317 adoptions reported in the whole of Australia.
Why did this happen?
There are a number of reasons, but most of it boils down to one word: shame. With shame came blame and punishment.
When I look back, Australia in the 1970s was a very different place. Women were beginning to step out of the kitchen and into better education and careers. The Women’s Liberation movement was gaining momentum. They were fighting for equal pay for equal work and the end of gender-based discrimination in employment, access to basic living necessities such as finance and rental accommodation, access to income support and child care.
Until the late 1960s, marriage was not an expectation but a necessity. Women who didn’t marry were a bit of an embarrassment. They were referred to as spinsters and old maids, both with derogatory undertones. The possibility that a woman might not be heterosexual wasn’t even on the radar.
Without a husband to provide, women needed some way to support themselves. Some entered a convent, or stayed home and looked after their ageing parents, or became school teachers, or nurses, or public servants, generally as low-level workers. Until 1966 the public service had a so-called ‘marriage bar’ which meant a woman could only be employed while she was single.
There were benefits available to married women and sanctions for women who weren’t. This was particularly true when women got pregnant. Politicians preached a policy of ‘populate or perish’ – it was meant to save our country from invasion by non-white nations. Remember a ‘white Australia policy’ operated until 1965.
For married women who weren’t able to have children, there were few options. IVF was yet to be invented and surrogacy was unheard of. For many childless couples, adoption was the only solution. But adoption was not openly discussed. In fact, during my travels promoting Baby Farm, several people spoke to me about their shock on discovering that the people they knew only as Mum and Dad weren’t their genetic parents at all.
Many hundreds of people told their stories in a Senate Inquiry in 2012. The Inquiry reports that some babies were secretly switched at birth by treating doctors. In some cases the married parents of a stillborn child were given a substitute baby (born to a single mother) to replace their dead infant.
Marriages were meant to last; divorce was viewed with shame. And for women who found themselves alone with children to care for, the options were few. Formal child care was non-existent, jobs for women were hard to find, the pay of a woman was two-thirds of the male wage for doing exactly the same work, and there was no government income support for sole parents.
Young single women who got pregnant received terrible treatment. Admitting being pregnant to parents was fraught. The first question was ‘who’s the father?’ followed by demands that he marry the girl before her condition ‘showed’ (the old shot-gun wedding).
Many tried to avoid the shame by going on an extended ‘holiday’ interstate or to New Zealand until their confinement. I’ve spoken to several Kiwis who came to Australia to have their babies so this was a two-way street.
Some were thrown out of home or sent off to ‘naughty girls’ homes’ to await the birth of the baby. The homes, run by churches and charities, made the girls work for their board and keep. Cooking, cleaning, commercial laundry services, farm work. They were punished if they didn’t pull their weight. They were shamed into believing they deserved to be treated badly because they’d done a wicked thing. There was no sympathy or counselling or information, only criticism and blame such as ‘play with fire and you get burnt’ and ‘you don’t deserve anything better’.
As their time drew near, the brainwashing ramped up. They were told they couldn’t possibly raise a child on their own, that they’d be terrible mothers, that they were doing the wrong thing by the child by not giving it to a good Christian home. When the baby was born, they were given little pain relief and were treated with contempt by the doctors and nursing staff. In many cases they were not allowed to hold or even see the baby before it was whisked away. Some were tricked into signing adoption papers, for example they were told to sign while under heavy sedation or that their signature was necessary so their infant could get lifesaving surgery.
The 1970s were at the forefront of the sexual revolution, but young people went into it with little or no information about sex, sexuality, reproduction, STDs or contraception. As a topic, sex was taboo. The contraceptive pill became available in Australia around the 1960s. If you were married, you might have been able to get a prescription. However many doctors refused due to religious beliefs – some of Australia’s largest churches were diametrically opposed to contraception … some still are.
If you were single and under the age of 21, your parents were legally responsible for you. You would routinely be accompanied to the doctor by a parent – there was no way that you’d dare ask for the pill. In Brisbane the Family Planning Clinic in the Valley was a godsend. They had female doctors (a rarity) who didn’t judge or call you a slut. But getting the prescription filled at the pharmacy was another matter.
Mostly girls relied on the boy for contraception. That consisted of trusting him to pull out (highly unreliable), or using a condom. So, where did boys store condoms? In the glovebox of his car. It might stay there for a month or a year until he got lucky. Condoms were made of rubber which would perish in high temperatures. Hmmm. Did he know how to put it on properly so it wouldn’t break? Not likely.
Was it any wonder that girls got pregnant!
If you’d like to know about this ground-breaking period in our recent social history, here are some reading recommendations.
- The Senate Committee Report 2012: Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices
- National Apology for Forced Adoptions
- Relinquished, Returned, Rejected by Brisbane author Jackee Ashwin is memoir of her experiences of forced adoption in 1974.
- Baby Farm by Debbie Terranova features the life and times of the 70s, based around forced adoptions.
Support for people affected by adoption
The following organisations provide services to people affected by adoption.
Jigsaw Australia (Qld)
Relationships Australia (all states)