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December 6, 2012

Library hosts screening of 'A Girl like Her"

Film reveals unseen side of adoption, hardships of women

By Amanda Duncan



On August 26, 1920 the 19th Amendment was ratified to the Constitution giving women the right to vote. Fast forward to the 1950s and 1960s, when women’s rights were once again in the crosshairs of society, to when more than a million young women who became pregnant were sent to maternity homes to give birth, surrender their children and return home alone.
The Michael Schwartz Library presented a screening of Ann Fessler’s documentary “A Girl like Her,” which gives a voice to the concerns of young mothers that fell on deaf ears of the rigid social structure of the era.

The documentary was a celebration of the library’s debut of Montage, which was a television documentary program that aired in Cleveland on WKYC TV NBC from September 1965 to December 1978.

This series consisted of more than 250 films that emphasized Cleveland and Cuyahoga County local history, personalities and contributions to the world. It was donated to Cleveland State by NBC and executive producer Dennis Goulden in 1980. Fifty-three of those programs were digitized by the library and restored to be available to the public.

One film that is a part of Montage is “I’ll Never Get Her Back.” It’s about a woman who enters a maternity home in Cleveland to surrender her child for adoption was used by Fessler.

Women who became pregnant during this time period were looked down on and seen as bad influences and blamed for the pregnancy. Sex wasn’t talked about, and there wasn’t sex education that people see today and the film that shown on puberty was vague.

Buying condoms was embarrassing for boys, and the birth control pill was just coming out and only considered for married women. The stigma and stereotypes of “nice girls don’t get pregnant” caused many families to feel shame and responsible.

A woman in the film talked about a mother of a classmate who literally forced her daughter to switch sides of the street when they saw her coming. If a girl chose to keep her baby, she was forced to choose between the baby and her family. These women who surrendered their babies were told to forget they were ever pregnant, which had a huge impact on their later lives.

After the documentary, there was a panel discussion moderated by Associate Professor Evan Lieberman from the School of Communication and featured Fessler, Goulden, Betsie Norris, founder of the Adoption Network Cleveland, Bev Haettich and Jeanne Hood Cleveland birthmothers who experienced this and Valerie Treisch-Chirdon the current field director in the school of social work at Cleveland State.

Fessler asked women who were in audience to stand to show fellow members of the community that they had a voice wearing nametags that said “I Am a Girl Like Her.”
Fessler herself is an adoptee and after being approached by a woman who thought she was the daughter, she had surrendered found her focus for her film. Fessler proudly wore a nametag that read, “I am a daughter of a girl like her.”

Fessler chose the technique of previously shot footage while playing audio of the women’s voices in the background to show the wide range of voices of women.

“Half of the women I interviewed would not have gone on camera,” Fessler said.
Both Haettich and Hood agreed that Fessler’s film portrayed their experiences accurately.

Today, a young woman has choices when it comes to pregnancy: abortion, parenting or adoption. Adoption now has changed with an option of open adoptions where the birth mother and the family that adopts her child are be able to keep in touch. This allows the sharing of information like medical conditions vital for adoptiive parents. Open adoption allows contacting biological parents easier than it used to be.

Norris founded the Adoption Network Cleveland in 1988 and it helps all people that are touched by adoption from the adoptees to the birth mothers and adoptive parents dealing with both long and short term issues.

“It’s a great idea for open adoption, you get to see and share how your baby is growing up and it’s healthy,” said Haettich.

Unmarried young women today may not what these women have but these women all have common threads.

“I think things have changed a lot since those days, however the Adoption Network will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this coming year and we now know many younger birth mother’s who have relinquished

“I think that what is so striking to me that I have worked in a treatment center with pregnant parenting girls for many years from 1993 to 2001, and the goal of the mission of that agency was to help the girls keep the babies, so I feel blessed,” said Treisch-Chirdon

Treisch Chirdon explained that the original National Association Social Work code of ethics was written in 1964 towards the end of that period and the preamble is to advocate for social injustice.

“These women’s rights were taken away from them.” said Treisch Chirdon. “They do have choices and legal rights.”

Fessler expressed that her film is still relevant today expressing understanding not only to the children of those women but to the public and brings to light the larger issue of women’s rights .

“I find the idea that we are spending on abstinence only education today appalling,” said Fessler. “75 percent have sex before they are 20 and 95 percent before they get married and we are withholding information from them that makes no sense whatsoever.”

“I have never publicly admitted what happened and when Ann asked us to stand, it made me feel good,” said Kathy Bregar, a woman from the audience who was forced to surrender her child for adoption.