Film Review: A Girl Like Her

Review by Kelly N., BADP blog co-manager

A couple weekends ago I noticed that the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival was showing a film called A Girl Like Her, described as “an affecting and timely account of unwed mothers in the 50’s and 60’s, most of whom were coerced to have their babies in secret maternity homes and surrender them for adoption.” The film is directed by a woman named Ann Fessler, who wrote a book on the same topic called The Girls Who Went Away, which I read last summer. Having found the book extremely interesting and moving, I was excited to be able to attend a screening of the film.

At only 48 minutes the movie was not very long, but offers a concise companion to Fessler’s 368 page book. The shorter audiovisual format definitely makes the stories of the women interviewed more accessible to a wider audience. These stories were central to the film, where they were told in the women’s own voices paired with vintage footage of sex education films and public service announcements. I recognized many of the stories from the book, and the oral history format proved even more powerful than reading from a page. The women featured in the movie covered a variety of topics relating to their experiences, including dating as a high school student in the 1950’s and 1960’s, finding out one was pregnant, dealing with family reactions and attempts to hide the pregnancy from the neighbors, being sent to a maternity home, laboring without much support or care, not knowing one’s rights in signing adoption papers, and reuniting with birth children many years later.

Most of the unwed mothers who were forced to surrender their children during this time were white and middle-class, and concern with keeping up appearances with the neighbors was a theme mentioned by many of the interviewees in the film. As one woman described, her mother felt that their “social climbing was under threat.” Judgment and uncaring within one’s family was common, as women talked of being called “sluts” and “whores” by their fathers and other family members. One woman’s mother forced her try to induce a miscarriage with an extremely painful Lysol douche. The walls of the maternity homes many were sent to offered no respite as they were subjected to “therapy” where they were told they would “get over it” and that they should not look at or hold their babies upon birth.

As a full-spectrum doula I found it informative and heartbreaking to hear the lack of support these women endured throughout their pregnancies, during labor, and in the postpartum period. Some of the words used by the women in describing their feelings upon leaving the hospital were “terror,” “shame,” “defeat,” “trauma,” and “turmoil.” Only one woman spoke of having had an ally during her pregnancy and birth experience, a nurse who had asserted her right to see her son whenever she wanted after the woman’s mother tried to hide him from her. “You never get over this,” asserted one of the interviewees. “I turned myself into a stone,” said another. Social stigma, lack of emotional support, and lack of autonomy deeply impacted the lives of the women interviewed in the film and probably many other women forced to surrender their babies during this time. The state of adoption and societal attitudes surrounding sexuality in this country have certainly improved since the 1950’s and 1960’s, though much stigma is still attached to many of the reproductive and sexual choices people make every day.

Overall, A Girl Like Her does a great job of preserving and reflecting upon the stories of some of the people who faced unexpected pregnancies in the days before Roe v. Wade. I recommended the film for those of us who are passionate about supporting folks throughout the spectrum of reproductive choices.


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