International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day and all I’m hearing in my head is lots of no’s.  No you can’t.  Not you won’t.  Oh you couldn’t and heavens above, what are you thinking?  Now where, I ask, did I learn this?  My finger inevitably drifts in the direction of my mother, and my grandmother, but not necessarily accusingly.

Pointing fingers is generally considered rude, but it happens a lot.  I don’t like it while wearing my social history hat, because you’re supposed to see and understand people in the context of their own times.

Their times were tough. My mother was born during the Depression, a hair’s whisker on the side of legitimacy.  A wedding night conception.  My grandmother’s ambitions to be a music teacher had been crushed by a manipulative father who allowed her to train, but not to do country service.  As that was essential to graduating, she was stymied.  She ended up teaching privately at business college.  The box of her sheet music that I have is a testimony to a murdered dream.

Fairly soon in marriage and family life, he got bone cancer.  One of the few photos of him with Mum, who is about seven or eight.  They are posed formally, out the back, him on one leg and crutches, she is a sweet white dress and curls.  A child embroiled in a personal tragedy embroiled again in a world tearing itself apart in global war.  I can confidently say she never recovered.

By the time I showed up, delivered by the government, the feminist revolvition was in full swing.  Despite owning a copy of Betty Friedan, it seemed to pass my mother by.  Indeed, it seemed to pass all the women of my comfortable middle class suburb by.  Of course this is probably not true.  I don’t know how they negotiated their lives, their marriages or how they treated their sons and daughters.  But I can safely say I never saw any of them do or say anything remotely different or feminist.  Only one went into business, for herself, and that wasn’t until the mid-1980s.

These memories of growing up have resurfaced in the context of exploring my own passivity recently.  I find it ironic that my attempts to move forward are constantly hampered by the past, and that I am a ‘past’ professional.  I have a doctorate in history.  Six generations ago, the women who left Cornwall and landed in Adelaide was illiterate and remained so until she died in Bendigo in the 1890s.  A feminist victory, of sorts.

PS: Although…spell checker is sexist.  I left the ‘r’ off her.  It defaulted to ‘his’.  No feminist victories then.


The Market in Babies

Today I’m giving my impressions and initial thoughts on a history book on a topic thoroughly ingrained in me: adoption.  The book is called The Market In Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption by Marian Quartly, Shurlee Swain and Denise Cuthbert (Monash University Publishing, 2013).  The book is the result of an Australia Research Council grant project to investigate the history of adoption in Australia.  It’s a slender volume, but nevertheless it is a very good book and I would recommend it to anyone.

Why do I like it?  Firstly, and I never thought I’d say this, I found the scholarly and thoughtful tone a great relief.  Having done a PhD in history myself and struggled with the ‘scholarly voice’, I often find academic writing to be frustrating.  In this case, I was very grateful for the measured nature of the words.  The subject of adoption incites a wide range of emotions, and that can be exhausting.  I fully expected to be on the proverbial emotional roller coaster with reading this, and it was wonderful to be able to read something and be engaged and not overwhelmed.

Secondly, just because they strike an excellent balance with their choice of language doesn’t mean that the authors have shied away from the issues.  Their main title is evidence of that.  Adoption has usually been a flow of babies from poorer, disadvantaged or discriminated against unmarried women towards wealthier, more socially advantaged married women.  This book clearly deals with the assumptions about gender, class and wealth that have been main drivers of the practice of adoption. 

It covers the main phases of change in adoption practice, which is usually marked by changes in legislation.  Nineteenth century adoptions were usually privately arranged and informal, until the state moved to make regulations in the latter part of that century.  Since then, a successive wave of legislation appeared every few decades, each time giving favour to the rights of the adopting parents.  This began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The introduction of financial support by the Whitlam government in 1973 (three years after I was born) is perhaps the strongest marker of this change.  The ‘supply’ of babies for the market dropped dramatically, proving that the main barrier to women keeping their babies was economic, not moral.  From this point, the discussion turns to practices of intercountry adoptions and the emerging practice of intercountry surrogacy, again highlighting issues of class and wealth.

As I said, it’s a slim volume.  This means there’s not that much attention on the children.  It’s mostly about the competing sets of parents.  Its always been about the parents.  The rhetoric of adoption has been ‘in the best interests of the child’, but in my view that’s largely all its been: rhetoric.  The authors finish with a question.  Does it matter where a baby comes from?  Speaking from the point of view of a baby who is living the answer of ‘no, it doesn’t matter’ I’d like to say that yes, it absolutely matters, and the person it matters the most to is the baby.  The voiceless baby, subject of all those competing projections of adults.