“A Girl Like Her,” at the Milwaukee Film Festival
Ann Fessler's documentary looks at the lives of women in the 1950s and '60s who became pregnant out of wedlock and were forced to give up their children.
Back before today’s world, where men in power still don’t seem to understand basic biology and where access to birth control and the knowledge to use it is under constant attack, things were worse. A Girl Like Her traces the lives and the social factors that shaped the lives of women 50 and 60 years ago who became pregnant out of wedlock and were forced to both give birth and then give up the children.
They were sent to homes, out of public view, to do this, and were expected to never speak of it. This silence and the culture of shame surrounding the pregnancies had a profound impact on both the lives of the women and the children taken for adoption. Most of the stereotypes and thought patterns operating them are still in place today, because we don’t talk about them.
Ann Fessler’s documentary, A Girl Like Her, seeks to break through that silence by allowing women who did become pregnant tell their stories, many for the first time. Through interviews with women who were forced to birth and give up children to news footage and sex-education materials from the era, the culture that allowed, encouraged, and then covered up these pregnancies is explored.
From their relationships with the fathers to the reaction of their parents to their time spent in girls’ homes to the pressures they felt not to parent, these women tell their experience of sex and consequences, and it is sadly not a terribly different picture than the one that many women see today. There are variations and textures in any story that affect 1.5 million people, but the overarching sense is one of shame and unworthiness. To become pregnant without a ring on your finger was a source of shame for anyone associated with you, and it made you unworthy to be a parent.
Abortion in the 1950s and 1960s was illegal; nearly one-third of maternal deaths in those years were caused by illegally-obtained abortions in unsafe conditions. Contraceptives were illegal for unmarried women and men in many states until as late as 1972. And yet we today associate the 60s with free love and hippies. That sexual liberation that we look to with nostalgia came with great cost to a great many women.
The perception of these women as unworthy is perhaps the most damaging idea to come out of this era. Still, today, there is an idea that a woman who gives up a child for adoption must be seriously damaged in some way: she must be morally bankrupt, she must be a monster. And the flip side, of course, is the perception of single mothers as selfish. It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrum that we haven’t yet found our way out of. The shame of sex is still visited upon us, in slightly different form now that contraception is legal and obtainable, but there nonetheless, and highly visible in recent events like the unending attacks on Sandra Fluke, contraceptive rights advocate.
A Girl Like Her is screening at the Downer Theatre on Wednesday, Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. Following the screening, there will be a panel discussion featuring director Ann Fessler, subject Sally Burke, CEO of Adoption Resources Colleen Ellingson, and Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin Resource Librarian Ann Brosowsky-Roth.
The Milwaukee Film Festival runs through Oct. 11 at the Oriental Theatre, Downer Theatre and Fox-Bay Cinema. Check out TCD’s Flick by Flick guides for films opening this weekend and throughout October. For more information, visit the MFF website.