Yesterday the prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, issued a formal apology to thousands of unwed mothers who were forced to give up their children for adoption in post-World War II Australia. I’m sure that the reaction of many people is “it’s about time” and indeed, that is the case. But there are also a couple of other points that strike me.
First, tying back to yesterday’s post, this is something like a logical consequence of the emphasis on how important marriage is. It looks to me like the problem with these unmarried mothers is that they were unmarried.
Unwed mothers were pressured, deceived and threatened into giving up their babies from the second world war until the early 1970s so they could be adopted by married couples, which was perceived to be in the children’s best interests, the Senate committee report found.
It’s easy to look back now and think of several better approaches–like ensuring that the unmarried mothers had the resources and support to take care of their children if they chose to raise them themselves.
There’s another approach, too, one that remains popular to this day (for the perceived problem of unmarried mothers persists as I’ve often noted here). Have those unwed mothers get married, thereby making them more desireable married mothers. Because I think that women ought to have a perfect right to raise children on their own if that is what they want to do, it’s not my favorite answer. And besides, it is far from clear to me that unstable or unhappy relationships magically become happy stable ones when you get married.
Anyway, the point I want to make for now is just that this is where our attachment to the ideal of married parents can lead us–and all in the name of the children.
Then there’s a second thing that strikes me–and that’s about gender/sex. Here’s the key part of the apology:
“Today this parliament, on behalf of the Australian people, takes responsibility and apologises for the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, which created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering,” Gillard told the audience.
“We acknowledge the profound effects of these policies and practices on fathers and we recognise the hurt these actions caused to brothers and sisters, grandparents, partners and extended family members,” she said.
“We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children,” she added.
I find the passing mention of the men who participated in the creation of these children quite striking. We all know that these children had genetic fathers as well as genetic mothers. Why don’t they get the same apology, too? The life-long legacy of pain and suffering is tied to the separation of babies from their mothers. The shameful practices denied the mothers (but not apparently the fathers?) their fundamental rights.
Now don’t get me wrong here–I’m not saying that the apology is necessarily defective because of its emphasis on the mothers over the fathers. I think that certainly reflects social perceptions and it goes deeper than that. I suspect that in (some/many/most) of the situations where there was forced adoption the genetic father’s didn’t stick around and try to play a role in the children’s lives. And I think at the time of birth the woman who just gave birth does have a different relationship to the newborn than does anyone else.
I just want to highlight how gendered the apology is. I think it gives us all something to think about.