Hidden History Before Roe v. Wade

By Guest Blogger Barbara Mende

It was hard to be a working mother in the sixties. Day care consisted mostly of mothers watching a few children in their homes. The practice of importing live-in au pairs from Europe was just taking hold, usually with contracts that locked families in for two years.

But it was even harder to be unmarried and pregnant. Abortion, of course, was illegal. If you knew your way around and could afford it, you could go to a pricey doctor in New York or pay even pricer airfare to Puerto Rico. Not easy for a young single woman whose parents didn’t know or wouldn’t cooperate. Then there were the illegal practitioners whose patients often died.

Contraception was technically illegal too in many states, including Massachusetts where I lived. Doctors wrote prescriptions for diaphragms and The Pill, but some drugstores wouldn’t stock them and didn’t even sell condoms. And how many young single women could find a doctor who would keep their confidence?

Enter the Crittenton Hastings House. The outgrowth of a merger between the nationwide Florence Crittenton shelters and the Boston Female Moral Reform Society (such blame-the- woman self-righteousness!), the “Crit” hid pregnant women away until their babies were born. They lived at the house, received medical care and counseling, and didn’t have to reveal their last names to their housemates. The Crit helped to arrange adoptions if the women wanted that. Afterward they’d return home with prescriptions for The Pill (“to regulate their metabolism”) and whatever cover story they’d concocted.

They couldn’t stay at home, of course. Being single and pregnant, in the face of the prevailing myth that all respectable single “girls” were virgins, was a disgrace. Raising a baby without a husband was almost unheard of.

The Crit farmed out “Crit girls” as cut-rate au pairs. Suburban families paid them a tiny sum plus room and board to babysit and do light housework. They had to return to the House when they were seven months along, so they never stayed for more than three months. That was a selling point for us; we had friends who had had to buy off incompatible au pairs, and figured we could stand anyone for three months. The big selling point, of course, was the price. I was working because we needed the money. I wasn’t quite liberated then.

The Crit tried to pick homes that they thought would give the girls a glimpse of the ideal American family. That meant no working mothers and no traveling fathers. They also wanted to avoid households with babies and pregnant mothers. But either the Crit especially liked our family or there weren’t enough homes that met the criteria, because we broke all those rules and still got nine girls.

We had to bring them to clinic every Tuesday, give them another day and a half off each week, provide a private bedroom for them, and make sure they ate at the table with us. We weren’t allowed to ask their last names (ours always told us) or state an opinion on whether they should keep their babies.

One girl didn’t work out. She was only eighteen and hated being away from home. She eventually married her boyfriend. The others had been in college or working. They weren’t much younger than we were; people started their families young then. They all claimed to have, or have had, serious relationships with the fathers. They generally loved our kids, and the kids reciprocated. Some of them stayed in touch. Six of them gave their babies up for adoption.

One of the two who didn’t was Cathy (not her real name), a poor girl who had become involved with a rich boy. She saw him as a way out of her miserable life. Her father wasn’t in the picture. Her two brothers had both done jail time. Her sister had “had to get married.” The rich boy’s family made it clear that this wasn’t an option for her.

Cathy planned to keep the baby and let her mother help her raise it. I think the mother, after all her failures, wanted another chance to get it right. Unfortunately, several months after the baby was born, Cathy appeared on our doorstep alone. She’d married the first guy who’d come along to get away from her mother, and he was already abusing her. She eventually went back to him, unfortunately, and we lost track of her.

The other girl who kept her baby had a happy story, the flip side of that one. Jenny (not her real name either), our last Crit girl, had been attending a Seven Sisters college. Her family owned a successful retail chain, and her boyfriend Chuck was a business school student from a family that wasn’t as well off as hers. Jenny and Chuck had wanted to get married, but Jenny’s parents thought that Chuck’s motive was getting into the family business.

The solution Chuck and Jenny devised was the pregnancy. They were sure that Jenny’s parents would eventually give in. They did, but it took them months, during which Jenny went through the Crit girl scenario because of course she couldn’t be seen in her home town in “her condition.” During her last week with us, she was happily addressing wedding announcements and baby announcements.

Roe v. Wade spelled the end of the Crit girls. The Crit became an abortion clinic, and later turned to other endeavors to better women’s lives. The Crit girls were useful for me, and fun to know, but I’m glad they’re not around anymore.

Barbara Mende is a Cambridge, Mass., journalist, editor, and my expert copyeditor for Love Means Second Chances. She coordinates volunteer activities in the Grievance and Contract Division of the National Writers Union, where she is also a national officer. Her grandsons are the third generation of her family raised successfully by working mothers.