In a time not so long ago, unwed girls and women who found themselves “in trouble” had few options. Women with an unplanned pregnancy would face the frightening prospects of raising their child without support, finding a family member to take in their child, obtaining a back-alley abortion, or, if they were lucky, disappearing to a home for unwed mothers to deliver their child in secrecy.
In the Walker Local and Family History Center, I help people researching their genealogy. Often, we uncover family secrets. With DNA tests shedding light on long-hidden relationships, we are discovering what choices women made when faced with an unplanned pregnancy in the last century. Young women often relied on their own mothers to help them raise their child, perhaps in secret. Other children were raised by aunts and uncles in informal, open adoptions. In some sad cases, I’ve seen deaths from botched abortions on death certificates, often of women who left other children behind to be raised by family. And, for some the choice was to decamp to a home for unwed mothers to have their baby in private, with an adoption inside or outside the family as the ultimate goal.
In the early 20th century homes for unwed mothers provided a safe space for girls to deliver their babies. Generally, these homes offered secrecy and services only to white girls or women who were unable to face the stigma of an unwanted pregnancy. Black women had no such offers for a “fresh start.” In Greenville, the Rescue Home was operated by the Salvation Army and offered shelter to “wayward girls.” And in Spartanburg, the Carolyn House also took in pregnant girls in need of shelter.
In Charleston, the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers was founded in 1897 by Claudia Therin. Therin was inspired to open the home after reading of an attempted suicide of a young pregnant girl abandoned by the father of her child and rescued from the Cooper River. In the early twentieth century the home offered strict secrecy, prenatal care, and adoption services to allow for healthy births and for girls to return to their lives after having their children. The Crittenton Programs are still in operation today, though the mission has changed to serving girls seeking support with their pregnancies rather than secrecy.
In Columbia, the Door of Hope was founded in 1898 by Rev. John M. Pike after he preached at the funeral of a young, unmarried girl who died after receiving an illegal abortion. According to Rev. Pike, the Door of Hope offered an open door of refuge to girls when other doors were closed to them. Located in downtown Columbia, Door of Hope offered a place for girls to have their babies in safety, taking their children with them or arranging for adoptions after birth. It operated until 1953. Rev. Pike also founded the Oliver Gospel Mission, which still serves men in need of food and shelter in Columbia.
Today, women facing unplanned pregnancies have more and better options than women of 100 years ago. The availability of birth control methods, improved prenatal care, improved working conditions for pregnant women, and social changes that allowed women greater freedom have significantly improved outcomes for women and children. That’s a change I’m happy to see.