Alumnae/i Feature

Gender and Cultural Studies Alumna Publishes Breakthrough Book on Adoption History

A side-by-side photo collage of Rebecca Wellington and the book cover for "Who is a Worthy Mother"

“The GCS program gave me the space to explore my interests regarding gender fluidity. We read so many incredible women's voices, including those of Black feminists who were not yet trendy. I was astounded how centered these individuals were in my conversations and courses at Simmons.”

In her new book, Dr. Rebecca Wellington ’02MA reveals the unsavory underbelly of adoption practices in the United States. Part memoir and part scholarly monograph, Who Is a Worthy Mother? An Intimate History of Adoption demonstrates how adoption became entangled with the histories of assimilation, race, patriarchy, and law. On May 23, Wellington gave a book talk at Simmons that Professor Suzanne Leonard hosted. Wellington spoke with us about being an adoptee, the warm reception of her book, and how Simmons prepared her to pursue gender studies scholarship.    

Responding to the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, legal scholar and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote that coerced pregnancy resuscitates the legacy of enslavement in America: “Had the project of liberation from enslavement been rooted in this recognition, then coerced childbirth would have been prohibited as a foundational principle of freedom.”

Expounding upon Crenshaw’s insights, Dr. Rebecca Wellington ’02MA, a Clinical Instructor in the School of Education at the University of Puget Sound, argues that abortion bans are intimately tied to issues of fertility, the patriarchy, racism/white supremacy, colonization, and adoption. “Fertility is so powerful, and to patrol it you have to patrol women. We are seeing this tendency in the post-Roe era.”

In her new book, Who Is a Worthy Mother? An Intimate History of Adoption (University of Oklahoma Press, 2024), Wellington writes: “Adoption is the lens through which we can see in stark relief how our nation differentially values humans. The whole project of adoption is contingent on making value judgments about a pregnancy — about who is a worthy mother and who is a worthy baby.” Moreover, when overturning Roe v. Wade, Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Samuel Alito reasoned that the cessation of abortion would increase the “supply” of adoptees, and thereby reinvigorate the adoption economy.

To be clear, Wellington does not argue that adoption is universally bad. As she writes, “Nature doesn’t always trump nurture when it comes to the health and development of children and families. We are all influenced by both to varying degrees. Children and adoptive family members can develop bonds that, in some cases, are more impactful, sustainable, and healthy than biological bonds. Adoptions can save lives. But this necessitates adoption being done with full transparency and through choice, support, and free will on the parts of both the relinquishing mother and the adoptive family. And this is not the pattern of adoptions historically in the United States.”

An Adoptee’s Unique Perspective

“To my knowledge, I am the only historian to write about the history of adoption who is adopted,” says Wellington. (However, several adoptees have written personal accounts in recent years).

The project began as a response to tragedy. Wellington’s late sister Rachel, to whom the book is dedicated, was also adopted and later relinquished her own baby for adoption. Writing was a means for Wellington to grieve and give voice to her sister’s and her own experiences.

As the book developed, it became a way for Wellington to understand herself. “I needed answers about my adoption, but in the state of California adoption records are strictly sealed. I cannot even access my birth certificate,” she explains.

By pure chance, Wellington’s research caught the attention of a University of Oklahoma Press acquisitions editor. At a 2021 conference, the editor approached Wellington with an invitation to submit a book manuscript. “This was just on a lark . . . I never would have thought that my text would be published by an academic press,” she recalls.  

In her study, Wellington reveals how adoption has been complicit in the histories of assimilation, eugenics, and misogyny. During her research phase, “nearly all of the evidence surprised me,” she remarks. “It was truly shocking and horrific, but I knew that the history of adoption was a story that needed to be told.”

Ultimately, Wellington’s book demonstrates that adoption in the U.S. has functioned as a colonizing, classist, and racist project. Within this system, certain mothers (e.g., BIPOC, poor, uneducated, and unwed women) are deemed unworthy, while others (e.g., white, upper/middle class, college-educated, and married women) are deemed worthy.

Hegemonic Motherhood

A key concept in Wellington’s book is “hegemonic motherhood.” While other scholars have theorized this term more generally, Wellington applies it to adoption. “Hegemony is basically societal, political, and economic power. Hegemonic entities are situated in power, privilege, and [in modern times] capital,” she explains.

“In the U.S., we are returning to the ideal of a hegemonic mother — someone who is upper middle class, white, Christian, heteronormative, and cisgender — like June Cleaver in the 1950s sitcom Leave It to Beaver,” says Wellington. “Hegemonic motherhood also communicates to women that being a homemaker is their principal purpose in life . . . and this trope has been the engine pushing adoption policy in the U.S. for the last 100 years.”  

Wellington indicates that hegemonic mothers can occupy either side of the political spectrum. Although the last decade has witnessed a growing influx of published memoirs by birth mothers, Wellington finds that most texts on adoption are essentially manuals or heroic first-person accounts written by and for adoptive parents (i.e., those society deems worthy of mothering). Within this broader context, Who Is a Worthy Mother counters the master narrative of adoption.

A Hybrid Genre

The publisher classifies Who Is a Worthy Mother as “historical memoir,” a genre that blends scholarly research and historiography with Wellington’s own personal narrative.  

“Memoir is a powerful genre that makes an indelible impression on readers,” explains Wellington. “Combining this with scholarship helps cast into relief the urgency of rethinking adoption as we inhabit the post-Roe era and approach a major election.”

Another interesting attribute of Wellington’s text is her deft use of Indigenous Studies as both a research subject and a critical methodology. Although Wellington is not Native, her Indigenous friends and colleagues encouraged her to contemplate the concepts of ancestry and homeland. “As an adoptee, I was just expected to assimilate,” she says.

Moreover, Wellington’s earlier doctoral research on Indigenous resistance to Indian boarding schools (now under contract with Oregon State University Press), introduced her to Native ways of knowing and thinking that have in turn informed her pedagogy.

“A number of Native scholars and friends have provided me with invaluable support, guidance, and wisdom as I wrote this book,” says Wellington. “Their perspectives, experiences, and willingness to share these insights with me have been incredible gifts for which I am so grateful. Likewise, it is imperative for me to center Native voices and voices of color, which are often silenced.”

Dismantling the Gender Binary at Simmons

“Looking back at my time at Simmons, I think the faculty were ahead of their time,” recalls Wellington. After completing her undergraduate degree and then sailing around the world for two years, Wellington moved to Boston and began the Master of Arts in Gender and Cultural Studies (GCS) program at Simmons. “Professor Emerita Laura Prieto was my advisor, and she was amazing. I told her that I wanted to write a master’s thesis on cross-dressing women sailors, and she said, ‘You can do that in this program,’” says Wellington.

“The GCS program, which is now directed by Professor Suzanne Leonard, gave me the space to explore my interests regarding gender fluidity,” recalls Wellington. “We read so many incredible women's voices, including those of Black feminists who were not yet trendy. I was astounded how centered these individuals were in my conversations and courses at Simmons.”

When Wellington returned to Simmons for her book talk on May 23, she conveyed to Professor Leonard (the event’s host) that she could not have written Who Is a Worthy Mother without her Simmons education. “The GCS program was so foundational for me, and discussing my book with Professor Leonard was like coming full circle.”

As for her readers, Wellington reports that adoptees have been the most enthusiastic. “They are so psyched about this book,” she says. “I am also deeply gratified by the warm reception from birth mothers, two of whom attended my book talk at Simmons. They thanked me, and told me that they finally felt seen and heard; this is exactly what I wanted the book to do.”

Beyond the adoptive community, other readers (including men) find the book revelatory and mind-blowing, since Wellington addresses an injustice hidden in plain sight. She also encourages social workers, policymakers, and legislators to read her book. 

“I desire reproductive autonomy for all women,” says Wellington. “They need to be able to make their choices unbarred, and with full support.”

Select Readings and Documentaries Recommended by Dr. Wellington

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Kathryn Dickason