Family Ideals and the Social
Construction of Modern Adoption
A Historical Perspective
Adopted Waifs Often Grow to Resemble New Parents,” read the headline of an article on adoption that appeared in the Kansas City Star in 1943. The story enthusiastically recounted the experiences of Mary Jones, the supervisor of a local child-placing agency that was created to “match” parents and children socially, racially, and physically. One of Jones’s most gratifying matches involved an infertile couple of “considerable wealth.” The wife was of Scotch-Irish-English ancestry with flaming red hair, and she wanted a girl, “a girl with red hair like hers.” Over the years, Jones found not just one but five girls, each of ScotchIrish-English blood and scarlet tresses. “Today,” the article noted, “not only do the daughters resemble their mother, but they resemble each other… One has been graduated from Wellesley and another is studying there. All have developed the musical talent of their foster mother.”1
On first glance, this story seems a simple testament to the power of nurture and the promise of adoption; five waifs find a loving family and thrive in an environment of opportunity. On closer examination, though, this happy ending exposes the limits of adoption and the boundaries of family established by the cultural ideal. We see, for example, the belief that some tangible connection—if not of blood, then of shared ethnicity and physical resemblance—is necessary for a sense of family unity. And, although unstated in the article, nature as much as nurture seems to explain the daughters’ success. Through matching, these girls are “just like” the children this successful couple would have had. It is to be expected that these children would go to college and appreciate music; indeed, it would seem unnatural if it were otherwise. This is not a story of chance, then, but of design—a design intended to replicate the biological ideal.
It is also a story with a history. The policy of matching, which social workers practiced most extensively from about 1930 to 1960, was not without its detractors. Some prospective adoptive parents, for example, asserted that they