The Weight of Silence: Unwed Mothers at the Salvation Army Booth Memorial Hospital in Midcentury Minnesota (or, History, My Mother, and Me)

Dr. Kim Heikkila
Saturday, March 24, 2018 - 10:00am to 11:30am
Washburn Library, 5244 Lyndale Ave S, Minneapolis


In February 1959, the Minneapolis Morning Tribune published a series of articles about the ailing American family, pointing to the “crisis of the unwed mother” as a factor in the institution’s decline. In October of that year, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch chimed in on the matter with its series on “Girls in Trouble.” In 1960, WCCO television broadcast a Peabody Award-winning program about unwed mothers living at the Salvation Army Booth Memorial Hospital in St. Paul. Sex and the single girl seemed to be on everyone’s mind in midcentury Minnesota.

Despite this public attention to unwed motherhood as a social issue, however, silence still surrounded the actual experience of premarital sex and pregnancy for the young mothers-to-be. Parents, teachers, and friends broached the subject of sex indirectly and through innuendo, if at all. Once pregnant, many single white women hid themselves in maternity homes such as Booth under the cover of stories that they had gone to visit family or taken a job out of state. Partly in an attempt to maintain this façade of sexual propriety, approximately 70% of unwed mothers at Booth in the early 1960s relinquished their children for adoption, often remaining silent about these life-changing events for decades.

Dr. Kim Heikkila’s mother was one of these women: she delivered her first daughter, Heikkila’s half-sister, at Booth in 1961, surrendered her for adoption, and kept the whole experience a secret for 33 years, until that daughter found her long-lost birth mother. In this talk, Dr. Heikkila will explore the weight of silence born by her mother and seven former “Booth girls” with whom she conducted oral history interviews.

Presenter Bio: Kim Heikkila has a doctorate in American Studies, with a minor in Feminist Studies, from the University of Minnesota. She has written about Booth Memorial Hospital for Ramsey County History and Minnesota History, and has published several personal essays about her mother’s experiences as a birth mother and her own as an adoptive mother. She recently completed an oral history project with former Booth residents, staff, and related personnel, the second of two research projects on Booth sponsored by the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum with funding from Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage grants. Her first book, Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011), was a finalist for a 2012 Minnesota Book Award. She taught U.S. and women’s history at local colleges and universities for more than 10 years before leaving academia to open her own oral history consulting business, Spotlight Oral History.