Jean Paton, The biography of the mother of the adoption reform movement to be published this fall

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but when in the mid-1990s when I first got seriously involved in adoptee rights, I had never heard of Jean Paton.

My ignorance was disabused at the Seattle AAC conference (I think it was 2000) E. Wayne Carp, who had just released his pioneering work Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption was  first day keynoter.  Among the special guests that day was  Jean Paton.

As I remember it, some of us Bastard Nationals were running around with little homemade “nametags” with Bastards are Beautiful” handprinted on them with a magic marker–mainly as a dig at the goody-2-shoes AAC crowd and, of couse, to advertise ourselves.  Someone, and I don’t remember who, (maybe it was Jean) pointed out that this phrase  was not original with Bastard Nation. It was an original Jean Patonism.

Well, who was Jean Paton?  Only the mother of the adoptee rights movement in America! That’s who!

It was almost like opening your OBC and learning that you had a name and a history.  As a trained historian I was shocked to learn that I hadn’t done my homework. I knew about Joanne Wolf Small,   B J Lifton, ALMA and a few other historical anecdotes but not Jean Paton, Orphan Voyage and the roots of our movement. I  think I actually started to cry a little.  We weren’t in a vacuum.  Hells bells!  The movement had started 40 years (now 60 years) earlier and we were just hearing about it now!

I was fortunate enough to meet Jean that day. She was up in years  but spry and sharp as ever. We talked for awhile and she  approved of Bastard Nation. I didn’t have any further contact with her until Measure 58 passed in Oregon and she sent us a congratulatory note.

I’ve learned much about Jean since then, but now there is an opportunity for all of us to learn much more.

 This November, Jean Paton and the Struggle for American Adoption  Reform will be published by the University of Michigan Press.  Written by Wayne Carp, (who incidentally authored Adoption Politics:  Bastard Nation and Ballot Initiative 58.  the book  is a full length biography of Jean and the birth of the adoptee rights movement in the United States..  Jean worked with Professor Carp to see this book brought to fruition, but unfortunately passed away before she could see it publication.

Jean Paton and Wayne Carp

Professor Carp had unfettered access to Jean and her archives (an historian’s dream) He  writes of his experience:

Over the course of the next several years, I received her vast correspondence, which she sent me. I could hardly have imagined the extent of it: it was a biographer’s Eldorado. Jean had made an onion-skin carbon copy of every letter she ever wrote over a period of fifty years—filling some 50 or more boxes— and had carefully filed away almost every sheet of paper in a complex system of file folders. Paton’s own writings range from a discussion of being suckled at the breast of her mother for the first four months of life to discussions of every aspect of adoption reform to reports of her health weeks before her death. In between are drafts of memos, essays, and articles she never published; reviews of her books and media notices of her travels; account books; typewritten notes of books she read; a detailed diary she kept between 1950 and 1953; memos of every phone call she received related to adoption reform; and even sixty-year-old college papers. Just as important for this study, Jean kept every letter, Christmas card, search group’s newsletter, and solicitation she ever received. These materials include inquiries from triad members seeking advice about how to reconnect with their original families, triad members requesting guidance on how to organize search and reunion groups, and correspondence from publishers, editors, and congressmen. Except for me, (and Jean, of course) no one has read this enormous corpus of Jean Paton’s work.

The  University of Michigan Press has already set up a webpage for the book.  More importantly, Professor Carp has published his own webpage: The Biography of Jean Paton: the Mother of the Adoption Reform Movement.  The page includes out-takes from the book (parts that needed edited out for space or other considerations,) photos, documents,  information on book events, and other material.  Material is being added periodically.  An adjunct Facebook page, The Biography of Jean Paton, went live on Monday,

You can order an advanced copy of the book

This is a much needed and important addition to the growing corpus of adoption studies. We can’t wait to read it.

Photos courtesy of E Wayne Carp

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