Jean Paton, the mother of the adoptee rights movement, is the forgotten woman of our movement. Even though Jean was alive, well, and kicking in the 1990s, when Bastard Nation started the Second Wave of the Adoptee Rights , I’d never heard of her until I attended the 1998 Seattle AAC. She was a featured speaker–and what a revelation she was!

Who knew that the Bastards are Beautiful slogan we were so clever to invent, was actually coined by Jean 40 years earlier! So much for re-inventing the wheel.

Why Jean was excised from our history, I don’t know, other than the history of our movement, even as late as 10 years ago, was as secret as our birth certificates. As bastards, we sprung from the head of Zeus, each generation starting anew. Unless you were an old oldtimer, you didn’t know who Jean Paton was. Much has changed since then, and adoption studies is now cutting edge. Though there is still much to dig out, research, and write, we are no longer a shameful secret except in the eyes of legislatures of 44 states who insist we are.

When Jean died in 2002, veteran firstmom/bastard reform activist and writer Maryann Cohen, who knew her personally, wrote in the Bastard Quarterly:

Before Jean Paton, there was no adoption reform. We all owe a huge debt to the courage and foresight of one lone adopted woman who dared to “break the silence” about how it feels to be adopted and denied one’s heritage. Jean Paton was born on December 27, 1908, in Detroit, Michigan, and named Ruthena Hill Kittson. As her parents were not married, she was soon surrendered for adoption, adopted by the Paton family and renamed Jean Paton. She had a happy childhood, grew up, and became a social worker. She worked for many years in the adoption field before she began to question the system and wonder about her own heritage as she approached middle age.

In 1954, Jean wrote the groundbreaking work The Adopted Break Silence, which grew out of her interviews with forty adopted persons, as well as her own experience in searching for her birthmother. I was delighted to learn recently that one of these forty adoptees was the playwright Edward Albee, who kept in touch with Jean for many years thereafter. When Jean Paton was born, adoption records were open to adopted adults, so she had no trouble obtaining her own original birth certificate, but by the time she began her research into adoption as a social system, records were being sealed everywhere. Jean spent the rest of her long life battling this injustice, often virtually alone….

When Jean passed away this spring at the age of 93 from a heart ailment, she was still bright, sharp, and working on a new book about adoption. As the founding mother of adoption reform, she richly deserves to be remembered and honored, and her work for adoptee rights must be carried on. I only regret she did not live to see open records everywhere, but it is because of the work she started alone over 50 years ago that the rest of us have such a firm foundation from which to go forward to victory. Jean fought the good fight, with compassion, grace, intellect and soul. May she be met in heaven by all her family, by adoption and by birth, and may we continue her good work here on earth. Rest in peace, Jean. You were one Beautiful Bastard.

Several years before Jean died, she authorized adoption historian Wayne Carp, author of The Politics of Adoption: Bastard Nation and Ballot Measure 58, to write her biography. The work, built around extensive interviews with Jean, and free access to her papers, is finally reaching fruition. Recently Carp started a blog, The Biography of Jean Paton. Last week he posted on Facebook:

I have written nine chapter,so far and plan to complete the manuscript within the next year. However, I have so much material — letters, newsletters, photos — that I have decided to post and discuss some of it on a blog that I just created. I hope you will join me in that discussion.

National Adoption Awareness Month is about industry self-satisfaction and perpetuation. It is not about us–and if it were, we’d certainly change the name Nonetheless, it’s a good time to remember those who went before us, paving the way in this dark and lonely struggle that should have ended decades ago. Honoring Jean Paton is one of the ways we can do that.

An excerpt from Jean’s pioneer work Orphan Voyage (1968) is published at Ellen Herman’s Adoption History Project.

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  1. Nice blog, Marley. I have heard wonderful things about Jean Paton who was a friend of a dear friend of mine, too. Great lady! We need to remember many of our pioneers…as you did, Jean Paton, Carol Anderson, Di Wellfare and many others.

  2. Some of us are even still alive! And a few are still active in various areas of adoption reform. Florence Fisher, who started ALMA, is still alive but not involved any more. Not my favorite person but history is not about who we favor or do not, but who was there and did something, and Florence did a lot to publicize adoptee rights. Another great lady is BJ Lifton, still writing, one of the first adoptee memoirs and a stunning writer and good women.

    Lee Campbell who founded the first birthmother group, CUB, in 1976, just spoke at their retreat. Lorraine Dusky who wrote the first memoir by a mother who surrendered has a current blog, as does Mirah Riben, who wrote two books and has been involved since the 70s.

    Pam Hasegawa and Penny Partridge are still involved in adoptee rights. Penny founded Adoption Forum of Philly in the 70s and is still writing great poetry and speaking, and Pam has been fighting for open records in NJ for over 30 years. Joyce Bahr of NY Unsealed Initiative has been around for many years and still going strong.

    Annette Baran and Reuben Pannor are elderly and have health problems, but they have continued to support out cause. Sandy Musser and Lucy Pare are mothers who faced charges for helping people search and took risks to get the job done.

    There are many more, myself included,all over the country in local groups who were pioneers and continue to be involved all these years later, as well as those who have passed away as you mentioned.

    The history should include all who were there, “warts and all” to be true and to pass on to those who come after us. jean was the beginning, but the tree took root and grew, and continues on today.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful tribute to Jean Paton. I knew her, not all that well, but well enough that we wrote letters back and forth and saw each other at a few major conferences. She was a gentle lady, a sparkling personality, a quaint lady. Those who knew her will know what that means. I miss her.

    Thank you, Mary, for the names of our pioneers in the Movement. All names of people whom I met, got to know, and drifted away from. Drifting away due to unfortuante personal circumstances, yet, the lessons taught by these other pioneer adoption reformers have not ever left me. Names and presonalities I recall and have re-established somewhat. May I add to our list — Ken Watson and Doug Henderson. There are international folks, too, who have helped us along. The list is long and varied.

    It is good to remember.

  4. Hello Joan:-) I’m actually maryanne, messed up in signing in last time. I never go by just Mary. Hazzards of hitting the send key too soon!

    Yes. Ken Watson belongs there, and his buddy the late Dirck Brown who started PACER. I’ll never forget Ken as Uncle Sam in full costume at one of the conferences. Doug is also a great guy who started the very popular male adoptee workshops at AAC.

    There are so many, nice if people will add more whom they remember.

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