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Enduring Shame

A Recent History of Unwed Pregnancy and Righteous Reproduction

Heather Brook Adams

Published: May 5 2022


Published: May 5 2022


Published: May 5 2022

OA Ebook
Published: May 5 2022


The inclusion of this book in the Open Carolina collection is made possible by the generous funding of

A study of the rhetorical power of shame and its effect on reproductive politics

Not long ago, unmarried pregnant women in the United States hid in maternity homes and relinquished their "illegitimate" children to more "deserving" two-parent families—all to conceal "shameful" pregnancies. Although times have changed, reproductive politics remain fraught. In Enduring Shame Heather Brook Adams recasts the 1960s and '70s—an era of presumed progress—as a time when expanding reproductive rights were paralleled by communicative practices of shame that cultivated increasingly public interventions into unwed and teen pregnancy and new forms of injustice.

Drawing from personal interviews, archival documents, legal decisions, public policy, journalism, memoirs, and advocacy writing, Adams articulates how the rhetorical power of shame persuaded the American public to think about reproduction, sexual righteousness, and unwed pregnancy. Despite the aspirational goals of reproductive liberation, public sentiment frequently reflected supremacist beliefs regarding racial, economic, and moral fitness—notions that informed new public policy. Enduring Shame maps a range of experiences across these decades from women's experiences in homes for unwed mothers to policy and legal changes that are typically understood as proof of shame's dissipation, including Title IX legislation and Roe v. Wade. Rhetorical historiography and questions of reproductive justice guide the analysis, and women's testimonies provide essential perspectives and context. Through these histories, Adams articulates a network of language, affect, and embodiment through which shame moves; expands rhetorical understandings of the discursive power of the identities of woman and mother; and considers how the gendered, raced, and classed aspects of shame can help us understand and support reproductive dignity.

Enduring Shame recovers a misunderstood part of women's recent history by considering why reproductive politics continue to be so volatile despite previous gains and why shame still figures centrally in discourse about women's reproductive and sexual freedoms.

Heather Brook Adams is an assistant professor of English and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Her work has appeared in Quarterly Journal of Speech; Rhetoric Review; Women's Studies in Communication; College English; and Peitho, as well as in edited collections.

"US women's reproduction has long served as a site for righteous judgment (think The Scarlet Letter), with women's bodies routinely politicized, controlled, and rendered either acceptable or shameful. At this cultural–political moment, when even The Handmaid's Tale seems conceivable, Heather Brook Adams translates her brilliant research into luminous prose that calls for us to speak back to proposals and policies that contain, judge, and shame women, their bodies, and their reproductive decisions."—Cheryl Glenn, author of Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope

"Beautifully crafted from beginning to end, Enduring Shame presents an honest and rich assessment of unwed pregnancy in America. Heather Brook Adams expands on interdisciplinary scholarship addressing silencing, mothering, gender, politics, and ethos to create an engaging narrative that is at once groundbreaking in its treatment of pregnancy/shame and in seeking coalitional sexual and reproductive knowledge."—Lynée Lewis Gaillet, coeditor of Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work

"Accessible, compelling, and illuminating, Enduring Shame demonstrates how seemingly disparate stories of unwed pregnancy and motherhood, forced and coerced sterilization, access to birth control and abortion, and current attacks on reproductive rights are beholden to logics of 'righteous reproduction' that weaponize shame to police women's reproductive bodies. This book will be of great interest not only to rhetorical and feminist scholars but also to healthcare workers, social workers, policymakers, and advocates for reproductive justice."—Marika Seigel, author of The Rhetoric of Pregnancy

"Heather Brook Adams's important feminist historiography reveals the reverberating rhetoric of shame that shapes women's reproductive lives, particularly the lives of 'unwed' mothers. Thoughtful, theoretically rich, and timely, Enduring Shame will captivate readers interested in rhetoric of emotion, motherhood, and reproductive justice."—Jenna Vinson, author of Embodying the Problem: The Persuasive Power of the Teen Mother

Winner of the 2024 Winifred Bryan Horner Outstanding Book Award

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