Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption

E. Wayne Carp

One woman’s tireless crusade for better understanding and social justice for adopted people


Jean Paton (1908–2002) fought tirelessly to reform American adoption and to overcome prejudice against adult adoptees and women who give birth out of wedlock. Paton wrote widely and passionately about the adoption experience, corresponded with policymakers as well as individual adoptees, promoted the psychological well-being of adoptees, and facilitated reunions between adoptees and their birth parents. E. Wayne Carp's masterful biography brings to light the accomplishments of this neglected civil-rights pioneer, who paved the way for the explosive emergence of the adoption reform movement in the 1970s. Her unflagging efforts over five decades helped reverse harmful policies, practices, and laws concerning adoption and closed records, struggles that continue to this day.

“Fearless, creative and widely read… [Jean Paton] was notable for her unfailing effort to empower adoptees and birth mothers by creating the space for them to take responsibility for themselves… [Her biography] is fascinating to read on many levels, as a study of a movement, of grassroots organizing, and of adoption.”
American Historical Review

"A re-writing of the history of adoption in the twentieth century [and the] enormously poignant, moving story of a difficult human being who, like a earthquake, succeeded in shifting the cultural landscape. And more than that, it's an inside account of a social movement, complete with all the infighting, backbiting, and profiteering that such movements contain. One of the best books ever written on a reform movement."
—Steven Mintz, University of Texas

“Heroes in U.S. history emerge as patriots from a variety of challenges. Many never wear uniforms, but wage battles to alter social conditions to help ensure civil rights. [Jean Paton] devoted her life to fighting for adoptees so they might learn about their biological parents . . . Family historians will find this volume a must.”

“Paton was a visionary who saw beyond opening records and psychological cures for primal wounds, arguing for replacing adoption with guardianship, allowing children to keep their original identities and connection to their birth families… [Carp’s] excellent, lengthy biography… provides the historical perspective necessary to those of us who work for reforming adoption.”
[Birth Mother] First Mother Forum

E. Wayne Carp is Benson Family Chair in History and Professor of History at Pacific Lutheran University. 

Praise / Awards

  • "Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption is fascinating to read on many levels, as a study of a movement, of grassroots organizing, and of adoption."
    --American Historical Review
  • Carp is the consummate researcher—methodologically rigorous and historiographically savvy. Biographies require balancing subject empathy with objectivity and Carp navigates this well."
    --Rachel R. Winslow, H-Childhood
  • "In Jean Paton and the Struggle to Reform American Adoption, E. Wayne Carp has crafted a biographical homage to a largely forgotten and important reformer, a history of the origins of adoption reform in the United States, and a book that adds critically to our understanding of postwar family history. With exacting attention to historical detail and accuracy, supported by his extensive knowledge of adoption policy and reform, Carp successfully places Paton's life story into its broader context. Carp's book is required reading for anyone interested in the ways the American family was politically and culturally contested reshaped in the last half of the twentieth century."
    --Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth
  • "A compelling read...a useful and moving portrait of an understudied leader of an understudied movement."
    --Journal of American History
  • "Wayne Carp is rightly celebrated as the official historian of American adoption
    reform ... And although Jean Paton takes top billing in the book’s title, it is less a biography of her than it is a biography of a social movement."
    --Adoption & Culture

Look Inside

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 432pp.
  • 17 B&W photos.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2014
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11910-3

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  • $74.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2016
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-03677-6

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  • $40.95 U.S.

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