Ethics Hero Emeritus: Edna Gladney (1888-1961)

Edna Gladney

I am ashamed to admit that I never heard of Edna Gladney before I chanced upon a late night Turner Movie Classics showing of the 1941 biopic “Blossoms in the Dust,” which earned the great Greer Garson one of her many Academy Award nominations for her portrayal of Gladney (that’s Greer as Edna on the left). I was unaware of Gladney’s amazing life, legacy and contributions to society because 1) I’m not from Texas; 2) it is hard to learn about great people that society forgets about, and 3) feminists aren’t doing their job, perhaps because a strong and indomitable woman whose life was devoted to saving unwanted children rather than preventing their existence doesn’t interest them as much as it should.

Yet Gladney is exactly the kind of woman whose life should inspire young girls today, and young men too, for that matter. Still,  I recently asked 18 randomly chosen friends and acquaintances who Edna Gladney was, and not one of them knew.

And most of them didn’t know who Greer Garson was, either.

Sigh.

Edna Gladney was born on January 22, 1886 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to an unwed 17 year old mother. She never knew who her biological father was. At 18, her mother sent her to visit an aunt and uncle in Fort Worth, Texas.  At that point she was engaged to marry a Wisconsin beau, but fell in love with Texan Sam Gladney, a rising entrepreneur and businessman ten years her senior, and Texas became her permanent home.

When the Gladneys were living in  Sherman, Texas, where Sam had established his own milling company, Edna, then just 20,  joined the Sherman Civic League and participated in the League’s project of  inspecting meat markets and public restrooms for cleanliness. The task, by fate or chaos, brought Edna to the Grayson County Poor Farm, a disgusting facility that served to warehouse the community’s poor, mentally ill, and disabled, as well as parentless children. Edna wrote an exposé of the horrors she saw there that was published in the local paper, and led the Civic League to raise the matter before the Grayson County Commissioners Court, the local governing body that oversaw the Poor Farm. In particular, Gladney insisted that the responsibility of caring for the children at the farm fell on the entire community. She arranged to have the orphans moved to the Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society, a Fort Worth organization run by Reverend I. Z. T. Morris where she was soon the only woman serving on its board of directors.

While educating herself regarding child welfare policies, problems and relevant laws, she established a free day nursery in Sherman to help poor working parents with children.  Thirty-five women enrolled their children on opening day of her Sherman Nursery and Kindergarten for Working Women, which was financed by Sam Gladney  and donations at the collection boxes that Edna persuaded local businesses to keep on their premises. She continued to work aggressively to place the orphans and abandoned children housed at the Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society with childless couples, and by 1927 she had become the institution’s  superintendent. Under her passionate leadership, the society expanded its activities to include the care of unmarried mothers and added an adoption service for their babies. Gladney launched a lobbying effort in the Texas legislature to remove the stigma of illegitimacy from by banning  the word “illegitimate” from birth certificates, which she believed hampered adoption. In 1936 the  legislature passed the measure.

The film starring Garson made Gladney a celebrity in 1941, and she took full advantage of the opportunity to raise more money for her children and unwed mothers. She discarded any sense of vanity to do so in public appearances, despite the fact that those seeing her were often shocked that the short, rotund woman looked nothing like the glamorous and statuesque actress who portrayed her. She used her increasing influence to get a bill  passed  in Texas that gave adopted children the same inheritance rights as biological children and recognized that they should be legally adopted rather than placed in long-term guardianship.It became a model for other states as well.

By 1950, she had raised sufficient funds to allow her board to buy the West Texas Maternity Hospital, which the board renamed The Edna Gladney Home, now called The Gladney Center for Adoption. The purchase of the hospital permitted further enhancement of services to birth mothers, including prenatal care. The new agency also operated a Baby Home where infants could receive care until their adoption.

The film  fictionalized some aspects of Gladney’s life and work, but accurately reported that she treated all of the more than 10,000 children she placed with adoptive parents as if they were her own. She often continued correspondence with adopted children long after they had left her care. In her honor, the Facebook page, “Where is Edna Going?” helps adopted children and adopting families connect with other adoptees and adopters by taking pictures with a cutout of Gladney with their new families.

What an amazing woman.

Edna Gladney never had children of her own, but her efforts gave thousands of children loving homes, saved countless lives, and removed many of the stigmas attached to unwed motherhood and their children, as well as adoption. Her celebrity didn’t last very long, it seems, but she is the epitome of an ethical, compassionate individual who saw problems in the culture and rather than accept them, set out to built a movement, change society, and make it, and us, better.

The least we can do, in respect and appreciation, is remember her, tell her story, keep it alive….and do our best to emulate her when fate, or chaos, open an opportunity for us to make a difference.

20 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Edna Gladney (1888-1961)

  1. I knew Greer Garson, I’m ashamed to say only by virtue of her providing genuinely dignified narration for two Biblical Rankin/Bass Christmas specials about the Little Drummer Boy. They don’t make them like they used to.

    • You should catch up on her movies, especially Mrs. Miniver, but there are many others, She was one of the very greatest movie actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and one of the most beautiful too.

  2. What a wonderful lady. Lovely, friendly face too. Will do my part to rescue her from obscurity.

    It is sobering to realise that it was not so long ago that ‘illegitimate’ children were treated so callously. I understand it benefits society to discourage out of wedlock births but there must be a way to send a clear message of disapproval of that choice without branding the innocent bystanders. Not having that stigma has obviously resulted in many many more babies being born into unstable families and while they, thankfully, no longer suffer the disdain of their neighbours, their chances of success are still crippled by their circumstances.

  3. I have a cousin born at a Gladney home. It was an option in the ’60s that really did a great service for my aunt. Luckily, in the ’90s they changed their policies to allow contact (really involved, though, to keep both parties safe and well) and we now know of this lovely, wonderful cousin. She did great things. Thanks, Edna.

  4. “[F]eminists aren’t doing their job, perhaps because a strong and indomitable woman whose life was devoted to saving unwanted children rather than preventing their existence doesn’t interest them as much as it should.”

    Why exactly is it the feminists’ job to remember a female historical figure? Are women only supposed to write about women, and men are only supposed to write about men?

    But if you’re trying to acknowledge that women have always led the cause for better care and treatment of women and children, you’re right. And you’re still feeding into the stereotype that family planning is bad. Educating women on birth control so that they can have fewer children or at least control when they want to start having children is better for the women, their children, and society.

    • Beth, I think the point is that Edna was a woman who accomplished amazing, culture-changing things, and did them during a period in history where women themselves were not treated with fairness and equality–rather expected to stay at home and be good wives and mothers.

      It that light, she is a role model of the sort that feminists especially should be celebrating–regardless of the fact that her accomplishments had a lot to do with child care.

      –Dwayne

        • If you understood the larger point, why did you find it necessary to criticize a relatively minor issue instead of positively acknowledging the larger point. This is part of the problem that creates polarization.

          Jack acknowledged that he was ashamed to be ignorant of the accomplishments of this female leader. He could have easily dismissed her achievements and written about other matters, but he did not.

          You made this point ” if you’re trying to acknowledge that women have always led the cause for better care and treatment of women and children, you’re right. And you’re still feeding into the stereotype that family planning is bad. Educating women on birth control so that they can have fewer children or at least control when they want to start having children is better for the women, their children, and society.”

          I strongly recommend that you read http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publishing/insights_law_society/ChildProtectionHistory.authcheckdam.pdf. You will find that the origin of child welfare began as early as 1642 by male magistrates.

          Furthermore, if I recall my history correctly, women lead the cause for women’s rights and not specifically for better treatment of children. Child labor laws were an outgrowth of the union movement to restrict the supply of cheap expendable labor. Then as now, any societal resource allocation for children flowed through the mother and not the father so it stands to reason that an increased allocation for the children would mean more resources for the mother. I do not see that as women championing the plight of children but rather a means to obtain added household resources.

          You complained that Jack was feeding the stereotype that family planning is bad. Quite the contrary he publicized the work of one courageous women, and to a limited extent, the men that helped her achieve a goal. In Gladney’s day the only effective birth control was abstinence and we know how effective that is when two lovers are caught up in the moment. You however, are feeding the stereotype that only women have led the way to protect the interests of children. Far from it. By the way, being Pro Choice should also mean giving the child up for adoption. That is why Jack made the comment regarding feminist’s priorities.

          • “If you understood the larger point, why did you find it necessary to criticize a relatively minor issue instead of positively acknowledging the larger point. This is part of the problem that creates polarization.” Wrong. I agreed with his larger piece and (correctly) called him out for one, minor, ridiculous proposition. That does not lead to polarization. This is how friends and academics talk to each other. This is what readers on this blog always do — and we should do it.

            “You will find that the origin of child welfare began as early as 1642 by male magistrates.” Because of all of the female magistrates around — seriously, did you really write that? I think you would find, Chris, that anyone (strike that, everyone) knows that private welfare programs for women and children have largely been organized and run by women for all of history. Not to mention midwives — which is how most babies came into existence in the First World until the 1930s or so, and still do today in the Third World. I mean, when is the last time you’ve ever heard of a midhusband?

            “Furthermore, if I recall my history correctly, women lead the cause for women’s rights and not specifically for better treatment of children.” True. Men need to step up to the plate.

            “Child labor laws were an outgrowth of the union movement to restrict the supply of cheap expendable labor.” Wrong. People were sick of the thousands of children, young women, and the underprivileged of both genders dying in mines and factory fires. You know, like what happens today in India.

            “Then as now, any societal resource allocation for children flowed through the mother and not the father so it stands to reason that an increased allocation for the children would mean more resources for the mother. I do not see that as women championing the plight of children but rather a means to obtain added household resources.” Er … what? First, that’s not even true. “Societal resource allocation” — at least now — goes to families based on economic need regardless of the gender of head of household. If you are referring to the fact that there is a plague of single mothers out there as head of households, you’re right. Again, men need to step up to the plate. And, young women need education and birth control resources so they don’t have sex too early and/or get pregnant with the wrong men who won’t stick around long enough to be fathers (financially and emotionally) to their children.

            “In Gladney’s day the only effective birth control was abstinence and we know how effective that is when two lovers are caught up in the moment.” Wrong again. Birth control has been around forever. “The use of a goat’s bladder as a female sheath was described in Roman literature and ancient Egyptian texts describe the use of vaginal pessaries. In the 17th century Casanova used condoms made of animal intestine.” What history does demonstrate, however, that use or even advertisement of birth control — even among married couples — was considered illegal in most states well into the 1900s . And it really wasn’t until the development of the Pill (funded by feminists) that women had a very reliable method of birth control. Even IUDs were not considered safe until recently.

    • Oh, lame, lame, lame, Beth.

      Women, like all groups traditionally omitted from power structures, actively seek role models, but feminists have limited legitimate and important historical figures from having the prominence and influence they deserve because they apply a political litmus test. Of course women have an obligation to keep the history of Edna Gladney vivid—they are her obvious supporters and constituency, unless you expect adopted orphans to do it. This was a woman who showed that she was more than an equal of any man, and did it despite multiple handicaps of apathy, contempt from male power-brokers and public stigma against her cause. And she was life affirming, family affirming, female autonomy affirming, and sensitive to the special plights women faced, then and now.

      Who said that family planning was bad? You show me that in this or any other post—I’ll wait. I checked six online lists of feminist icons, routinely including women like Naomi Wolf, Andrea Dworkin, Simone de Bouvoire, Margaret Atwood, and my special favorite, Emma Goldman, who plotted at least one assassination. Every one of them is better known than Gladney, whose causes liberated women AND protected children. The lists contain figures like Dolly Parton, Madonna, and Angelina Jolie, but none honor this champion of day care in workplaces, adoption, and and respect for pregnant unmarried women.

      And yes, I think it is because she is viewed as sending the “wrong” message, which is that parents want children, and that abortion should be last option, not the first one.

      • 1. I’m surprised to see that you are doubling down on your statement. I assumed that you would retract it.
        2. Gladney herself pursued her career, in part, because she was illegitimate until she was adopted by her father. So your “adopted orphans” crack doesn’t even make sense.
        3. Maybe your list is better known by you, but those women wouldn’t have made my list with the exception of Atwood. The reason why many of those women are famous have nothing to do with feminist causes.
        4. No where in my section did I even mention abortion. Family planning is not synonymous with abortion and never has been. Family planning means education and birth control. The more family planning the less the need for abortions. (At least we agree that it should be the last option.)
        5. Perhaps feminists are often viewed by men first for their stance on abortions, but perhaps the reason they have to keep talking about it is that politicians keep the issue alive.

        • 1. Planned Parenthood is synonymous with abortion, like it or not, and the organization itself is responsible for that. I didn’t say that family planning was synonymous with abortion, but since the entire piece was about Gladney’s efforts on behalf of family’s, I could only assume that this was your definition.
          2. “Gladney herself pursued her career, in part, because she was illegitimate until she was adopted by her father. So your “adopted orphans” crack doesn’t even make sense.” Huh? She wasn’t an orphan, she was the daughter of a single parent. Orphans, and adopted children, who were stigmatized then and for quite a while after Gladney’s efforts, are naturally her constituency and beneficiaries, along with mothers, working mothers, single mothers, unwanted children who managed to avoid being aborted, orphans, and children of unwed mothers. My point is that such a woman ought to be celebrated and remembered by a group that purports to actually care about women, and advancing the cause of women in policies and public policy, not merely “choice,” which completely dominates feminist and women’s rights groups rhetoric and fundraising efforts.

          3. Since I didn’t say you personally chose to promote lesser icons, I don’t see how your list is relevant.

          • Maybe that’s how men view Planned Parenthood. This came up last night, coincidentally, among several of my mom friends over dinner. We all talked about how that is where we, and all of our friends, got our birth control as young women in our 20s and how distressing it was to walk through the protesters. Most women view it as a place to get affordable OB/GYN care — and abortions actually a very small part of what Planned Parenthood does.

            • I revisited this post and the comments after a Comment of the Day arrived about Edna. And I realized that your comment about Planned Parenthood at the end, which is n ot your invention but a standard issue PP deflection, is a rationalization that I have to promise my self to flag the next time. If a group’s activity or an individual’s activity is wrong and substantial —let’s pretend that abortion qualifies—then it’s not a mitigation that there are other things that it or she does more frequently.

              I’m pretty sure that serial killing was a very small proportion of what Jack the Ripper did, for example.

            • I am not a man but I do have 20+ years of marketing experience and I can tell you I’m not the only woman to view planned parenthood as synonymous with abortion — just like we tend to call all tissues Kleenex…we don’t say, “Pass me a Puffs.” Because of branding (intentional or not), when someone starts the thought process of considering abortion, I can guarantee you that Planned Parenthood is the first place that pops into their head. Therefore, regardless of what other services they provide, and regardless of how beneficial those services may indeed be, it would be nearly impossible for PP to distance itself from the stigma of being considered an abortion clinic.

              Now, I would be the first to defend women’s rights, but only over the right of any man to dictate what happens to her body….but, not over the right of what God dictates, because according to my beliefs, the sanctity of ALL life matters, even above my own comfort and convenience.

              And I would also be the first to agree that not everyone shares my beliefs, therefore laws and a legal system are necessary…my bible tells me that the law is for the lawless (those to whom God’s laws are not indelibly written in their hearts), therefore the law of the land is necessary and appropriate. And I would also agree that if anyone should be legally entitled to make that decision then it stands to reason that it should be woman as she has the responsibility of caring the child.

              And since not everyone lives their lives submitted to God, then why should it surprise me if the laws of the land are different from God’s. That does not at all, in any way, limit my ability to continue to live my life the way I chose to.

              And for that reason, it doesn’t really matter when the abortion happens, whether the first month or just hours before delivery….in fact, I think making abortions legal ANYTIME, might actually make more sense…after all, why should it matter when — it’s all the same thing….it’s not like an unborn child is any less a person at the beginning of gestation that at the end? Maybe 3rd trimester abortions might help people see the truth about abortion — that it’s the taking of a life.

              The problem I have with abortion, whether legal or not, is that people do not respect life enough. Abortion has been so widely available for so long that many don’t give it a second thought. I read an article where an abortion doctor was talking about how abortions increase when the economy is bad, meaning people are making these decisions based on finances.

              The taking of a life is a serious issue and should not be taken lightly. And by that I mean, ending a life should only be considered when it’s a matter of life and death. For example, If my pet is so far hurt or sick that nothing will save them, and they are in great pain, then I might consider ending their misery. I, personally, have too much respect for life, to personally kill another human in the same situation, but I might be persuaded to help them so they, themselves, could take their own life, if I was sure there was no other solution and they were only sparing themselves a lengthy and painful death process.

              Now, if someone was trying to kill my children, I would have no problem pulling the trigger to protect my children. I wouldn’t even have to think about it — I’d do it in a split second. Likewise, I would have no judgement for the person that killed Hitler or BinLadin. And although somewhat justified (at least legally), I wouldn’t try to deny that either case was anything less than the taking of a life.

              And maybe, if I were a single mother of 10 children with no other living relatives to care for my children and I knew beyond any doubt that either my unborn child had to be aborted or I would die, leaving my other 10 children without a mother….well then I might consider abortion to be my last resort. No matter how hard that choice is to make, it would not change the fact that my decision was one of taking a life.

              And that’s what I’m talking about — just cause to take a life. Because that’s exactly what abortion is. I have no problem with abortion being legal, I have a problem with it being called anything other than what it is — the taking of a life. And therein lies our conundrum. As a society we cannot call it what it is, because then our society would be guilty of legalizing murder. So instead we pretend it’s not really alive. That’s why I applaud legislation that requires ultrasounds — yes it’s your legal right to an abortion, but you don’t get to just pretend that you’ll just be removing a mass of cells…it’s a living, breathing, heart pumping life. With rights come responsibility. A lawyer friend of mine said it’s not really a choice unless you can make it legally. I say, it’s not really a choice unless you know what that choice entails (the taking of a life) and can take FULL responsibility for making that choice (living with yourself, knowing you took a life.) But maybe that’s just too much to ask of a society….

  5. Jack, I knew about her but only for two reasons: 1) I’m a Texan through and through, and know more about Texas History than the average Texan , and;2) I worked for Texas’s Child Protective Services and she became my hero, so to speak. She is also the reason I no longer work there, as CPS seems to have lost it’s way somewhere along the line. It’s more interested in Political Correctness than in the children it is supposed to be protecting.

  6. I just recently saw the TCM movie and was instantly taken by her courage and perseverance, especially since I, too, consider myself a child and family advocate. However, once I read about the historical Gladney, I am saddened that Hollywood thought it necessary to change the storyline to “soften” the blow of Edna’s own illegitimacy. Just goes to show how much was (and still is) wrong with the media. Also goes to show how media perpetuates certain attitudes about our societal issues. For example, even though the movie was retrospect, and even though Gladney may have been successful in removing illegitimate designations on birth certificates, society itself was still hell bent on being judgmental….couldn’t even tell the story like it was for fear it wouldn’t be accepted.

    Although Gladney was right, so were the opponents of her bill….fast forward and now 40% of births are out of wedlock, compared with less than 5% at the time of bill.

    Now, almost HALF of all pregnancies are unintended and 4 out of 10 of those unintended pregnancies end in abortion. No longer is abortion the last resort choice that once was necessary for incest or rape victims…no it seems that pro-choice has certainly become a very common choice, almost like another birth control choice.

    And while I don’t believe illegitimate designations or illegalizing abortions is the answer….I do think it would help to make those choices harder….and that’s exactly what they should be, the hardest choice ever. It’s clearly evident that mass availability and lessened consequences do contribute to desensitization, turning the hardest (some would say evil) choice into a seemingly easy one. Even still, the real problem isn’t the availability of choices….the real problem has to do with the human heart and our condition of depravity.

  7. Watched “Blossoms in the Dust” and found your blog while searching for more information on Edna Gladney. I have shared it. Gladney was ” a strong and indomitable woman whose life was devoted to saving unwanted children rather than preventing their existence.” Thank you for stating this so directly and clearly, even if it makes others feel uncomfortable.

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