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.
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.