This period of history has been documented in scholarly books such as Wake Up Little Suzie and Beggars And Choosers, both by historian Rickie Sollinger; and social histories such as The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler, a professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design who also exhibited an art installation by the same title. It is also the theme of the documentary Gone To A Good Home by Film Australia.
Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, illegitimacy began to be defined in terms of psychological deficits on the part of the mother. At the same time, an liberalization of sexual mores combined with restrictions on access to birth control led to an increase in premarital pregnancies. The dominant psychological and social work view was that the large majority of unmarried mothers were better off being separated by adoption from their newborn babies.. According to Mandell (2007), "In most cases, adoption was presented to the mothers as the only option and little or no effort was made to help the mothers keep and raise the children."
Solinger (2000) defines the change that occurred during this period that differentiated it from preceding times:
" ... Black single mothers were expected to keep their babies as most unwed mothers, black and white, had done throughout American history. Unmarried white mothers, for the first time in American history, were expected to put their babies up for adoption. ..."
Solinger also describes the social pressures that led to this unusual trend:
"For white girls and women illegitimately pregnant in the pre-Roe era, the main chance for attaining home and marriage... rested on the aspect of their rehabilitation that required relinquishment... More than 80 percent of white unwed mothers in maternity homes came to this decision... acting in effect as breeders for white, adoptive parents, for whom they supplied up to nearly 90 percent of all nonrelative infants by the mid-1960s... Unwed mothers were defined by psychological theory as not-mothers... As long as these females had no control over their reproductive lives, they were subject to the will and the ideology of those who watched over them. And the will, veiled though it often was, called for unwed mothers to acknowledge their shame and guilt, repent, and rededicate themselves."
According to Ellison:
From 1960-70, 27 percent of all births to married women between the ages of 15 and 29 were conceived premaritally. Yet the etiology of single, white, middle-class women's conceptions had shifted again and were now perceived as symptoms of female neurosis ... the majority (85-95 percent) of single, white, middle-class women, who either could not or would not procure an illegal or therapeutic abortion, were encouraged, and at times coerced, to adopt-away their child (Edwards, 1993; McAdoo, 1992; Pannor et al, 1979; Solinger, 1992, 1993).
In popular usage, Singer Celeste Billhartz uses the term on her website to refer to the era covered by her work "The Mothers Project." A letter on Senator Bill Finch's website uses the term as well. Writer Betty Mandell references the term in her article "Adoption" The term was also used in a 2004 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
" ... She and many others opposed to adoption gave birth to children who were later adopted in what some call the "baby scoop era" - a period generally after World War II and before Roe versus Wade in 1973 - when unmarried mothers were shunned by society and maternity homes were in vogue ..."
The term Baby Scoop Era is similar to the term "Sixties Scoop," which was coined by Patrick Johnston, author of Native Children and the Child Welfare System. "Sixties Scoop" refers to the Canadian practice, beginning in the 1960s and carrying on until the 1980s, of apprehending unusually high numbers of Native children from their families, and fostering or adopting them out, usually into white families. A similar event happened in Australia where Aboriginal children, sometimes referred to as the Stolen Generation, were removed from their families and placed into internment camps, orphanages and other institutions.
Infant adoptions began declining in the early 1970s, a decline often attributed to the court case Roe v. Wade, but which also partially resulted from social changes that enabled white middle-class mothers to choose single motherhood as an option. Brozinsky (1994) speaks of the decline in newborn adoptions as reflecting a freedom of choice embraced by youth and the women's movement of the 1960's-1970s, resulting in an increase in the number of unmarried mothers who kept their babies as opposed to surrendering them. "In 1970, approximately 80% of the infants born to single mothers were placed for adoption, whereas by 1983 that figure had dropped to only 4%
In contrast to numbers in the 1960s and 1970s, from 1989 to 1995 less than 1 percent of children born to never-married women were surrendered for adoption.
It is generally understood that the decline in adoptions in Australia during the 1970s was linked to a 1973 law providing for financial assistance to single parents:
"As it is still historically understood that the sole parent's benefit did not come into existence until July 1973 and was understood to be a major factor in the decline of adoptable babies, we feel quite comfortable in our assertion that at least until 1973 no alternatives to adoption were being offered. Post-1973 those alternatives were still being hidden from many uninformed young women, but we are unable to ascertain how many mothers who lost their babies had actually been given this information during the 1970s