Published in 1916, this May-June magazine issue from the Willows Maternity Sanitarium highlights a hidden yet complex network of seven mother-baby homes that operated within Kansas City during the twentieth century. This network thrived due to the city’s centralized location in the national railroad system and Missouri’s relaxed adoption laws. Women came to these Kansas City homes to hide their pregnancies and give birth in secret, often telling their family and friends back home that they were attending school or visiting relatives while away. The state became complicit in this industry, erasing any trace of the homes or the biological mothers, by altering babies’ birth certificates so that their adoptive parents read as their biological ones. The institutions catered to clientele based on religious affiliation, socioeconomic status, and, due to state segregation laws, race and ethnicity. The Willows served exclusively white, upper-class women and adoptive families, becoming known as “the Mansion on the Hill” for its luxurious amenities such as a massage room and a diet kitchen for losing postpartum weight.
The Willows shipped a bi-monthly magazine to doctors’ offices around the Midwest, which physicians then distributed to women when they learned of their unplanned pregnancies. The magazine showcased the home’s features, mission, and trained nursing staff, directly encouraging women to give up their babies for adoption as opposed to keeping them or terminating their pregnancy in an era before Roe vs. Wade. Most women felt they had no choice but to hide their pregnancies and give their babies up for adoption, fearing embarrassment and the social stigma that would be attached to them and their families as a result of them becoming pregnant out of wedlock.
The Willows magazine is one of the only remaining remnants of the home left today. After the institution’s closing in 1964, its patient records were promptly destroyed. As a result, many babies born in the Willows and institutions like it do not know the truth of their parentage, or even that they were adopted. The true conditions of these homes, and the lives of the women who passed through them, also remain in the shadows of Kansas City’s and Missouri’s histories.