Barbara Melosh is Professor of English and History at George Mason University and a former Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Up to the mid-19th century, the most common way to gain custody of orphaned children was through apprenticeship. This naturally favored boys rather than girls, youngsters rather than infants—children perceived as economically useful. Adoption became the norm as the idea of children's rights evolved. But progress was tortured. Most of the 20th century has been spent in working out the criteria and procedures for adoption--and deciding who adopts whom. The process has helped define the meaning of the American family.