- Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820
Susan Klepp's Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820 is a groundbreaking and thorough study of how women empowered themselves during the revolutionary period by limiting childbearing and by gaining more control over their own bodies. Klepp shows how late eighteenth-century colonial American women rebelled against [End Page 71] lifelong childbearing and unlimited access to their bodies. She supports her thesis with a variety of methodologies, primary sources, and voices.
Revolutionary Conceptions argues that, in the late eighteenth century, many American women and some men decided to limit family size. Female colonists applied the revolutionary values of rationality, restraint, and virtue to their bodies and their families. Women defined virtue for themselves as sexual restraint and embraced female modesty. Their acceptance of these values was due in part to real physical and sexual dangers they faced during the American Revolution. Klepp points out that "humiliation, exposure, violation, or rape of women by the enemy" were weapons of war (94). Boycotts and other activities that encouraged economic restraint affected perceptions of high fertility and large families came to be seen as luxuries during the difficult days of the Revolution. Women's pregnant body, likewise, was viewed as excess. Rational motherhood and parenting meant that women planned and counted the number of children, and cherished each child, whether male or female, by working hard to provide educational and economic opportunities to all, not simply to the eldest son. Klepp summarizes, "The fertility transition was a sudden and radical change for those first generations of individual women and men who made a conscious decision to disavow past practices and switch to various family-planning strategies" (275).
In order to support her thesis, Klepp employs an assortment of methodologies in her book. She utilizes demography to show how the high fertility of the mid-eighteenth century gave way to a steady decline in childbearing. Klepp clearly explains her demographic methodology and includes myriad graphs in order to visually prove her point to the reader. Klepp relies on gender history to reveal how femininity was transformed over the course of the eighteenth century and what effects this change had on family size, perceptions of the female body, and the duties and responsibilities of mothers. She uses medical history to highlight what women thought about pregnancy, health, and disease. She also considers women's herbal strategies for spacing, limiting, and stopping pregnancies. In addition, Klepp makes use of art history to demonstrate how the portrayal of the abundant female body was replaced with depictions of rational and modest mothers.
The methodologies that Klepp uses to sustain her argument require her to consult an amazing array of primary sources. Her demographic analysis depends on census records, county registries, and church records. In order [End Page 72] to uncover the gender history of eighteenth-century colonial America and its relationship to family limitation, Klepp consults women's journals and correspondence between family members, including husbands and wives. Her investigation into the medical means of limiting fertility is founded on herbals, receipt books, and dispensary records. Klepp's art historical examination incorporates twenty-one illustrations, each of which is thoroughly analyzed. However, Klepp's integration of visual primary source evidence is undermined by the decision to describe in detail artworks (at least sixteen) that are not included as illustrations in the text. Perhaps, this oversight was a decision on the part of Klepp's editors. A similar weakness was the lack of a bibliography; footnotes are complete, but a full bibliography would have allowed the reader to seek inspiration more easily from Klepp's primary and secondary sources.
Klepp's excellent methodological analysis and incorporation of myriad primary sources are complemented by her outstanding comparative history of family limitation. Klepp considers women and men of different classes, races, ethnicities, religions, and regions. She works hard to uncover their views on pregnancy, childrearing, family...