Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820 (review)
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Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820. By Susan E. Klepp. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Pp. 328. $65.00 cloth; $24.95 paper)

Modern societies have seen a dramatic fall in birthrates, a trend that began in the United States and France during the second half of the eighteenth century. Susan E. Klepp offers as explanation for why birth rates began to fall in the United States. It was not, as others have claimed, because families found it difficult to acquire land for rising generations, nor was it a result of industrialization or the rise of the market economy, religious reform, breakthroughs in medical technology, or trends in mortality. Rather, women in the middle ranks of society began to start families later, increase the time between births, and stop bearing children at younger ages. In other words, it was an American revolution "invented and implemented by wives" (p. 8). Their reimagined view of marriage, motherhood, and procreation changed the world, which gradually came to see that childbirth and infant care represented a stage in a woman's life rather than a lifetime commitment.

Klepp's use of sources demonstrates a firm command of the historiography related to the study of sex, sexuality, and reproduction, as well as an ability to imagine new approaches to research in the field. Just as the first historians to focus on fertility began with statistical studies, so does Klepp. Her first chapter synthesizes the literature historians and demographers have compiled on the subject. Klepp concludes that statistics can only take historians so far and bases subsequent chapters on other types of documentary evidence, including women's words (letters, diaries, poems, and novels), women's images (mostly portraits of elite women), and the writings of men (doctors, lawyers, jurists, newspapermen, and legislators). Klepp's creative thinking about sources leads her to examine sources as varied as real-estate advertisements and women's jokes about male prerogatives. The result is a rich admixture of voices that allows Klepp to explicate how middling women's understanding of conception and family limitation differed from that of other women and men. [End Page 394]

Ideas matter to Klepp, and one of the final chapters of Revolutionary Conceptions looks at men in the public order (legislators, judges and juries, and doctors) to learn why men did not object more to women's proactive role in family limitation. Because menstruation, fertility, and childbirth had long been under the purview of women, she explains, men shied away from the topic and were slow to understand the power women were assuming over important family matters. It was not until later in the nineteenth century that they began to pay attention to the changes that women were enacting. When they did, contraception (including abortion) began to take on importance in men's public political and professional debates.

The book's subtitle promises a study of "Women, Fertility & Family Limitation in America," but in fact much of the study focuses on white women from the middling ranks in the mid-Atlantic region, especially Pennsylvania. Rich white women who gave birth to large numbers of children in the colonial era continued to do so in the early republic. African American women appear here and there in Klepp's account, more to highlight what was new about the behavior of European-American women than to act in their own stories. Rather than falling, enslaved women's fertility rose throughout the period of study, although following freedom African American women also began to limit family size, albeit at a slower pace than did white women.

Klepp is persuasive in arguing that white women from the middle rung of society were rejecting the idea that they should be defined by biology and attaching more importance to childrearing than childbearing. Readers wanting to know about the experiences of other women will need to consult additional literature. Nevertheless, everyone interested in the American revolutionary era, women, and human reproduction will find Revolutionary Conceptions insightful. It includes tables and charts that, among other things, highlight regional and class differences in family limitation. [End Page 395]


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