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. Cloth, $65.00; Paper, $24.95.)

“Procreation is power,” Susan Klepp asserts in her eagerly awaited study of fertility in revolutionary America, “but who wields that power and for what ends?” (3). Readers familiar with Klepp’s earlier work will rejoice to see her painstaking research folded into a bold analysis of the relationship between limited childbearing and the American Revolution, while those who have yet to acquaint themselves with Klepp’s scholarship will gain new knowledge about changing fertility patterns and birth-control methods in early America. Combining statistical research with close analysis of an impressive range of popular culture—including novels, portraiture, cartoons, satire, real-estate advertisements, and Poor Richard’s AlmanackRevolutionary Conceptions traces the transition from large to small families between 1760 and 1820 and links that transition to the ideas fomented by the American Revolution. The fertility transition, Klepp contends, was “a revolution for and by women,” who had the most to gain in a new order that idealized small families rather than large ones; valued rational, republican mothers rather than “breeding,” “big [End Page 654] bellied” women; and regarded each child as an individual “pledge” of love rather than favoring eldest sons (106, 107, 109).

After an opening chapter detailing different ways of measuring fertility, tracing a decline in family size, and calling attention to variables such as race and ethnicity, Klepp devotes the remainder of her study to changing attitudes about pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing in the emerging American republic. While the watchword for colonists was “abundance”—whether applied to crops or children—by the mid 1700s attitudes had begun to change (57). As “Poor Richard,” Benjamin Franklin reflected and promoted new ideas about the desirability of limited and planned fertility with sayings such as “The hasty bitch brings forth blind Puppies” (78).

As Franklin’s crude comment suggests, early Americans often evoked bestial images of breeding women. In perhaps the most fascinating chapter of the book, Klepp examines images of women in portraiture and print, tracing a shift from “an aesthetic of high fertility” and “fecund femininity” to “new messages of maturity, regulation, rationality, and domesticity” in images that highlighted childrearing ability rather than childbearing potential (129–30). Disappointingly, not all the images discussed are included in the book, but enough are to convince the reader that Americans increasingly valued virginal and restrained ladies rather than sexual and fecund women.

Another excellent chapter is devoted to the technology of birth control, including “emmenagogic” treatments intended to restore regularity to the menstrual cycle. As Klepp points out, there was enough uncertainty about whether a cessation of menstruation indicated illness or pregnancy to create ambiguity about women’s intentions in employing herbs, exercise, hot compresses, and other cures for amenorrhea. Although women employed these methods to adjust childbearing in response to economic hardship or military danger, Klepp warns against interpreting the colonial era as “a golden age of women’s power over reproduction. The failure rates were high, the methods painful, and the acceptable reasons for married women’s employing emmenagogues . . . limited” (205).

Not until the mid eighteenth century, according to Klepp, would American women consciously attempt to limit family size, rather than responding to immediate circumstances, and when they did so they adopted new methods, such as breastfeeding. As Margaret Izard Manigault counseled her daughter in 1809, “I think it less fatiguing to the [End Page 655] constitution to nurse this one, than to bring forth another” (210). In addition to offering a persuasive and nuanced discussion of birth-control practices, in this chapter Klepp also does a fine job of calling attention to cross-cultural borrowing among Africans, Native Americans, and European Americans and discusses the deliberate use of contraceptives and abortifacients in German communities.

If there was a “golden age” for women’s control over their own bodies, Klepp locates it between the American Revolution and the Victorian era. “There was a window of opportunity for women in the late eighteenth century to experiment with new interpretations of marriage, sexuality, and...