- Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760–1820
With the demographic data so spotty and unreliable and the epistolary evidence so frustratingly silent, what can we really know about the reproductive practices of eighteenth-century Americans? It turns out, in the hands of so skillful and imaginative an historian as Susan E. Klepp, the answer is quite a lot. Klepp reconstructs the transformation in childbearing practices between the 1760s and the 1820s by mining medical treatises, novels, court records, and portraiture; judiciously employing illustrative statistics; and artfully reading letters, diaries, and newspapers. In so doing, she has produced a highly engaging, imaginative, and persuasive book. [End Page 173]
Klepp demonstrates that parallel to the American Revolution on behalf of republican political principles ran a second revolution led by women and in pursuit of new domestic ideals. A full century before most of western Europe, Americans began to intentionally change their reproductive practices in order to limit the number of children born within marriages. Initially framing her study in a larger Atlantic context, Klepp observes that, tellingly, the only other nation experiencing a simultaneous decline in reproduction was France. This was no random coincidence: the political revolutions in both America and France shaped the most intimate parts of couples’ lives. Klepp’s focus then narrows exclusively to North America, and she relies particularly heavily on Pennsylvania sources to chart changes in sexual and maternal practices. While most of the evidence privileges middling rank and elite Anglo-American women, Klepp effectively integrates African American women and German migrants whenever the sources will allow.
Klepp convincingly depicts the American reproductive decline as driven by a shift from idealizing abundant fertility to prizing restraint, which she artfully connects to revolutionary political innovations and, to a lesser degree, religious changes fueled by the Second Great Awakening. The Revolution gave women the language to challenge authoritarianism and extravagance, the consumer and print culture tools to share new ideas about motherhood and information about birth control, and, through the exigencies of the war itself, the chance to try out new female roles.
Neither the mothers living in the midst of the Revolution nor their daughters becoming wives in the early nineteenth century seemed to perceive limiting reproduction as a rejection of their prescribed maternal role. Rather, the revolutionary mothers initially sought to protect their own health from the debilitating effects of endless pregnancies so as to ensure they could survive and more ably care for their children. By the nineteenth century, their daughters were practicing birth control principally to limit the number of children they bore. That is, the prime motivation of limiting fecundity shifted from being a means of promoting maternal health to an end unto itself. But women still generally viewed their actions as the best path toward being good mothers, not as a repudiation of motherhood. Selective maternalism did, however, become a path for feminism. As Klepp reminds us, “Family limitation and feminism are intertwined. As women gained greater control of their bodies, they gradually gained more authority in the family” (284). And greater power in the family begat more freedom to engage in social activism, to contribute to churches, and to pursue education. Thus, this female-driven revolution, just like the one promoted by the men of the American republic, produced far-reaching, unintended consequences.
The two most imaginative chapters in Klepp’s fine book explore the technology of birth control in early America (chapter 5) and deconstruct visual representations of women by printmakers and portraitists (chapter 4). The subject matter of chapter 5 required an immersion in botany and [End Page 174] in arcane medical practices, extraordinary detective work, and scrupulous sensitivity to language. This chapter likely posed the greatest challenge to the author: How do you write convincingly about a topic that so few of your subjects mentioned—and when they did, typically used cryptic language? Klepp did it by scouring medical treatises, statistically analyzing the outpatient services of the Philadelphia Dispensary...