Historiography(ish) Discussion of Family Planning

Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, & Family Limitation in America 1760-1820. Susan E. Klepp (2009).

In Revolutionary Conceptions, Susan Klepp builds upon the work of historians who specialize in women’s history, early American history, and medical history. Of particular note here is the ways that Klepp builds upon the works of Jennifer Morgan, Sharon Block, Laura Thatcher Ulrich, Deborah Gray White, and Linda Kerber; all women’s historians who we are utilizing as part of our survey of women in American history. Klepp rests her argument, that the Revolution catapulted women’s desire to control their lives and bodies through controlling their fertility, within the framework of the existing discussion of how women exerted agency over their lives. Klepp’s approach relies on a large amount of quantitative analysis, which may be off-putting for some in her audience as the mixing of large data and history seems to fade out of fashion in history as quickly as it reappears. Nevertheless, Klepp approaches the meat of her argument by sorting through the numbers that animate birth rates, average family size, and changing trends over time; a method which is not seen much in women’s history. Klepp also relies on the established historiography of legal history and literary history in the early republic. While some of her argument becomes muddled in the combination of these approaches, as my peers will discuss in their posts, Klepp is successful in demonstrating the depth and breadth of analysis that can be done to understand silenced topics such as controlling fertility during the Revolutionary period. It is in the combined approach, grounded in data analysis, which I believe provides a good guideline for my future research and analysis.

Klepp’s book is both overwhelmingly information-rich, and inconclusive. Klepp uncovers many facets of life in the early republic which beg further research, whether she did not have time or resources to further develop them in this book is unknown. The need for further research is evident in the discussion of men’s roles in decisions about family planning; something which Klepp mentions in passing but does not fully flesh-out. How did men perceive their roles in making decisions about reproduction, especially given Klepp’s statement that men viewed their success as a patriarch directly on their ability to procreate? Another path of further research I believe relies on the discussion of the language of fertility during this period. How influential was the use of agricultural terms to describe pregnancy, birth, and family planning to the ways that women viewed their bodies and their roles as procreators? I have said several times in discussing this book with my peers, and the professor, that this work creates more questions than it successfully answers; I do not think that this is a problem as it drives further research and will expand the historiography further. The more I consider the approaches which Klepp used to create this book the more I admire her ability to combine so many different approaches to ideas of family planning in a (relatively) cohesive analysis.

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One thought on “Historiography(ish) Discussion of Family Planning

  1. Great post! From a historiographic perspective, I think Klepp is doing more than building on the work of others to establish women’s agency. Instead, she seeks to explain a problem that other historians have also studied: why did fertility rates decline in the U.S. in the late 18th c., far ahead of most of western Europe? Other historians have also tried to understand this demographic transition, and they have argued for the decline of farming, growth of cities, or the rise of Victorian sexual morality. Klepp sees the explanation in something different: women’s embrace of enlightenment and Revolutionary ideas about reason, self-control, and individual happiness.

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