What was revolutionary about these conceptions?

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I would like to begin this post by stating that I had very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I did find it very informational and enlightening in many respects; Susan Klepp indeed shows that the birth rate in early America began a decline in the late eighteenth century and that women began giving birth to fewer children in that period. She provides statistics for this transition; she traces changing perceptions of parents toward children and childhood; she examines the words of women themselves to show changing perceptions on fertility and femininity; she  includes a chapter explaining and analyzing women in art and portraiture from colonial America into the early nation; she explains the different measures of early birth control; she looks at fertility and women’s bodies in light of public and male perceptions; and she looks at those who were reluctant to participate in these new practices. The argument that is supposed to be holding all of these examples and points together is the American Revolution and its ideologies; Klepp essentially argues that the American Revolution played a major role in changing women’s fertility practices. However, and this is the main problem I had with this book, I found that this argument gets lost as the book moves forward. While Klepp uses many good examples to show that a change is occurring in early American society, she does not effectively tie the ideas promoted  by the American Revolution into her evidence. Because Amber will be covering the argument in more detail, I will focus on Klepp’s sources.

Much of the statistical evidence Klepp uses comes from a variety of secondary source studies on population and demographics in the early U.S. This quantitative approach is meant to show readers that early American women did begin having fewer children in the late eighteenth century and that smaller family sizes were becoming more frequently encouraged in this period. This statistical chapter sets the background for the rest of Klepp’s book as she moves on from simply showing that there was a trend, to attempting to explain the trend.

In explaining her argument, Klepp effectively uses a wide variety of primary sources including diaries, memoirs, letters, periodicals, artwork, the works of both Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, and medical ledgers and journals.  Diaries, memoirs, and letters reveal the private thoughts of women, as well as men, on many topics relating to fertility, childbirth, and child-rearing. For me, one of the most interesting sections in Klepp’s book is her chapter called “Beauty and the Bestial: Images of Women.” In this chapter, Klepp shows readers how early portraiture portrayed women from the colonial period into the early Republic and nineteenth century. As revealed by Klepp, these works of art show a progression in painting women as youthful, alluring, and fertile to pure and motherly with more intellectual and rational interests. Very effectively, Klepp analyzes each work of art in extreme detail; she describes the shapes and objects used and their symbolic meanings, as well as details such as arm placement and body posture. By providing visual evidence, as well as written evidence, Klepp is able to approach her topic from a unique, but definitely interesting and efficient, angle. This synthesis of sources allows Klepp to provide a very information-heavy study of fertility and gender conventions of early America.

Now, despite her detailed use of many different types of primary sources, I found that her evidence was lacking in one crucial area: the Revolution itself. Though called Revolutionary Conceptions, this book does not actually discuss the American Revolution very much at all. Klepp’s argument would have been much more effective overall if she was able to better incorporate the rhetoric of the revolution and connect those words to the words of men and women during and after the revolution. These ideas were in a variety of print sources, spread around by the rapidly developing periodical print culture of the time. Had Klepp included more primary sources on ideas relating to the Enlightenment, rationality, and equal rights, her book would have been much more effective and easy to follow.

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One thought on “What was revolutionary about these conceptions?

  1. Fascinating post! And you (and Amber and Sarah) are great at coming up with titles.

    Is the Revolution missing from the book? Or the Revolution as it is usually described (founding fathers, debates over political documents, battles, etc.)? Klepp describes a longer, deeper process of changing ideas, including the idea that women could (and should) be the same intelligent, self-governing individuals as men. While the enlightenment and Revolution embraced natural rights (all men are created…) this concept was not necessarily the same as equal rights between men (or between men and women).

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