Deliberate Revolution or Obvious Aftermath?

In her book Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, & Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820, Susan Klepp discusses the “revolution” women incited at the turn of the 18th century.  Feeling that they had no part in the American Revolution and the changes that were occuring in their world, women sought ways they could take a more active social and political role. Their solution was to join religious, reform, and abolition movements. The “cult of domesticity” was born from this change. This change brought a greater separation between gender roles, as we saw last week when reading Norling’s Captain Ahab had a Wife. Klepp’s argument is that because women were becoming more socially active in these various movements, they made the decision to reduce the number of children they bore. Instead they would focus more on their reformation movements and closer, intimate relationships with the people in their lives.

Klepp’s evidence for her argument is very convincing. Using the a variety of census and other historical archives containing familial information, in the first chapter of her book, Klepp shows how the birth rate began dropping around 1760 for the majority of populations. She shows many different studies based on age, race, class, religion, occupation of the husband, and location within the United States. All her evidence supports her conclusion that women were bearing less children than they previous had. The rest of her book is spent attempting to explain why and what the repercussions of their decision were. This is where her argument loses momentum.

Though Klepp has the quantitative evidence to substantiate her claim, she never quite fulfills her argument that sees a lowered conception rate as a deliberate “revolution.” In casting aside the theories of other historians, such as war and economics to explain the drop, she does not fully explore all of avenues of her argument. She presents letters and journals that show women writing about less children, she critiques pictures and speculates about how the position and accoutrements surrounding her illustrate a decreased emphasis on fertility, and she also gives a quite detailed history of birth control methods up to that point. What she fails to provide is any actual evidence that women were in a “rebellious revolution” to change their lives. Klepp’s work is definitely ground breaking and presents an interesting theory. However, it still needs research to determine if it was indeed a “revolution” or just a product of everything else that was happening from 1760-1820.

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One thought on “Deliberate Revolution or Obvious Aftermath?

  1. In the beginning of your post, I almost thought you were going to like the book better than Sarah and Michelle!

    American women from the middling and upper classes do not begin to get involved in religious and reform associations until approximately 1800, and their activism outside the home increases in the 1830s and 1840s (see Anne Boylan, Origins of Women’s Activism). But the fertility of these same women begins falling forty years earlier. While falling fertility may have enabled the latter, I’m not sure Klepp sees reform activities as contributing to the decline in fertility. Rather, it is a different conception of what enlightened, educated women should be.

    What is the relationship to the “cult of domesticity”? Did enlightenment rationalism overlap with sentimental piety? Or did they represent two different ideals of womanhood? The one that Klepp describes may be more grounded in the lived experiences of women in the Revolutionary era.

    Liked by 1 person

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