Revolutionary Conceptions

Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820

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    Revolutionary Conceptions
    Book Description:

    In the Age of Revolution, how did American women conceive their lives and marital obligations? By examining the attitudes and behaviors surrounding the contentious issues of family, contraception, abortion, sexuality, beauty, and identity, Susan E. Klepp demonstrates that many women--rural and urban, free and enslaved--began to radically redefine motherhood. They asserted, or attempted to assert, control over their bodies, their marriages, and their daughters' opportunities.Late-eighteenth-century American women were among the first in the world to disavow the continual childbearing and large families that had long been considered ideal. Liberty, equality, and heartfelt religion led to new conceptions of virtuous, rational womanhood and responsible parenthood. These changes can be seen in falling birthrates, in advice to friends and kin, in portraits, and in a gradual, even reluctant, shift in men's opinions. Revolutionary-era women redefined femininity, fertility, family, and their futures by limiting births. Women might not have won the vote in the new Republic, they might not have gained formal rights in other spheres, but, Klepp argues, there was a women's revolution nonetheless.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0079-6
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. List of Tables
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. 1-20)

    A nineteenth-century historian entertained his readers with a comic interlude. His tale of bygone days told of the reunion of “Old Lydick,” a humble Pennsylvania German veteran of the Revolutionary War, with George Washington, who had “once honoured [Lydick] with his favour.” After mutual pleasantries, Lydick supposedly told the newly elected first president of the United States:

    It has been my happiness, once again, to meet and pay my duty to your Excellency. I have but one regret. You are childless! You leave your country no representative of your virtues! Butyouare not as old as Abraham [George Washington...

  7. 1 Starting, Spacing, and Stopping THE STATISTICS OF BIRTH AND FAMILY SIZE
    (pp. 21-55)

    The radical French émigré J. P. Brissot toured the new United States in 1788 eager to locate the tangible benefits of enlightened revolution. He was especially concerned with population because he, like the majority of contemporary thinkers, thought that free societies grow rapidly and oppressive regimes stagnate. For the most part, Brissot found the rapid population growth in the former British colonies that convinced him of the advantages of republicanism, liberty, and independence. Yet, when he tallied the births in Philadelphia’s Lutheran church, he discovered a discrepancy. “You will also note,” he wrote, “that during the war years there were...

  8. 2 Old Ways and New
    (pp. 56-87)

    “Colonies,” wrote proprietor and promoter William Penn in 1681, “are the Seeds of Nations . . . best for the increase of Humane Stock.” According to Penn, Europe was hovering on the brink of ruin because unemployment levels were rising and wages were falling. Far too many men could not afford to marry. Private morality was being undermined by the poverty and rootlessness of these miserable men. The prevalence of vice caused population to stagnate, since many men “chuse rather to vend their Lusts at an evil Ordinary [tavern] than honestly Marry.” The “great Debauchery in this Kingdom” even “rendred...

  9. 3 Women’s Words
    (pp. 88-127)

    Martha Bowen lived much of her life in and around Williamsport in central Pennsylvania. In 1855, she composed a family history for her granddaughter and namesake, gathering tales of success and failure, marriages and religious conversions, amusements and deathbeds. Prominent in her history was a depiction of her paternal grandmother, a woman who was unusually well educated for her day. She “wrote beautifully, and was an Arithmetician.” Married at age sixteen around 1770, Grandmother Walton became “the mother oftwelveChildren.” This striking and underlined aspect of her grandmother’s life provided an object lesson for Bowen, since “having the care...

  10. 4 Beauty and the Bestial IMAGES OF WOMEN
    (pp. 128-178)

    Poor Richard recycled a timeworn sentiment when he wrote: “A Ship under sail and a big-bellied Woman, / Are the handsomest two things that can be seen common.” The proverb makes for an awkward rhyme, but the linked images of ships and pregnancy had been harbingers of good fortune since classical Greco-Roman times. The graceful curves of a merchant ship’s billowing sails and of a woman’s body big with child promised men the wealth that came from both commercial success and productive children. Images of the Roman goddess Fortuna commonly portrayed her bearing a cornucopia spilling an abundance of fruit...

  11. 5 Potions, Pills, and Jumping Ropes THE TECHNOLOGY OF BIRTH CONTROL
    (pp. 179-214)

    In 1766, a printer in Germantown, Pennsylvania, advised his readers that the common herb “tansy is of a warm and dry nature, and possesses the fine virtue of loosening all thick humors of the body, here and there, but particularly in the matrix [womb]; of dispelling . . . mother fits [hysterics, convulsions, eclampsia, or other conditions], of killing and expelling worms; of warming a cold matrix and bringing a lot more into good order” (Plate 25). This now odd-seeming collection of varied conditions and their single remedy brings us into a medical world almost totally foreign in its assumptions...

  12. 6 Increase and Multiply EMBARRASSED MEN AND PUBLIC ORDER
    (pp. 215-247)

    There was, once upon a time, a woman brought before the Connecticut court on bastardy charges—for the fifth time. She flummoxed the straight-laced judges in this most puritanical of colonies by insisting that she had done nothing wrong: “Can it be a Crime (in the Nature of Things I mean) to add to the Number of the King’s Subjects, in a new Country that really wants People?” After all, she had expected that her first, faithless suitor would have married her. In giving birth then and later she was merely fulfilling “the Duty of the first and great Command...

  13. 7 Reluctant Revolutionaries
    (pp. 248-271)

    “I should be not a little surprized,” said a fictional male in a 1798 discussion of women’s rights, “to hear of a woman proferring her services as president or senator. It would be hard to restrain a smile to see her rise in a popular assembly to discuss some mighty topic.” This character, although imaginary, expressed a common belief, common even among radicals, that there were limits to human rights and individual freedoms. All men might have beencreatedequal, but they assuredly did not remain equal. Women were almost certainly excluded. A politically active woman could only be ridiculous,...

  14. CONCLUSION Fertility and the Feminine in Early America
    (pp. 272-286)

    The adoption of family limitation was revolutionary: a sudden, sharp break with a long tradition of promoting high fertility within marriage. There could be no halfway measures. Starting in the swirl of revolutionary assertions of inalienable rights, individualism, foresight, and independence, wives or couples either quantified their ideal family size, or they did not. They favored restraint, or they continued to celebrate abundance and redundancy. Couples anticipated the future and carefully invested to secure the best possible outcome for each child, or they accepted the decrees of fate, whatever those might be. Couples or wives either employed delayed marriage, sexual...

    (pp. 287-304)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 305-312)