Today’s post is part of our series marking the 75th anniversary of the Omohundro Institute by exploring the OI books that have had an impact on a scholar’s life.
by Rebecca Brannon
I first picked up Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820 (2009) when I was at loose ends planning a seminar course on early American cultural history. I had just moved from one assistant professor gig to another, and the students were new to me. I thought the book might be an engaging read for my mostly upper middle class students. I think what I was really thinking was that if I couldn’t get the students to read and talk about sex, I had no hope. I mean, even as a scholar, I expected that sometimes rare thing—a genuinely enjoyable read. What could be better, really, than the struggles of people trying to exert control over that most personal of choices—how many children to have? So I assigned it alongside Kathleen Brown’s Foul Bodies and waited to see what I and the students made of sex, bathing, and birth control that semester.
When I read Revolutionary Conceptions, I was riveted. I laughed and gasped reading the section about the earnest doctor and his wife who were vigilantly working together to enjoy a satisfying sex life while avoiding conception—yet conceived again and again and again (208-9). Turns out his theory of the fertile and unfertile periods in a woman’s cycle was exactly wrong. I say I laughed—but it was the rueful laugh of recognition of earnest people doing their best and failing. It was one of those amazing, enticing moments in historical work where you really feel the emotions of someone in the past captured in a few terse notations in a diary. Susan Klepp’s book does more than that, of course. It is a model of how to do and deploy archival research, and even art history, in the service of uncovering forgotten aspects of ordinary lives. She brings together Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard, free Afro-Dutch households, German-speaking immigrants, and paintings by Charles Willson Peale and John Singleton Copley in a confident show.
Her book is a masterpiece that shows how the intersection of seemingly personal choices and biological realities are actually deeply culturally constructed. Klepp argues that American women embraced the Enlightenment and the American Revolution’s ideals and put them into practice in the most intimate parts of their lives. As middle-class American women, and then their husbands, came to believe women’s time was inherently valuable, they embraced the idea that women ought to have time to do things besides bear and raise children. In response, they began to deliberately limit their family size in large part to liberate women from spending their entire lives pregnant or nursing. My students marvel at this dedication to family planning long before reliable, easy birth control entirely in women’s control such as the birth control pill. Klepp’s book makes it clear that men and women worked together to use extended nursing, and then long visits to relatives, as methods of spacing out births while still having sexual intercourse. Eliza Hamilton, for instance, used her husband’s lengthy business travel as an opportunity to space out births. Her husband was supportive up to a point, but made it clear that when he returned he was very eager to resume physical intimacies (206-7).
Klepp shows what a radical disjuncture the sudden, deliberate drop in birth rates and society-wide fecundity really was. Colonial Americans had celebrated fecundity, yet by the time of the early Republic they encouraged careful cultivation of a much smaller family. Republican motherhood was a role only suited for mothers of small families. Centuries of Europeans had encouraged unlimited childbearing. Women’s dresses were designed to be let in and out with the frequent changes in size and shape pregnancies every two years entailed. More startling—yet thrilling for a scholar of the Revolution enamored by the power of ideas—is that the motivating force really was the ideas. Family limitation and women’s emancipation were the product of the embrace of the worth and autonomy of each individual. I was captivated. Women might not have become equal citizens with the vote, but in ways that mattered every day for women’s lives, the American Revolution delivered them into a modernity where women emancipated themselves from a lifetime solely focused on breeding and childcare. By the nineteenth century, large families were seen as gauche. Women could anticipate a life in which they were more than mothers. As a feminist, here was my history.
Yet the intellectual questions only started there. What did it mean that the United States went from a very high fertility society—with the highest birth rates in all of American history in the 1760s as women literally gave birth to the Revolutionary generation—to a low fertility society? Revolutionary societies the world over have tended to be very young, and here was yet another example of a burgeoning youth population overflowing into revolution. Yet the implications went far beyond the obvious.
In the back of my mind, I started mulling what it means that Western modernity was inextricably linked with low fertility, and that birth rates started to drop dramatically in the late eighteenth century in two places—the United States and France. And what did it mean that ideas mattered so much in creating the modern world that people chose family limitation with imperfect birth control options? These ideas merged with another set of concerns—why did women’s historians take the entire life course seriously, writing about girls but also aged widows, when the new history of masculinity seemed to be entirely about teenage and young adult men desperately trying to establish themselves as men? And of course here I was, a woman on the tenure track getting closer to 40 with one dearly wanted child, an only somewhat fertile body, and trying to finish my book for tenure on an entirely different topic. In my job application cover letters, I had vaguely promised some second book on the lingering effects of trauma from the Revolution’s civil war on the fraught, violent political discourse of the early Republic. Everyone knew that was not signed in blood, right?
The back of my mind played new tricks on me. Contemplation of childhood and fertility turned to the far less obvious problem of historicizing old age. Old age must have a history too! And in fact we are living in a historic moment ourselves as the entire world is rapidly aging. And at the same time, birth rates are dropping around the world. The industrialized world now has birth rates below replacement almost everywhere. If modernity meant limiting family size, post-modernity increasingly means the one child family, and sizable numbers of people declining to reproduce at all. Is there a connection between decisions around childbearing and the overall age profile of the community? Which comes first—the aging society or the drop in birth rates? As an early Americanist, I knew that there had been old people then too, but I had no idea how many, or what they expected their lives to be like. I started saying I was going to write a second book on masculinity and aging, and only then started to find the archival evidence of whether early Americans even thought about their own age.
Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions is the book that inspired my second book project far away from previous research on American Loyalists seeking to reintegrate into the United States at the end of a long and brutal civil war. I joke that I needed to get away from Loyalist whining for a while … and ended up trading it for the whining of old men. But the real story is that Klepp’s extraordinary book both set the ideas in motion and serves as my model of how to write using archives to tell the story of the overlooked yet revolutionary aspects of the creation of our most fundamentally modern ways of thinking and being in the world.
Rebecca Brannon is an associate professor at James Madison University. She is the author of From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists (2016). This January, her co-edited volume The Consequences of Loyalism: Essays in Honor of Robert M. Calhoon comes out from the University of South Carolina Press. She tweets @rnbrannon.