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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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 coun
try no representative of your virtues! But you are not as old as Abraham
[George Washington was in fact fifty-seven]; and she (gently touching
the shoulder of Mrs. Washington) as old as Sarah [Martha Dandridge
Custis Washington was fifty-eight]; and through the favour of the
Almighty, I hope that a son may still be born to bless us.

Washington thanked him, and Lydick left, “praying, that fruitfulness might crown the last years of their existence with perfect felicity.” It was not enough for Washington to be the figurative “father” of his country. According to this elderly baker and farmer, the president also needed to prove . . .

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