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Revolutionary Conceptions

Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760–1820

Susan E. Klepp

Cloth: 978-0-8078-3322-3 ($77.95)
Paper: 978-0-8078-5992-6 ($27.95)

Copyright 2009
University of North Carolina Press

A Prize-Winning Book

  • Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women's History, American Historical Association (2010)

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 womenNot sure how well the link would work in the app.rural and urban, free and enslavedNot sure how well the link would work in the app.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.

About the Author

Susan E. Klepp is professor of history and affiliated professor of women's studies and of African American studies at Temple University. She is author or coeditor of six books and editor of the Journal of the Early Republic.


Klepp’s adept use of quantitative data and visual imagery makes the fertility transition real in cultural as well as demographic terms. We see the transformation in the representations of women’s bodies and calculate the shift in numbers of births. Her knowledge of the evidence is unsurpassed, and she presents her finding with clarity and insight.

--Kathleen M. Brown, University of Pennsylvania

Susan Klepps brilliant research reveals that an intimate American Revolution lurked under the familiar one, destabilizing old ways and quietly transforming American society in ways that few men understood. She challenges much that we thought we knew; many otherwise admirable books now feel outdated.

--Linda K. Kerber, University of Iowa

Written by one of our most distinguished historians, this marvelous book analyzes the revolution by the women of Americas founding generations to assume greater control over their lives. This shift in consciousness and behavior transformed the new nation every bit as much as did the traditional political revolution.

--Billy G. Smith, Montana State University

Specialists and students alike now have an excellent, strongly argued monograph on long-term fertility decline in the United States that highlights women’s choices. While carefully delineating regional and racial variations in patterns of fertility, Klepp convincingly makes the case that women deliberately limited family size in the name of new ideals about personal autonomy and mutuality in marriage promoted by the American Revolution and evangelical Christianity.

--Toby L. Ditz, The Johns Hopkins University

A remarkably detailed study of childbirth and family planning from the colonial period through the early nineteenth century. . . . Relevant not just to historians but also to those who study current debates.

--American Historical Review

Fascinating. . . . Klepp offers an exciting new interpretation of women in Revolutionary America, and she presents her quantitative and qualitative evidence in an accessible and elegant manner.


Everyone interested in the American revolutionary era, women, and human reproduction will find Revolutionary Conceptions insightful.

--Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

[Readers] will find much of the research fresh and giving much food for thought as we approach discussion of hot issues of our own day.

--Anglican and Episcopalian History

An exciting new interpretation of the radicalism of the American Revolution.

--Early American Literature

The heart of the book . . . focus[es] on cultural reinterpretation of fertility and the technologies of family limitation. Here, Klepp makes her most original contribution and persuasively presents women as a constitutive force in this sea change. . . . Joins a growing body of scholarship in demonstrating that gender conventions were debated and transformed in the age of revolution.

--Journal of American History

Through an exhaustive examination of an enormous variety of qualitative sources . . . Klepp is able to reconstruct important shifts in how people thought about these sensitive issues. . . . Fascinating. . . . A true example of interdisciplinary work at its best—rigorous yet imaginative, nuanced yet sweeping.

--Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Interesting. . . . Demographers have much to gain from reading the work of this investigator.

--Population and Development Review