Breaking the mold: evolution of family ideals

by Kaitlin Pendagast

If one were to contemplate the topic of family planning in America, the pre-Revolutionary War time period of the 1760s may not likely come to mind. But the 18th annual Levine History Lecture, “Women, the Revolution and Family Planning,” presented by Temple University historian and author Dr. Susan Klepp, centered precisely upon this. The lecture was held Thursday, April 22.

Klepp’s lecture was based on her book, Revolutionary Conceptions, in which Klepp investigates the correlation between the growth of revolutionary ideas, such as independence, natural rights and individual autonomy, and the growth of attitudes in favor of family planning. Birth rates in America, she pointed out, peaked in the 1760s and have since fallen consistently, with the exception of the baby boom.

Klepp examined how during the colonial era, birth rates were extremely high, averaging around nine children per family.

“Colonists promoted a high fertility regime,” she said.

Large families were favored during this time for a variety of reasons, one of the major ones being the belief that children were sources of wealth and free labor. Children were born primarily to serve their parents. Patriarchal attitudes were exceptionally prolific during the colonial times, Klepp said.

Though large families were valued, Klepp emphasized that not all children were considered equally valuable. Both women and men during the colonial period favored sons over daughters, giving their sons more food and clothes and a better education than their daughters. It was not uncommon for fathers to forget to account for their daughters in censuses, Klepp added. Firstborn sons were also viewed to be of greater importance than younger children, both male and female.
Colonial women derived pride from bearing as many sons as possible. Despite the fact that women oftentimes suffered from vitamin deficiencies, miscarriages, the delivery of sickly infants or stillborns, and death because of so many pregnancies, childbirth was still their utmost ambition.

Men too gained fame for fathering many children, particularly sons. This was a source of pride and competition among them. Fertility was even important for excelling in politics for men, Klepp added.

“Procreation towered above all other achievements,” Klepp said.

During the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary time period, attitudes about family size and preference for males over females began to change. Although few women urged for or could even imagine equal rights for their sex, voices calling for women’s rights to exercise control over how their bodies were used became much more prominent, Klepp said.

Preference for male children over female children eventually became less acceptable. Along with these many attitude changes came the idea that limitations ought to be set on procreation. The colonial average of nine children per family dropped to five by 1850 and then to 3.5 by 1900. This drop in birthrates led to the enactment of the Comstock Laws, making contraceptive sale and usage illegal during the immigration era for fear that the “white Protestant population would be out-bred,” Klepp said.

Despite these laws, Klepp pointed out, birth rates continued to fall. In response to these Comstock Laws, Margaret Sanger founded the birth-control movement in America in the early 1900s, which spoke out against them. This movement later evolved into Planned Parenthood of America.

Klepp examined in detail how family planning in America and women’s freedom of choice in such matters traces its roots back to Revolutionary times. This family planning revolution, started by women, Klepp added, is “not yet over.”

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