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Project Proposal

Antebellum U.S. Fertility and Childbearing: The South and the Frontier

Rebecca Edwards (History)

Project Description

We will be analyzing data collected over the past three years, from census and genealogical records, about fertility and family structure in the pre-Civil War South (counties in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia) and in the West (Indiana, Illinois, New Mexico), as well as a control county in the Northeast (upstate New York). The South and West were characterized by extremely high fertility rates; in some areas, a substantial percentage of women had 12 or more children and some bore 18, 20, or more. One in twenty-five adult women--possibly even more--may have died of pregnancy or childbirth-related causes. We will be determining patterns of childbearing among enslaved and free women, correlating family size with such factors as rural and urban location, occupation, literacy, marriage age, and age differential between partners. We will pay special attention to change over time, using five-year cohorts to measure the rise and fall of fertility in different areas, and its contributing causes.

Historians of women have given a great deal of attention to the so-called "fertility transition" in the Northeastern United States, toward use of birth control and limitations on family size, but much less research has been done on the South and West. The Ford project may potentially serve as the basis for a jointly authored article. It will, at the same time, contribute to my broader research on the centrality of childbearing to the United States' construction of a continental empire. I posit that the antebellum United States was a "reproductive regime" in which the political goals of slavery expansion, continental expansion, and dispossession of native peoples all depended on women's intensive childbearing.

Anticipated Project Activities

We will spend part of our time entering and cleaning up data, but the bulk of our energy will be devoted to posing questions and using statistical analysis to try to answer them. We may do Library research in primary and secondary sources to help guide our questions or draw on models from earlier scholarship. Our data analysis will seek to measure and compare the causes and consequences of intensive childbearing among three groups: formerly enslaved women in the South; free women in the South; and free women in the Midwest. Within each group we will explore such factors as economic status, occupation, marriage age, literacy. 

We have an opportunity to go to the Berkshires Conference of Women Historians, which will be held nearby at Hofstra this year, June 1-4. I will be participating in a panel directly relevant to the Ford project and will be going to the Berks for at least two days. The Ford student is welcome to join me and I will encourage them to do so, covering expenses for train fare and dorm space (to stretch Ford's money further, I'm very happy to pay for that out of my Ford honorarium). This is optional but would be a wonderful opportunity for the student to attend a professional conference and learn directly from the community of women's history and women's studies scholars.

Preferred Student Qualifications and Skills

The student must have a strong knowledge of statistics and should have completed at least one statistics course at Vassar. My own statistics skills, held over from graduate school in the early 1990s, are rusty and may be outdated in some areas. I will thus be relying on the student to bring up-to-date statistical knowledge and capability to the project, and to help teach me (or at least remind me!) of those skills. At the same time, I will introduce the student to historical ways of thinking about quantitative data, and of situating them in broader social and political contexts.

No other skills are needed; everything else can be learned on the job.

Anticipated Follow-up Teaching/Professional Activity for Student

If the collaborative partnership works well and the results of our analysis are clear, we will work together on a co-written article about our findings, to be submitted to a journal such as the Journal of Women's History. If their schedule permits, the student will be invited to present results by giving a 30-minute lecture at a class meeting of HIST/WMST 260, "Sex and Reproduction in 19th Century America," in fall 2017. 

Project Location

Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY

Project Duration

Four weeks

Project Start Date

May 30, 2017

Project End Date

June 23, 2017