White American women have never been highly fertile

I was looking around in old Census data the other month and stumbled upon a fairly shocking bit of demographic information–white American women have pretty much always been at the lower end of fertility.  I am defining “American” here as “after 1776”.  They were having only a couple kids per woman way back in the 1840s and such.

Regionalism is part of how the myth of fecund white women oppressed into sterility by “the libs” or “feminism” gained traction.  In a few regions, white women did have huge families, 8-12 kids being quite usual.  However, this was a single-digit percentage of all white women of childbearing age, and this has been the case almost from the very beginnings of America as a nation.  White women in America have always tended towards having relatively few children, long before 1960s or even 1920s feminism.  The Baby Boom years weren’t a bunch of white women feeling free to have five or six kids, they were a bunch of white women *who would have otherwise had none having one* being added to the overall pool of mothers.  This is, needless to say, not part of the conservative happy 50s mythmaking.

American women have frequently throughout American history taken more personal freedom and economic power in exchange for the lack of genuine domestic support, on average.  This is part of how childrearing in America has become so awful and health-damaging for women.  Men bought our great grammas off with “freedom” and this was supposed to compensate for not having a feminine or domestic sphere.  And there’s always been extreme subcultures having huge families to point to, even though they never represented much more than 15-20% of the total population themselves.

But I guess that’s also part of the secret history of domesticity in America–a typical American woman really wasn’t raising six kids alone while her husband worked all day or was gone for months.  She was about as likely to be raising one or two in 1870 as 1970, which explains quite a bit.


6 thoughts on “White American women have never been highly fertile

  1. Many people’s idealized image of the past is more based off the best 10% than the worst and their image of hardship in the past is more based off the worst 10% than the best.

    So everyone thinks, for example, the 1300s were a great time to be a noble and the 1700s were a great time to be a working American landowner, but the 1300s were the worst time ever to be a housemaid and the 1700s were an awful time to be an American black woman. Yes, that’s probably a reflection of the scale (nobles tended to lead better lives than their servants, landowners than a population associated with slavery), but people are very quick to idealize and ignore the rampant disease, war and treachery among the 1300s nobles that shortened their lives, or the British pressure, poor family lives and ridiculous taxes that affected all but the wealthiest landowners in 1700. Likewise, they are very quick to be underwhelmed by the lives of servants and black slave women, even though the alternatives at the time (toiling the fields, risking various diseases and starving; famine through colonialism, dying on the middle passage or being abused in South American plantations, respectively) were far worse than the typical servant’s life in 1300 or black woman’s life in 1700.

    People like Utopias and Dystopias. The idea that life was merely a little freer, a lot shorter and a little shoddier in 1300 compared to today isn’t quite enough to feed our hunger for fantastic adventures.

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  2. I’m guessing that a lot of us kicking around today have at least one of those huge families in the family tree somewhere and that probably shades people’s impressions more than the actual data. Useless personal factoid: one of my great-grandmas had 13 kids on an Oklahoma farm, nine of whom survived to adulthood. That, of course, sticks in my memory, but I couldn’t tell you without digging out the old family Bible how many the other sets of great-grandparents had, except that it wasn’t 13 or anywhere close. And of course this is to say nothing of how many people had no children and thus don’t figure that much in the old family Bibles.

    Personal freedom and economic power both sound pretty good to me though! What’s the alternative, pinching pennies at home and alternately sucking up to/shanking your provider while hassling your adult kids and random people on the internet? Craziness. I’m not naming any names, but it’s like, whoo– if that’s a portal into my future I need a job like, yesterday.

    Personally, I just came home because infant daycare is insanely expensive, and my husband worked erratic and insane hours in various locations with no family backstop around. But now that the youngest is five and the family more settled I’m like… mission accomplished!

    *awards self Maternal Participation Trophy*

    My youngest starts daycare tomorrow and I’m so excited I’m fixing to hyperventilate.


  3. Ceebarks is right. My g’g’gma was one of a dozen or more… (well, her mom died after the first dozen, then g’g’g’gpa took a second wife). She had four kids, although that probably has a lot to do with how old g’gpa was when they married.

    But most of my family tree is four-six kids. One crazy fertile set in the family changes the “we used to do this” view and makes you think everyone did that, and mostly you didn’t.

    From my reading of fiction of that era, it wasn’t seen as the most charitable thing you could do to your wife, knock her up that often.


    • My husband comes from a subculture where it’s still not seen as charitable to constantly knock up your wife. In that subculture, women are the ones who set how many kids the couple has, since she’s the one who has to be pregnant and is the one expected to stay home with them at least until they are school aged.


  4. Average Amish family had nine kids, so I read in a book on the Amish from the sixties.

    I’d guess that Rh disease was a major factor in limiting family sizes in my family tree, into the 20th century.


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