How the Great Fertility Decline Affected the Lives of Women

A group of settlers in the colony of Jamestown, Virginia, 1609. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Of all the changes to sweep the west over the past 400 years, perhaps none have had a greater impact on women’s lives than the fall in family sizes. Sarah Knott tells the story of the great fertility decline, from the large broods of 17th-century America to the one-children families of postwar London.

Sarah Knott, an associate professor of history at Indiana University, has written an article that examines the changes. She writes:

“How I shall get along when I have got half a dozen or 10 children, I can’t devise,” fretted the New Jersey colonist Esther Edwards Burr after her child’s birth in 1756. Narcissa Whitman, a pioneer in Oregon a century later, might have recognised these concerns. She knew first-hand the consequences of mothering a large brood. “My dear parents,” she wrote in a rare but affectionate missive back to New York in 1845, “I have now a family of 11 children. This makes me feel as if I could not write a letter.”

Modern demographers know that, over the past 400 years, fertility rates have changed significantly in Europe and North America. The numbers dropped dramatically from an average of seven or eight children among settlers in 17th and 18th-century North America, or four or five in Britain, to 2.2 or lower in both places in the 20th century. The demographers culled and amassed their numbers mainly from sources including local censuses, family histories, wills, church records, and then, since the 19th century, from national surveys. They call this remarkable historical transformation the fertility transition.

You can read the full article in the HistoryExtra web site at:

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