The Rise of Biblical Womanhood
Last October the cable network TLC began airing a new reality series, “17 Kids and Counting.” The show chronicles the domestic life of Bob and Michelle Duggar of Tontitown, Arkansas, and their ten boys and eight girls, whose names all begin with the letter J. The Duggars were famous even before the premiere of their series; their ever-growing family has been featured on the Today Show, the Early Show, CNN, and People magazine. Should there be a second season of the TLC series the name will have to change: the Duggars recently welcomed their 18th child, Jordyn-Grace Makiya. Bob Duggar told reporters, “We would both love to have more.”
What the warm and fuzzy human interest stories about the Duggars’ very large family have failed to note is the broader political and social context in which it plays out. The Duggars—Jinger, Josiah, Jedidiah and the rest—are the most visible faces of the “Quiverfull” phenomenon, a largely neo-Calvinist subgroup of evangelical Protestantism that rejects all forms of contraception, even non-barrier methods like natural family planning. The driving philosophy behind Quiverfull’s procreative mission is women’s self-abnegation: women must submit to the “headship” of their husbands, who are the corporal representation of God. Submission to God and husband entails bearing as many children as possible and conceding any and all decision making rights to her spouse.
There has been little study of this tiny but growing pronatalist movement, but with Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarch Movement, we now have an excellent resource. Joyce tracks Quiverfull’s genesis and doctrinal roots to untangle the various strands of this complex patriarchal movement and explain why, in the 21st century, a group that eschews modernity and individualism is gaining ground and adherents.
Much has already been written about patriarchal movements, from the Promise Keepers to Jon Krakauer’s bestselling nonfictional account of polygamist fundamentalist Mormons. What is overlooked is the question of what motivates women to willingly participate in movements that require their total submission to men and accompanying loss of autonomy.
Joyce has done some hard reporting to answer these questions: embedding herself within several Quiverfull factions, attending their conferences, and in some cases befriending these women. One such woman even named her sixth child after Joyce.
The result is more a work of anthropology than political tract. Joyce is a reporter; she rarely casts judgment on her subjects, even when encountering women like Debi Pearl, cofounder with her husband Michael of the No Greater Joy ministry in Pleasantville, Tennessee, who believes that “God grants the marriage partner full access to his spouse’s body for sexual gratifications,” because sex is “a selfless act of benevolence…She [the wife] need only seek to fulfill her husband’s needs.” (p. 79)
So what drives women to join the Quiverfull movement? Joyce suggests that the Quiverfull lifestyle offers an antidote to feminism, which conservative Christians blame for the decline of morality, family, and the role of women within marriage. Joyce cites many sources, across several denominations, to support this thesis, and singles out the mentoring ministry, “Titus 2,” as forming much of the basis of Quiverfull’s theology. Titus 2, named after Paul the Apostle’s teachings to his disciple Titus, Joyce writes, “is dedicated to rediscovering the lost arts not just of motherhood but of cleaning, cooking, homeschooling, and particularly, submitting in wifehood.” (p. 45)
Submission to God and husband entails bearing as many children as possible and conceding any and all decision making rights to her spouse.
But Quiverfull, as Joyce goes on to explain, isn’t simply about reclaiming housekeeping and mothering skills, forgotten once feminists dropped their kids off at daycare and marched on to work; it’s about women as the keystone to the family and ultimately to salvation. Joyce’s main point is that what makes Quiverfull attractive is that women gain a sense of control through their submission.
It’s twisted logic, really. Wives must follow the dictates of “Biblical motherhood,” which relegates them to a secondary role in their marriage, yet they are ultimately responsible for the failures or successes of their husband and their partnership. For example, if a man cheats on his wife it’s not actually his fault but rather his wife’s for not being sexually available. Or if a wife nags too much and demands too much of her husband forcing him to leave, well, that’s her fault too.
In order to rein in a woman’s natural “impulses” (i.e. gossiping, nagging, getting angry, and complaining about your husband) some Titus 2 ministries instruct women to limit their talking and to stay away from socializing with other women or even with women’s church groups. This is classic cult isolation tactics but Joyce is too respectful to name it as such. Ironically, it’s the trust that Joyce builds with her subjects that gives her entrée into the movement. With this nuanced view comes the understanding that Quiverfull women are hardly Stepford Wives. Traci Knoppe, a Quiverfull disciple and developer of a Titus 2 ministry says, “We’re equally intelligent and capable of doing the things that men do, but that doesn’t mean we have to or that we should.”
Quiverfull takes its name from Psalm 127:3-5 of the Old Testament which promotes the teachings be fruitful and multiply. And aptly enough, it only refers to the glory of men.
Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.
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