Over the past several years, journalist and author Kathryn Joyce has been covering right-wing Christian pro-fertility sects in the US. Now she compiles her findings in her new book, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Joyce recently spoke with Matthew Elliot of GlobalComment about the movement, its adherents, and the backlash against feminism, both in broader society and within the Evangelical church itself.
GlobalComment: Would you mind explaining what the ‘Quiverfull’ movement is, and what first got you interested in writing about it?
Kathryn Joyce: Quiverfull is a movement among conservative Christians, largely Protestant homeschoolers, who don’t believe in using any birth control at all, but instead that believers should leave all family planning decisions in the hands of God.
They frequently end up having families of 8, 10, 12 children or more, and follow strict doctrines of wifely submission and male headship.
I became interested in writing about them while researching the phenomenon of pro-life pharmacists refusing to fill birth control prescriptions on “conscientious objection” grounds, and I was surprised to find a wide-ranging and well-organized anti-contraception movement among a non-traditionally anti-contraception population: evangelicals and fundamentalists.
GC: Tell me a bit more about the origins of the term ‘Quiverfull’ — where does the word come from?
KJ: Quiverfull takes its name from Psalm 127, “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They shall not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.” Although the movement likely started with homeschooling leader Mary Pride’s mid-80s book, The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, the name Quiverfull was probably made popular with the publication of Rick and Jan Hess’s book Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ. From there, many followers and groups have used variations on the name, and, following their identification as holders of “full quivers” of children, call those children their “arrows,” sent off to do battle with their enemies.
GC: How politically engaged and active are Quiverfull adherents?
KJ: That’s an interesting question, and it varies. Generally, they are pro-life absolutists, and are frequently very involved in antiabortion politics in a range of ways, and also have deep connections to more mainstream representatives working against contraception access. They have certainly become very involved in local politics in some areas, though they see their most potent impact in reforming the church to become more devout in matters of family planning and gender relations, and tend to see their role as the purifiers of the church at large, and also as a means of growing the church, so that through numbers they will be able to enact their political will on the culture.
GC: One usually thinks of the Catholic church as being particularly rigid on matters of family planning (and, to varying degrees, gender roles). Is there an historical precedent for natalist movements within Protestant denominations, or is this a recent phenomenon? And is the movement limited to the US, or is it expanding globally?
KJ: There’s certainly a history of natalism in different countries and political regimes as well as a number of religions. I think one of the interesting things about Quiverfull and current pro-natalist movements among the American Christian right is the way that it has consciously declared that it should adopt some Catholic teachings on contraception and family planning. Quiverfull is generally an evangelical and fundamentalist movement, but it is very cross-denominational. Some more political advocates, such as the coalition members of the religious right organization World Congress of Families, expressly advocate an ecumenical, interfaith orthodoxy regarding family size and gender roles, attempting to find common ground among pronatalist advocates from all branches of Christianity.
Gender roles, I think are a bit of a different question though, and strict adherence to submission and headship has long been a mark of fundamentalist and evangelical churches. But both this resurgence of patriarchy teachings and the Quiverfull conviction are in large part reactions against what movement members see as the encroachment of feminist ideas into the church.
GC: What are some of the ‘feminist ideas’ within mainstream Evangelical Christianity that Quiverfull adherents specifically object to?
KJ: Several things: acceptance of nontraditional family roles, or the church staying out of family planning decisions; women teaching or leading in church, and especially women’s ordination; acceptance of birth control, and of women working; in some denominations, even women speaking in church at all.
GC: So, on that last point, they take Paul’s declarations about a woman’s place within the church quite seriously.
KJ: Yes, quite.
GC: You’ve written about the role of home schooling in the Quiverfull movement. One of the earliest proponents of home schooling as a Christian alternative to the ‘secular’ public school system was the notorious Christian Reconstructionist RJ Rushdoony. How much of an overlap (if any) is there with Reconstructionist theology and Quiverfull?
There is a heavy Reconstructionist element to a lot of Quiverfull advocacy, with advocates speaking about the generational changes they will bring about through having many children and encouraging their children to do the same. The ideal of an agrarian lifestyle also seems to take some inspiration from Rushdooney’s work, particularly in how he encouraged Christians to get back to the land and to the business of bearing and raising large families.
GC: Getting back to gender roles, with numerous magazine and media appearances, and a reality show, probably the most prominent ambassadors for the Quiverfull movement is the Duggar family. What do you think of the way the Duggars have been profiled within the mainstream media, specifically with regards to the way the media tackles the issue of gender?
KJ: My take on the Duggars is informed by an exited Quiverfull woman, Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff, who said that the Duggars and other families of means are often held aloft as attractive representatives of the movement, but that really, their experience is anomalous. They’re far richer than the average Quiverfull family, many of whom live necessarily simple lives, both as a lifestyle choice and because it’s the only way to stretch limited funds enough to feed and clothe such large families.
I’ve seen a good handful of Duggar shows, but not that many. From what I have seen, it seems like their Quiverfull and patriarchy convictions are mentioned lightly, but never gone into in depth. The show’s producers capture Michelle’s moments of submissive wifehood, but there is little exploration of how far that goes, or how much the daughters will be expected to follow in her footsteps.
It’s not that surprising though; it’s a reality show after all.
GC: You mention the daughters. What are the courtship rites for Quiverfull adherents? Are we talking arranged marriages and dowries?
KJ: Courtship instead of dating seems to be an increasingly popular component of the lifestyle. Courtship in many of these circles involves a young man courting the father of the woman he’s interested in, and proving himself to him before speaking to the daughter about his feelings. There’s a big focus on fathers being the protective covering over their daughters, and when daughters marry, it is explicitly spoken of as a trade-off of ownership: a girl is “owned” – they use the language very bluntly – by her father until she is owned by her husband.
To some degree, these can begin to resemble arranged marriages, with advocates talking about the romance and protection that is afforded a girl whose future is arranged above her head. But most broadly speaking, courtship is the intense involvement of the father in his daughter’s romantic life, and after he gives his approval, a relationship beginning with the express purpose of marriage, not just dating without direction. This is becoming more mainstream, I believe, with tie-ins to abstinence movement developments like purity balls and purity rings, ceremonies, etc.
GC: Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff is one of the more prominent women to abandon the Quiverfull movement. Since leaving Quiverfull she has famously embraced radical (descriptive, not meant in a pejorative sense) feminism. What about some of the other women you’ve spoken to who have escaped the movement–how have they made the transition to ‘normal’ life?
KJ: I’ve spoken to a few women who have left the movement, and uniformly it seems like they had a very difficult time making the transition. Seelhoff was widely denounced and her business was ruined. Another woman I spoke with didn’t leave by choice but was excommunicated from a Quiverfull-promoting church for failure to be submissive enough. Another woman has left with her children and finds herself overwhelmed with the demands of single parenting as the mother of seven. And a friend of hers who left lost physical custody of her children, who are now estranged from their mother and view her as a sinner.
I think a commonality of their experiences is a well-justified fear of the difficulties life as a single mother to many will have for them. Though they’ve worked doggedly at home, they often have no official work history to show for it. Often they won’t have references to speak for them as their communities may shun them. And the financial cost of raising these children by themselves, and navigating either expensive child care options if they can find work, or finding a way to make money if they care for their children at home, is a huge dilemma. Exited women I’ve spoken with say they feel many other women are unhappy, but look at their options outside and decide to stay.
GC: A self-consciously patriarchal backlash against feminism is, as you’ve outlined, a huge part of the Quiverfull lifestyle/ideology. But are there elements of white supremacy within the movement as well? How racially homogeneous is Quiverfull?
KJ: Quiverfull is largely white, but not entirely so. There are families of color within the movement, as well as prominent biracial couples. I think there are racial undertones to a number of aspects of the movement, particularly its preoccupation with demography and population. Similarly, there are questionable ties between some movement leaders and far-right fringe groups that embrace neo-Confederate notions about slavery and race or immigration. Additionally, one movement author, Charles Provan, author of The Bible and Birth Control, was also notably a Holocaust revisionist. And a very popular author and women’s leader, Nancy Campbell, author of Be Fruitful and Multiply and publisher of the long-running Above Rubies magazine, frequently makes a pitch for large families in order to out-breed Muslims.
However, I don’t think that all Quiverfull people are motivated by racist thinking whatsoever, or even that there’s more racism within the movement than in American culture at large, but I do think that there are troubling undertones to a lot of the messages that the leadership of the movement advances, and the way in which they seem to appeal to people’s racial or immigration fears or biases as a third motivation for having large families beyond obedience to God and the idea of Christian dominion through numbers.
GC: What is the Demographic Winter, and what relationship, if any, does it have with Quiverfull?
KJ: Demographic Winter is an argument being advanced by right-wing “pro-family” activists who claim that low fertility and falling birthrates in Europe auger a massive depopulation crisis that threatens the way of life of the white, Christian West. Particularly, they forecast a “death of Europe,” wherein hedonistic, atheistic and gay- and abortion-rights-friendly Europeans will bring about their own extinction by failing to have enough children to keep Muslim and Global South immigration at bay. Though there have been drops in fertility in Europe in recent decades, and it is a topic that numerous other organizations and governments and scientists are examining, the labeling of the phenomenon as a “Demographic Winter” apocalypse by the U.S.-based pro-family movement is a prelude to their offered solution: the revival of large, patriarchal families where the woman is a stay-at-home mother to a full quiver of children, and the father is a benevolent leader of his wife and children. In this way, coalitions like the World Congress of Families have neatly been able to co-opt a population trend, turn it into a crisis, amplify its threat and raise nationalistic support by drawing on centuries-old religious and racial conflicts, and provide the reactionary solution.
GC: What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with your extensive coverage of Quiverfull? Do you think the movement will continue to infiltrate the mainstream, or remain on the fringe?
KJ: I’m a journalist, so I hope to have covered an under-explored subject thoroughly and illustrated why it’s relevant far beyond the fringes of American religion. It’s hard to say whether the movement will continue to grow as it has for the past two decades, but Quiverfull families are certainly enjoying substantial media attention at the moment, and I think it’s crucial to explain that there is a lot more to the movement, theology and lifestyle than often meets the eye.