I’ve been excited about Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull ever since her first piece on the topic debuted on Alternet in 2006 (read it here). So I am, of course, beyond excited that Kathryn is reading for us on our March 31st Super Feminist Powerhouse Reading (I just made that name up, but I think you will agree that it is totally true!), along with Michelle Goldberg and Jennifer Baumgardner, supporting the New York Abortion Access Fund.
Kathryn’s book has been praised all over the place, by Barbara Ehrenreich, Bitch Magazine, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, the American Prospect, Ms., Buzz Flash, and BUST, among many other publications as a serious and thoughtful look at a lifestyle most of us can’t even begin to imagine (for the full run-down on people loving Quiverfull, look here). Quiverfull takes us deep into the emerging world of the Christian patriarchal counterculture, and in the interview below, Kathryn takes us into her own motivation for writing about the Quiverfull movement, why progressives shouldn’t just brush it off, and why TV shows like “17 Kids and Counting” are not quite the harmless fun TLC would like you to believe they are.
OM: What drew you to the Christian patriarchy movement as a topic to write about, and why do you think it’s important for progressives to be aware of and understand this particular movement?
Kathryn Joyce: I first came across the Quiverfull movement while researching the anti-contraception movement among pro-life pharmacists claiming “conscientious objections” to dispensing birth control. I had been unaware of anti-abortion claims that birth control functions as abortion, and hadn’t known that opposition to contraception had become an important issue among Protestants and evangelicals in addition to traditional opponents among Catholic and LDS churches. Looking into some of the groups that were supportive of the pharmacists’ movement though, I came across a surprisingly well-organized coalition of evangelical anti-contraception groups, some of whom were arguing that Christians should leave their family size and spacing in the hands of God. As I began to read a number of books that shaped the community and conviction, particularly early movement texts like Mary Pride’s The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, and Rick and Jan Hess’s Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ, I began to see a vehement anti-feminism and another, startling motivation for large Christian families as well, as the Quiverfull authors told readers that by having very large families, and teaching their children to do the same, they could win the culture wars through numbers alone.
I think Quiverfull is most a topic of worry for progressives not for these sorts of demographic dreams of takeover, but for its represenation of a purist edge of the anticontraception and antifeminist movement that exists across the conservative Christian spectrum.
OM: The Quiverfull movement is still fairly young–where do you feel like it is going to go from here? Do you think it has the capacity to become much larger than it is now?
Kathryn: The Quiverfull movement began in earnest less than 30 years ago, and many of the first generation of children are now becoming adults. While not all stay in the faith, a number do, and are starting to pass on their message. But in general, I don’t the movement will grow significantly in its absolutist form. Where there is significant potential/threat for growth is through more watered-down versions of the same arguments: against contraception, against women’s and gay rights, for the necessity of women having moderately larger families, of 3-4 each, and justifications for nations or religious authorities further involving themselves in reproductive choices on demographic grounds. I think this sort of spread is also most visible, and the most immediate threat, in more mainstream evangelical churches, where complementarian theology and prontalism are on the rise.
OM: There’s been a noticeable media obsession with very large families in the past few years, especially on reality TV, where shows like TLC’s “17 Kids and Counting” feature actual Quiverfull families. What do you think of the media’s treatment of this phenomenon? Do you think the way its played for laughs or melodrama on these shows makes the movement seem more innocuous–less like an oppressive religious system and more like a funny quirk?
Kathryn: Absolutely. In the episodes of the Duggar show that I’ve seen, the focus has been by and large on the novel details of large family life: the many loads of laundry, gallons of milk, car seats and funny 15-people vans. Related shows, like the Kids by the Dozen specials, likewise seem to center around large-family hijinks, like planning huge birthday parties. While this makes the families relatable in ways that are surely accurate, it leaves little room for honesty about the serious and unfunny convictions that drive them. Principles of the movement, like submission to husbands and fathers, an attitude of radical obedience to God and the authorities he puts over you, the anti-dating courtship conviction, and the true nature of Quiverfull mothers’ ongoing and often frightening leaps of biological faith don’t come across on the small screen, at least not as represented by a family with an exponentially higher income than most Quiverfull families and significant cultural and political power. Making these choices looks a lot different in the real world.