Booknotes: Quiverfull

A couple of weeks ago, my own personal copy of Kathryn Joyce's new book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement arrived in the mail -- just when I was looking for one more way to put off doing school-related reading over Simmons' spring break. Joyce's book documents the theology, politics and daily life of families (especially women and girls) who follow the loose collection of conservative ideas that fall under the umbrella of "quiverfull" thinking: a patriarchal family structure that demands wifely submission, opposition to all kinds of family planning, fears of a "demographic winter" for Western nations, home education, and often political alignment with the Christian reconstructionist agenda. Hanna flipped through my copy and asked me how it is I can read books like this and not feel my blood pressure skyrocket. Which challenged me to reflect a little on my addiction to reading books about the intersections of gender, sexuality, politics, home education, and the Christian right. This booknote, therefore, is less of a review and more a motley collection of observations inspired by Joyce's journalism.

I think what I find most absorbing about the Christian right and the way they think about gender, sexuality, and education, is not their strangeness but their familiarity. And I'm not talking about familiarity due to close proximity (although growing up in a very religiously conservative area means I've been exposed to my fair share of right wing bigotry and fear-mongering). No: what I'm talking about is the fact that Christian right's critique of the American mainstream begins with with many of the same critiques of modernity that leftists put forward. Many of the families profiled in Quiverfull are deeply ambivalent about modernity -- about the rise of scientific rationalism at the expense of the irrational and sacred. They critique the way that a capitalist economic system, with its separation work and home spaces (and the resulting age-segregation of children and the elderly -- nonworkers -- from wage-earners).

As a result, they have created a vibrant counter-culture of their own that, as Joyce rightly points out, shares many of the same characteristics of the radical left. Home birth and midwifery activism among Quiverfull families, for example, "overlaps with back-to-the-land hippie counterculture in some ways. It's a deliciously amusing irony to some Quiverfull moms, who stake out their territory of natural pregnancy in the odd company of feminist doulas and naturopaths opposed, as they are, to high rates of hospital cesarean sections" (164). Likewise, the modern home education movement, which began as a form of leftist activism (see: unschooling) has since become an overwhelmingly right-wing phenomenon. So much so that -- although she makes passing mention of this history -- Joyce is comfortable conflating "homeschool" with Christian conservatism throughout most of Quiverfull without specifying that she is, in fact, writing about a very particular subset of the home education population.

In fact, it is precisely the outward similarity of these profiles of radical right and radical left that I find both fascinating and deeply disturbing. For while on the surface quiverfull families and "back-to-the-land hippies" and feminists may make similar lifestyle choices, their reasons for doing so are often diametrically opposed. Whereas leftist, feminist advocates of low-intervention childbirth and home education ground their critique of modernity and counterculture activism in notions of gender equality, democratic social structures, and a commitment to individual human rights, those on the radical right pursue the same forms of activism but root them in notions of gender difference, social structures that unapologetically support the kyriarchy, and the subordination of individual persons to tyrannical group dynamics.

As most of you know, I grew up in a family that was part of the leftist home education tradition. My sibs mixed public schooling with home-based learning, and all of us have gone on to college-level institutional education (and beyond). At the same time, I am firmly committed to the continued legality, and minimal governmental oversight, of home education. In this, like the feminist doulas of Joyce's book, I find myself in the uncomfortable company of groups such as the Home School Legal Defense Association. Because of this, I believe it is my responsibility to take a long, hard look at the beliefs and practices of those whose political and social agenda I (however occasionally) share -- and whose right to continue living as they do I, however abstractly, defend.

Though there was nothing startlingly new to be found in the pages of Quiverfull if you've read other work in this area, Joyce does a thorough survey of the disparate strands of religious and political thinking that inform the movement, and remains sensitive to the nuances of class, race, gender, and theological difference that shape individual experience within it. I also enjoyed discovering that by cultivating close relationships with other women, I am apparently in danger of committing the sin of "spiritual masturbation" (which, sadly, is not nearly as kinky as it sounds).

Now it's back to Carl Rogers' Freedom to Learn (for my seminar paper in Intellectual History) . . . not to mention keeping an eye out for Jessica Valenti's latest, The Purity Myth, and Michelle Goldberg's sure-to-be-absorbing The Means of Reproduction.


  1. Hey, just found you via Rachel at Women's Health News and think I may be your evil twin or something.

    Am I a red haired, Boston-area, recent library school graduate, former lefty-hippie homeschooled kid? Check.

    Also, I mean to read this book one of these days.

    Rock on; you clearly have much going for you. :)

  2. On the other hand, most schools also bring together individuals from different backgrounds, and although the routine clashes based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation can make a mainstream school a shitty place to be, that diversity can also be instructive.

    Well, I'm a red-haired (via henna, not naturally!), Boston-area, semi-hippie... public school graduate.

    My suburban public school was pretty much the exact opposite of the above depiction. My family arrived in town when I was a toddler; that made us newcomers. (Most kids have parents who knew each other back in the day.) As for the town itself: almost 98% Caucasian; a similarly high majority were also Christian. Almost everyone at my school who was African-American was part of the Metco programme.

    One of my friends from law school also grew up in the Boston suburbs. Her teachers were always shocked to find out that, even though she's African-American, her parents were suburban homeowners, not Boston-area parents who enrolled their child in Metco or in-town renters. Diversity? I think not.

    The end of this rant: it always amazes me when people tout "diversity" as a reason to send their kids to public school. Certainly, there are some schools out there with kids from all backgrounds (racial, ethnic, religious, and geographic), but that's only the norm in certain urban areas. Most of the time, shipping your kid off to the local high school will be instructive only in the difference between being fully Irish or part Irish.

    As for the homeschooling moms/ feminism issue: maybe we should talk about feminist decisions in terms of who gets to make them and why they are made (which distinguishes the advancement of one's own values from submission to values that are not one's own).

    The problem of homemaking (or homeschooling) was never that it was per se bad, but it was something that the mother/wife never wanted to do. To give a really horrible analogy (because I can't think up a better one), it's like sexuality: there's nothing per se wrong with sex, but it can be incredibly damaging if it's done for the wrong reasons.

  3. A'Llyn: thanks for the note! I'll look forward to keeping an eye on your blog as well :).

    Bridget: I agree that exposure to other worldviews / ways of life is not necessarily found only through public education -- if it's a value for the family in question, it's possible to find in many different places (and conversely, it it's not desired, you can hide from / ignore it in the most "diverse" of settings!)

    If you get a chance, would you mind citing the quotation at the top of your comment? I don't remember seeing it in the links so I'm wondering where it's from . . .

  4. Anna,

    It's from Learning Curve, http://bitchmagazine.org/article/learning-curve, which you linked to in "diametrically opposed...."

    The line itself is from the fourth-from-the-last paragraph, starting with "Unschoolers."

  5. Thanks Bridget! I couldn't place it. Haven't read that article for a while.

  6. Thanks, Feminist Review, for the link! The one in your comment doesn't actually work (typo of some sort), so for anyone interested you can find the Michelle Goldberg interview here.

  7. As a conservative feminist, I'm fascinated by Michelle's interview, but also see a lot of problems with it, from a lack of understanding of the pro-life movement (even as she advocates for pro-life policies, like ending female foeticide) and mixing up correlation and causation with regards to women, capitalism, and moving countries forward. (In short: capitalism makes it possible for women to succeed, for various pragmatic and philosophical reasons which I'll get into later. Decrying capitalism in the name of feminism is obviously the silliest thing out there - the countries in which women do best, by any measure, are capitalist, and it's no accident.)

    More later.