The patriarchy movement is part of a widespread evangelical movement
promoting male headship and wifely submission. Quiverfull, a
sub-movement within the patriarchy movement, promotes the idea that
couples should have as many children as possible to be soldiers of God. Journalist Kathryn Joyce recently published Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. She spoke to RH Reality Check’s Laura Janoff about the book.
RH Reality Check: How does the patriarchy movement define itself? How is it different from other conservative Evangelical movements?
Kathryn Joyce: It is important to note that the term "patriarchy movement" is the self-described term of the movement; this is not terminology I’m putting on them. They are proudly reclaiming the title, saying…"patriarchy is a good model for family structure so we shouldn’t be ashamed of that." Like other fundamentalist movements it’s not necessarily something that’s old and traditional but more a reaction against modern developments. They focus explicitly on opposition to feminist standards and feminist beliefs. They deliberately tweak feminist truisms or feminist titles of books, like Our Bodies, Ourselves, and say, "Our bodies are not ourselves"– our bodies belong to God. A woman’s calling in life is not to decide for herself; her highest calling is to be a submissive wife and mother. So in essence it’s an anti-feminist movement. I think that is almost as strong a motivation or as strong a deciding factor in the movement as scripture itself. It’s a concerted effort to get rid of feminism from the Evangelical church.
RH Reality Check: The patriarchy movement has a very specific, rigid idea of what a family should look like. Can you describe this ideal family?
KJ: Their definition of a family includes the bread-winning patriarchal father and a submissive stay-at-home mother who sees her highest role as bearing, as they say, a whole quiver of children. Her job is to raise children in what is most likely a home-schooling environment where they can control the morals and education of the children a little more tightly and raise them to understand that this is their highest calling as well.
RH Reality Check: Your book was written with the complete objectivity of a reporter all the way through. No matter how horrifying the topic you were writing about, and there were many, only once or twice did you personally comment. Why did you choose to write it this way?
KJ: I think it’s important in the early stage of talking about a movement to allow them to speak about it themselves and show the full range of the belief systems, so that you’re not just giving a representation like you might see on reality TV -"isn’t this a fun, fantastic adventure of a large family" or something that you might read in a non-investigatory kind of piece where you’re just crudely speaking about the reproductive feats of these women. I don’t think that that really adds a lot to the conversation. I think it’s more interesting to look at where their ideas actually come from.
RH Reality Check: The Internet is a constant presence in your book. Can you explain why and how the movement uses it to its advantage?
KJ: It’s a hugely Internet-based movement. That’s kind of a truism about a lot of fundamentalists and conservatives, that they have really embraced the modernism of technology as they distrust and fight against modern ideas of values, cultural mores and all of that. They have a vibrant and large Internet presence. They have various blogs and offer websites with names like Ladies Against Feminism or Virtuous Daughters. It’s a natural evolution because when this movement started in the mid-eighties, the religious right had a number of publications, publishers, and news sources that formed a real alternative to secular new sources, so they really already had in place a lot of ways of advancing their ideas outside of the mainstream. They were publishing lots of magazines about things like leaving all family planning decisions up to God, and, after that, here’s how you deal with a family of 11 children, here’s how you cook for them on a monthly basis, etc. So the foundation was already in place for this to be a huge community on the Internet, and I think the Internet has just kind of exploded in that way for them. It’s made it easy for members of the movement to keep connected across big distances; it is not something that is taught through the Church but is rather grassroots strategies adopted by members and then spread around to their existing religious communities, their home school communities. It’s been a real boon for them.
RH Reality Check: The Internet also allows women to be leaders, writing blogs and running websites with huge followings. Why is this allowed when women are supposed to have no role but to be submissive and often cannot even talk in church?
KJ: They say it’s okay for women to be teaching other women, a role that follows the biblical model of Titus II, which is that older women should be teaching younger women how to be proper, chaste, and modest wives and Christian women. They tend to say as long as it’s not interfering with your household duties, it’s OK. Realistically of course, this mirrors what has traditionally been the case among conservative leading ladies who make a career out of telling other women not to have careers, from Phyllis Schlafly on down. This is a way for conservative women to shine when otherwise a lot of options for self-fulfillment or having a having a public persona or expressing their ambitions are denied to them. They’ve already signed on to fill this kind of role but these women are intensely intelligent and ambitious and this is a way for them to fulfill that in a way that they feel is biblically consistent.
RH Reality Check: It still seems hypocritical to allow women any kind of leadership position in the context of this movement.
KJ: You’ll remember there was a similar question around whether or not it was acceptable for Sarah Palin to be running for office when most of the churches that supported her and the church she came from would not allow her to be speaking in church. And a lot of conservative male theologians came out, the very ones who were supporting biblical womanhood and wifely submission, saying, it’s okay, as long as she clears it with her husband, because what she’s offering is political leadership and not spiritual leadership. I don’t think they were being all that genuine, but they were saying in the case of Sarah Palin that she was qualified, there’s no biblical injunction against her being a political leader, the Bible just says that she’s not allowed to teach spirituality. But I think a lot of the more strict patriarchy supporters had an issue with that, saying why is she going to do this when her highest role as a woman is as a wife and mother?
RH Reality Check: All the people in the book are white, but are there any people of color in either the patriarchy movement or the Quiverfull movement?
KJ: I’ll deal with Quiverfull first. Yes, there are. But it’s predominantly a white movement, I think far and a way a white movement. There is a lot of unspoken racial undercurrent to the arguments they make, the way I see it, when they talk about population decline in Europe, and they talk about it constantly as a justification for having so many children, and they’ll switch seamlessly from "this is what God requires of us" to "don’t you know that the West and Europe are dying and having to import huge numbers of immigrants from the Global South or from Muslim countries because they’re failing to have enough children." The argument slides in a utilitarian direction and they start talking about these immigration concerns in Europe. So I think that there is a big undercurrent to this that would likely alienate a lot of people of color that might otherwise have joined otherwise, but it is in fact a largely white movement.
The patriarchy movement, that’s a little harder to define, because complementarianism, or the ideas of wifely submission and male headship, is a much broader and more mainstream ideology than Quiverfull. It certainly encompasses huge numbers of Black Churches or churches with large African-American populations, and also to a certain degree predominantly Latino churches.
RH Reality Check: There’s a story in the book about a family that adopts a black baby. It is unusual for white families to adopt black babies in the US, so it seems even stranger in the context of a movement with white supremacist tendencies. Can you talk about that?
KJ: I should clarify, I don’t think the laity of the movement or the followers of the movement are necessarily driven by ideas of white supremacy. I think it’s an undertone in the way the leaders think about it. I think there’s not that big of a tension in adopting children, it’s more an idea of having lots of children in order to pass on these ideals. I don’t think–particularly with the family I know personally and consider to be friends–that they express ideas of racial supremacy whatsoever. And I don’t think that that is what drives most of the members of the movement. I want to make that really clear. I just think it’s an undertone that the leadership feeds upon.
RH Reality Check: Even though the patriarchy is a small fringe movement, its ideas seem to be slowly creeping into mainstream society. How and where is that happening?
KJ: There is a trickle-down effect of these ideas. Women in general won’t start having 18 children, but when the World Congress of Families goes to Europe they’re not asking them to have 18 children, they’re telling them that every woman in the country should have 3 or 4, which seems like a lot more reasonable number. They’re also promoting efforts that institute the ideas of the patriarchy movement legally, such as a family wage law, which would re-legalize pay discrimination between women and men on the grounds that men should be supporting their families and women are just working for extra. These are things that don’t have huge chances of [becoming law] any time soon. But also these ideas are being picked up by more mainstream denominations, like the Southern Baptist Convention, which is huge, 16 million members, and in recent years they’ve started saying things like deliberate childlessness among Christian couples is not an option, it’s more a rebellion against God. And they’ve certainly been at the forefront of promoting the complementarian idea of wifely submission to male headship.
RH Reality Check: What concerns you most about this movement?
KJ: There’s always a possibility that Nancy Campbell and Vision Forum founder Doug Phillips will be proved right, in that by having 8 children and having their children have 8 children they will in two generations take over the country. But far more concerning to me is that on the way the way to that goal they are convincing a lot of women to lead lives that are really harsh. When women leave this movement they describe it as involving near slavery levels of labor that they’re expected to do, and standards for being the perfect mother and wife that they can never attain with the amount of time they have to spend on childcare. [There is] a brutalizing aspect of being constantly in submission to your husband or to your father. So I think what happens to women living under this lifestyle is a lot more disturbing than any of their demographic dreams.