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.