Full of Quivers After Reading Quiverfull

Remember all those times I swore I had left the nineteenth century behind?  Well, if you look at a calendar, we’re sitting in the 21st century in Quiverfull, but most of the time it feels like the nineteenth (or maybe even the seventeenth).

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce is a gripping and horrendous outsider approach to the complementarian evangelical Protestant church — a world in which I sometimes occupy space.  Joyce approaches Christian patriarchy with an investigative eye, but she warns in the introduction that she’s interested in extremists and fundamentalists.  This book is by no means representative of the whole; rather, it is an exploration of a small subset within Christianity.  That being said, to my own personal chagrin, I was disturbed by how much seemingly neutral Christian culture that I grew up with made it into the book.  At one point, Joyce even mentions a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church.

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Quiverfull, by Kathryn Joyce

Joyce herself is not a Christian, but she is fluent enough in “Christianese” to both communicate with her contacts and to convey their stories to people outside of evangelical Protestantism.  At times, she is too quick to boil everything down to five-point Calvinism, perhaps because John Piper and Wayne Grudem of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (and editors of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism) are themselves five-point Calvinists.  There are Calvinists who are egalitarian (like myself, hovering between three and four points of agreement usually) and there are Arminians who are complementarian.  Other than discussing the five basic tenants of Calvinism and the doctrines regarding men and women, Joyce avoids theology and never blames Christianity itself (or Jesus, for that matter) for the injustices of the complementarian church.

The book is divided up into three sections, WivesMothers and Daughters.  Joyce works through the flagship Bible verses defending complementarian hierarchy while simultaneously telling the stories of women within the confines of the patriarchy movement.  The wives either meet with each other for weekend retreats where their male pastor has to supervise their activities or they contribute food to potluck lunches or they keep quietly to themselves at home.  In some of the extreme churches that Joyce visits, women are discouraged from having any relationships with other women.  Female friendship leads to gossip, nagging, discontent — the women must be available for their husbands at all times, and the husbands alone are to provide for their wives’ emotional needs.  This kind of power monopoly, instead of leading to the healthy lives that the CBMW proposes, damages subjugated women psychologically.  Isolation, defined as controlling what you do, who you see and talk to, where you go, limiting your outside involvement; using jealousy to justify actions, and sabotaging new and old relationships, is considered a type of abuse.  In these patriarchal churches, men are admonished to treat their wives exactly like that.

With power comes the abuse of power, and Joyce gives several examples of places where psychological abuse becomes physical.  The church tells women that their duty as Christians is to be sexually chaste until marriage, but then suddenly sexually available whenever their husband desires sex (whether or not she wants it).  Wives in some of these patriarchal communities become the victims of spousal abuse, marital rape and murder plots.  Going to the church instead of to law enforcement, they are asked about whether or not they have been nagging their husbands, or if they were being as submissive as they could be.  In one of Grudem’s essays in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (because I own a copy of this book), he provides a list of things that submission shouldn’t be, and these abuses are considered wrong in theory.  But in practice, the submission preached by the extremist complementarians is dangerous.

This book is not really a response to anything.  The CBE's affiliated work came after.

This book is not really a response to anything. The Christians for Biblical Equality‘s affiliated work came after.

The mothers and daughters in this patriarchal world fare no better than wives, and most women are expected to fulfill all three roles at the same time.  Daughters must remain faithful to their fathers until they marry, usually at an early age after a courting period instead of dating.  New wives must be sexually available to their husbands, and birth control is considered evil.  Thus, wives become mothers quickly and over and over again.  This constant pregnancy has become a part of the complementarian system.  Good Christian families must have many children, a full quiver of them, as prolonged spiritual warfare.  Because naturally, if you are a part of the elect chosen ones of God, then your offspring, and their offspring, and their offspring, will all be valiant Christian soldiers as well (because salvation by faith is not, you know, an individual choice or anything, right?  I guess not, if you’re a hyper-Calvinist).

So why did I bring up the nineteenth century at the beginning of this post?  Because extreme complementarianism, as it is being practiced in the United States, is like a photoshopped version of the nineteenth century.  Men and women are in separate spheres.  Men lead public lives, women lead private ones.  Nuclear family is the key building block of society.  Young men and women seek parental approval to court one another (and of course are not having sex until marriage).  In some of the communities, strong and intimate female friendships exist and are reinforced by women’s retreats and same-sex Bible studies.  They believe that men should be paid a “family wage” to support their whole family, while women should be paid much less, because her income does not contribute to the family.  A real woman should not work at all.  Some of the male leaders of the extreme complementarian churches Joyce researches in Quiverfull actively pursue recreation of the past, including the Jamestown settlement, as a part of God’s mandate to take dominion over the earth.  These same men wish that the technological advances of the forties and the fifties, like laundry machines and dishwashers, had never been invented.  The fanciful obsession with nineteenth century life, in this airbrushed form, becomes an oppressive way of life defended as biblical (despite some glaring misinterpretations and a rejection of large portions of Old Testament scripture.  Deborah, anyone?).

Quiverfull is a fantastic book.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the theological debate over manhood and womanhood, and to anyone — especially Christians — who is interested in the way our society works.

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Cultish True Women (and everybody else)

The early nineteenth century came with the True Woman, and she had a cult.  True Womanhood was the epitome of female success: complete devotion to keeping house, child rearing and deference to a husband’s will.  A True Woman was apolitical, soft and demure.  By no means was she a public figure, she never worked a paying job, she would not be seen at the theatre.  She was religious, moral, not intellectual.  A True Woman stayed in the home (even during parades).

Given these distinguishers, most nineteenth century women were not True Women.  Black women were not True Women.  Native American women were not True Women.  Working women, whether they were mill girls or teachers or thespians, were not True Women.  Single women were not True Women.  Widows were not True Women.  Only the upper middle class housewife could fully succeed in True Womanhood, so why did so many other women who could never fit the bill buy into this definition of womanhood?

Class distinctions and race distinctions sharply divided Jacksonian America, and the upper middle class became the ideal towards which all lower classes strove.  However, instead of the class gap shrinking, it widened with the early stages of industrialism.  And as the class gap widened, the sex gap widened as well.  This was the era of the “separate sphere” — when men and women lived almost completely separate lives.  The male sphere was in the public: church, professions, politics.  The female sphere was in the home.  A good woman, a true woman stuck to her sphere.

True Womanhood was a craze that spread like wildfire, eaten up by the masses and propagated by publications like Godey’s Lady’s Book.  The widely popular magazine edited by Sarah Hale lectured women on the importance of the home and fashion.  Sarah Hale, a widow and working woman who reached national fame with Godey’s Lady’s Book, throughout her career expressed a desire to be a proper housewife but was unable to do so because of her five children and deceased husband.  Sarah Hale, she made herself clear, was the exception to the rule.

Sarah Hale wore black every day of her life after her husband died, wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and campaigned for Thanksgiving to be a national holiday.

To say Godey’s Lady’s Book was popular would be an understatement.  Sarah Hale was the Helen Gurley Brown of her day, and Godey’s Lady’s Book was the Cosmopolitan.  In 1860, the publication reached 160,000 subscribers.  The magazine, complete with full color fashion plates and directions on how to make wax fruit, instructed women on how to be women.

The employed woman bought Godey’s Lady’s Book, as did the upper middle class housewife.  The book became a cultural normalizer for separate spheres.  For the upper middle class woman, the book was practical advice on how to run her home.  For the lower class mill girl, the book showed glimpses of a glamorous life of ease that was unattainable and yet desired.

If True Womanhood was the desired life of the masses, then their actual lives were much different.  Lower class women worked, and they worked for wages that were considerably lower than their male counterparts.  Jobs available to women included exhausting factory work, exhausting teaching careers, exhausting domestic work, and the ever frowned-upon actress.  Acting allowed for greater independence and a higher likelihood to a fair wage, but carried with it the social stigma of loose sexuality.  Factory work, a relatively new profession, quickly became dominated by women (in 1828, nine out of ten textile workers in New England were female).

GLB employed bunches of women (who worked from home) to color in the fashion plates.

Lower class women pursued factory jobs because they needed the money; they were hired so that men would not be wasted on such trivial work.  Most working women were single, and their jobs were considered temporary situations until marriage, so naturally some mill girls found the independence of working delightful.  However, the cheap labor of women became even cheaper as factories decreased pay and increased hours.  Working women like Mary Paul, who started working at the Lowell mills in Massachusetts when she was sixteen, saw the devolution of working conditions first hand.  At the start of her career, she gladly promoted her workplace to other women, but within a few years she complained of being overworked and underpayed.

Of course, the mill girls all read Godey’s Lady’s Book.