Biblical Womanhood


Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement
By Kathryn Joyce
Boston: Beacon Press, 2009, 315 pp., $25.95, hardcover

Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics
By Ronnee Schreiber
New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 192 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Abby Scher

During the 2008 campaign, Doug Phillips, the leader of the conservative Christian home-schooling ministry Vision Forum, opposed Sarah Palin’s vice presidential candidacy on the grounds that God did not mean for women to lord over men or depart from being “keepers of the home.” Phillips called Palin’s selection “the single most dangerous event in the conscience of the Christian community in the last ten years.”

In Quiverfull, journalist Kathryn Joyce examines Phillips’s ministry and the sliver of the Christian Right that promotes “biblical womanhood”—women’s theologically grounded submission to men within the family and beyond. The name “quiverfull” refers to Psalm 127: “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them”—a quotation popularized in a 1989 book by Rick and Jan Hess, A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ. Embracing the Hesses’ ideology in an explicit reaction to feminism, this movement of fundamentalists and other conservative Christians wishes literally to give birth to a new army of God. Quiverfull women are not to work outside the home; they are to submit to their husbands, even when they believe they are wrong; they are to dress modestly, so as not to incite men’s lust; and they are to produce as many babies as they can.

“The Bible says that man is not made for the woman but the woman is made for the man. If you have a problem with that, take it up with the Creator,” Joyce quotes Phillips as saying. His Vision Forum even encourages women not to vote. (A large number of military families, she notes, are attracted to the stern patriarchy of his Texas church.) Joyce goes on to explain that, for Quiverfull,

[w]omen’s attempts to control their own bodies—the Lord’s temple—are [seen as] a seizure of divine power…Quiverfull women are more than mothers. They’re domestic warriors in the battle against what they see as forty years of destruction wrought by women’s liberation: contraception, women’s careers, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and child abuse, in that order.

Scholars such as Kathleen Blee, who has written about the women of the Ku Klux Klan, and Barbara Brasher, who has studied the women of fundamentalist churches, often try to understand how their subjects are empowered by their movements, despite ideologies that promote men’s power over women. In Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power (1998) Brasher, for instance, sees her churchwomen as embarked on a search for meaning, asserting spiritual values as opposed to materialism to create order in a world that they experienced before their conversions as one of chaos. Their practice promotes their power, she says, since they control sex-segregated institutions within the church. In this context, Brasher speculates, fundamentalist ministers’ “dominant teaching on sex roles...should be considered a rhetorical effort to sway the behavior of highly independent, diverse congregations rather than a description of or prescription for authority and power patterns.” (For more on Brasher, see my review “Political Chapter, Bible Verse,”.)

Similarly, Blee underscores the power generated in the Klanswomen’s white identity by their racism: as white women, they are not victims. As Julie V. Gottlieb writes so succinctly in Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain’s Fascist Movement, 1923 – 1945 (2001): “Their inclusion in the category of perpetrator is part and parcel of their agency.”

Unlike Blee or Brasher, however, Joyce does not find much empowerment among the women who embrace this new patriarchy. Instead, she says, they adopted fundamentalist and other conservative Christian worldviews in the wake of uncertainty. Although religious beliefs provide the momentum for the movement, the insiders Joyce quotes illuminate other economic and social motivators as well. A rebellious woman shunned by her Texas church who wants to remain in the fold says, “[W]omen are frustrated about men abdicating their roles; they didn’t lead, they didn’t show Christ’s love for their wives. Patriarchy provides that.” If you submit, you are cared for. Another insider, homeschooling leader Mary Pride, says that feminism made women into wage slaves, when they should be slaves to God. As Joyce explains,

For many Quiverfull mothers, this struggle [of caring for a 10-person family] is still preferable to the alternatives they see society offering to women of their class… for poorer women, the feminist fight for job equality won them no career path but the right to pink-collar labor...The sexual revolution brought them not self-exploration and fulfillment, but rather loosened the social restraints that bound men to the household as husbands and fathers.

Much of the theological power of the movement comes from neo-Calvinists operating through pronatalist and homeschooling networks—so-called “Reconstructionists” who despise “lax” megachurch evangelicals as “focused more on self-affirmation than sin and salvation.” They find common cause with Roman Catholics and other conservative Protestants in opposing birth control, and they popularize their views in the larger evangelical movement with books, blogs, toys, presentations, and trainings for church women. These religious fundamentalists believe they must restore the “true” religion by returning to “traditional” readings of the Bible—although, as scholar Karen Armstrong has taught us, fundamentalists are actually creating a new version of an existing religion based on a romanticized view of the past (see Chip Berlet for more about this trend). With their home gardens, simple clothes, love of the television show Little House on the Prairie, and lives off the grid of public schools, which they see as promoters of Satanic values, the strictest neo-Calvinists sometimes look like back-to-the-land hippies. However, in these families, manly fathers lead and mothers strain to submit.

Quiverfull teaches women that they have been misguided by a feminism-tainted world. Thus, they must learn submission in workshops and trainings led by other women. These also serve as support groups, in which the women accept the discipline of their religious calling and discuss their struggles to let their husbands lead. In Joyce’s detailed descriptions of the women and events—strengths of her book—you feel the institutional weight brought to bear against them. For instance, at an Apron Society training on hospitality in northern Tennessee, workshop leader Sylvia Britton insists that "[h]ospitality is ‘an expression of Christ’s love and a mandated part of Christian life,’” even as she discusses her doubts and fears of opening her modest home when others in the congregation had more elaborate ones. When her pastor challenged her as suffering from the sin of pride, “I just bawled,” Britton testifies. “What else can you do but bawl, repent, when someone points out lovingly your sin?”

Joyce undertakes a complex enterprise: unraveling the various strands of US Christian fundamentalism that make up the new patriarchy movement, while allowing us to hear the voices of the women and men who are part of it. She gives us a taste of these religious leaders’ thought with quotes like this one from Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

We must choose between two unavoidable options: either the Bible is affirmed as the inerrant and infallible Word of God…or we must claim that the Bible is, to one extent or another, compromised and warped by a patriarchal and male-dominated bias that must be overcome in the name of humanity. For biblical traditionalists, the choice is clear.

While voices from within the movement come through loud and clear, I longed to hear more from Joyce. I suspect that she was conflicted about asserting her analysis too forcefully, out of respect for the women who entrusted her with their stories. It can be difficult to write about people with whom you have broken bread in a fashion they would not recognize. But, her conflict is a missed opportunity for her readers.

In 1979, Beverly LeHaye, already well-known among conservative Christians for The Act of Marriage (1976), the sex manual she wrote with her husband Tim LeHaye (who went on to co-author the Left Behind series about a post-Rapture world), founded Concerned Women for America (CWA) to mobilize women to fight the Equal Rights Amendment. In Righting Feminism, political scientist Ronnee Schreiber is intrigued by the tactics and policy frames of CWA, which she compares to the explicitly secular, conservative group, the Independent Women’s Forum. Both groups are seasoned newsmakers, CWA in the Christian media and IWF in the mainstream. Both support tax cuts for families to help mothers stay home; both challenge progressive feminists’ claim to represent all women; and both organize themselves in women-only groups. However, CWA’s prayer circles and educational materials have a far reach, while Beltway-insider IWF lacks a broad, grassroots base. While CWA says it aims to “protect and promote Biblical values,” and opposes abortion, homosexuality, and sex education, the libertarian-oriented IWF promotes free-market policies. Some of its members identify as feminists, although the organization itself remains silent on abortion and gay rights.

Schreiber finds that both groups present maternalist identities “to promote their call for limited government involvement” in family policies such as government-funded childcare, deploying what feminist theorist Gayatri Spivak calls a “strategic use of essentialism.” “‘You can’t have white guys saying you don’t need affirmative action. We feel we have credibility to say ‘not all women think the way you might expect,’” says Barbara Ledeen, an IWF member. Similarly, a CWA board member told Schreiber, “If the answer is coming from a woman, it is likely to carry more credibility.” Neither group goes so far in its strategic essentialism as to support women-as-women running for public office. 

In highlighting CWA’s “more essentialist” notion of womanhood, Schreiber would have benefited from a deeper examination of the religious paths upon which the women are walking. CWA’s opposition to feminism is fierce, as CWA board member Kathy Arrington told Schreiber in a 1998 interview: “Feminists convinced many women they could have it all—and Super Mom was born.” Like the women in Quiverfull, CWA blames women’s economic grievances on feminists. We read in Quiverfull that LeHaye was a signatory of the Danvers Statement of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which opposed female church leadership, gay rights, and egalitarianism between the sexes as contradicting the word of God. I was curious about how the group managed the religious diversity of its members, whether all members are as conservative as LeHaye, and what religious discussions CWA may have to remain silent on to maintain unity. Schreiber intriguingly discovers that CWA members offer a more nuanced view of work/family balance in private interviews than in their publications’ wholesale glorification of motherhood. Overall, however, the messiness, shunning, and range of views visible in Joyce’s book are not apparent here.

Schreiber is on stronger ground examining the secular IWF. While CWA emerged with the rise of the New Right and the Reagan coalition of religious and free-market conservatives, IWF came to life a decade after the Reagan revolution, during the Clinton years. Launched by supporters of the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, it aimed to show that women could be right wing, and that not all women support affirmative action and government regulation of the economy. Many of its supporters are professional women of means who, unsurprisingly, embrace conservative class politics. Like CWA, though, their favorite target is feminists, who, they say, are enemies of women’s freedom and who lie about data, for instance about the scale of domestic violence, casting women as victims. (CWA has its own version of scientific debate, marshalling junk data to link abortion with breast cancer.)

Schreiber points out that IWF’s surprising maternalism—surprising given its strong libertarian leanings—and quasi-essentialist views of women should make it easy for IWF to work with CWA. However, it doesn’t, even when the two organizations agree. Schreiber suggests that this is because CWA supports government intervention in support of what it believes are “Christian values.” But a more important reason probably lies in CWA’s strong opposition to IWF’s secular worldview. IWF is quite individualistic and interprets the world materialistically. This is anathema to CWA, which feels the rights of families should be protected before those of individual women.

Together, these books raise many questions about how we understand cleavages on the Right. Joyce’s anthropological immersion demonstrates that feminists are often peering through the looking glass in trying to understand our fundamentalist neighbors; while Schreiber’s case-study method enables her to take a step back and ask big questions, for instance, about the possibility of coalition building and fusion on the right. However, in both books, the larger movements of which these organizations are a part go out of focus.

The books also reveal the way two distinct right-wing groups respond to the uncertainty that is woven into the everyday experience of post-1970s capitalism, with the retreat of government and big employers and people’s consequent loss of trust in them, and the impatient speeding up of time. As sociologist Richard Sennett observed in The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (1998), people still assert what he calls forms of character—in other words, individual responses to this retreat. These “personal traits we value in ourselves and others,” when enacted in routines, “can compose a life,” he says. The secular and religious movements described in these books inscribe forms of character that seem rigid and even self-defeating, yet provide routines and certainty in uncertain times. Although the question of how women find power within right-wing movements seems to have gone out of fashion, it is still, I think, a central one. Part of the answer may lie in learning how women forge meaning and satisfaction within these organizations when popular culture, government, and the workplace seem hollow, valueless, or disempowered.


Abby Scher is a sociologist and editor of The Public Eye, a quarterly about the right wing in the US published by the progressive think tank, Political Research Associates. You can read her recent article about free-market feminists on



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