My Life As a Daughter in the Christian Patriarchy Movement: How I Was Taught to Obey Men and Birth 8 Kids
This article first appeared on Butterflies and Wheels.
Deep within America, beyond your typical evangelicals and run-of-the-mill fundamentalists, nurtured within the homeschool movement and growing by the day, are the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements. This is where I grew up.
I learned that women are to be homemakers while men are to be protectors and providers. I was taught that a woman should not have a career, but should rather keep the home and raise the children and submit to her husband, who is her god-given head and authority. I learned that homeschooling is the only godly way to raise children, because to send them to public school is to turn a child over to the government and the secular humanists. I was taught that children must be trained up in the way they should go every minute of every day. I learned that a woman is always under male authority, first her father, then her husband, and perhaps, someday, her son. I was told that children are always a blessing, and that it was imperative to raise up quivers full of warriors for Christ, equipped to take back the culture and restore it to its Christian foundations.
Christian Patriarchy involves the patriarchal gender roles and hierarchical family structure, while Quiverfull refers to the belief that children are always a blessing and that big families are mandatory for those following God’s will (some eschew birth control altogether). While these two belief sets are generally held in common, they can technically exist separately. Now, not everyone who holds these beliefs actually claims the term “Christian Patriarchy” or “Quiverfull.” My parents certainly didn’t. In fact, I never heard those terms growing up. What matters is not the name that is claimed, but the beliefs outlined above.
My parents were originally fairly ordinary evangelicals. Like so many others --it's a common story -- it was homeschooling that brought them to Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull. They began homeschooling for secular reasons, and then, through homeschool friends, conferences and publications, they were drawn into the world of Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull. It starts slowly, one belief here, a book there. For those who are already fundamentalists or evangelicals, like my parents, the transition is smooth and almost natural. Suddenly, almost without realizing it, they are birthing their eighth or ninth child and pushing their daughters toward homemaking and away from any thought of a career.
Why are these movements so enticing to evangelical and fundamentalist homeschoolers? Simple. Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull offer the image of the perfect family and the promise that you can make a difference and change the world, raising up an army for Christ, without ever leaving your home. Organizations like Vision Forum and No Greater Joy promise parents perfect families in very explicit terms. If you follow the formula, you, too, can be like that pretty picture or happy face in the catalogue. They are the huckster traveling salesmen of the homeschool world, but they sell dreams.
The actual experience for children growing up in the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements varies dramatically because every set of parents is different. I happened to have a mother with never-ending energy and a father who was fairly laid back. That meant that my home life was pleasant and my childhood happy. Others, though, have mothers who are debilitated by pregnancy after pregnancy and fathers who quickly become tyrannical and overbearing. These children may not have a very happy upbringing at all.
While my upbringing was fairly happy, it was anything but normal. For one thing, I was homeschooled. For another thing, I grew up with a dozen younger siblings. Other families commonly have seven, eight or nine children. A few have as many as 18 or 19. While there are some fun things about growing up with so many siblings, the sheer size of the family means that daughters of Christian Patriarchy have little privacy and many chores. And since they don’t go to school, their time with friends is limited and their time working by their mothers’ sides is maximized.
By the time I was 12, I could fix meals for the entire family, keep the laundry going, and essentially run the house single-handedly. When I was 15 my parents went out of town for a week, leaving me in charge of the younger siblings. Later when I was in high school, my mother had a hard pregnancy and was completely incapacitated for a month. I ran the house and homeschooled the younger children without a problem. I practically raised some of my younger siblings. This endless list of chores and expectations and responsibilities is seen as the natural order of things, rather than as a problem.
Families in Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull place extreme importance on maintaining their daughters’ sexual and emotional purity. Sex before marriage is held to be sin, and sex before marriage also damages a daughter’s marriage prospects. Girls are told that the best gift they can give their future husbands is their virginity. And we’re not just talking sex here: Most couples in Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull circles don’t kiss before marriage, and some don’t even hold hands or embrace.
This virginity is more than just physical; it is emotional as well. Girls are urged not to “give away pieces of their hearts” by becoming emotionally entangled with boys their age. Every teenage crush becomes suspect and dangerous. Dating is out of the question, as it is considered to be “practice for divorce.” Instead, daughters of Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull find husbands through parent-guided courtships, trusting their father’s guidance and obeying his leadership. Marriage is seen as a transfer of authority from the daughter’s father to her husband.
Daughters of Christian Patriarchy are essentially servants in their own homes, but this does not mean they are necessarily miserable and unhappy. While some daughters of Christian Patriarchy rebel and inwardly resent how they are being raised, most don’t. Most accept what their parents teach them as true, and look forward to their wedding day as the beginning of their lives.
This was me. I was perfectly happy to help with my younger siblings and cook for a dozen and do load after load of laundry. At age 10, 12 or 14, I was being trained to be a “helpmeet” to my future husband, preparing for my life’s role by working alongside my mother and serving as junior helpmeet to my father. I dreamed of my wedding constantly, and thought of what a wonderful wife, mother and homemaker I would be. A wife and mother was all I wanted to be, because any dream of anything else was nipped in the bud before it ever took root. I truly believed that this was what God wanted of me, and that serving my family and raising my siblings was serving God. And I gloried in it.
Growing numbers of parents in the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements are keeping their daughters home from college. They argue that college is wasted on daughters who are never supposed to hold jobs or have careers anyway, and that it distracts them from serving others and learning homemaking skills. Furthermore, they contend, college corrupts daughters and fills their heads with ungodly thoughts of equality and careers. This phenomenon is called the Stay-At-Home-Daughter movement.
I, however, was sent to college. Yet this did not initially mean that I dreamed of anything outside of the role I was taught God had laid out for me. Rather, I felt that college would prepare me to be a better wife and mother, and especially, a better homeschool parent. For this reason, in those families in the Christian Patriarchy movement who do send their daughters to college, nursing and teaching, which are seen as naturally feminine and excellent skills for future mothers and homeschool parents, are favored courses of study. And, it is understood that even daughters who attend college remain under the authority of their fathers and must obey them, even after they turn 18. After all, their fathers are their godly authority. God speaks to daughters through their fathers and daughters are bound by God to obey their fathers.
You have to understand just how deeply these beliefs are implanted. Even though I began questioning my parents’ beliefs halfway through college, I was so inculcated into their mindset that I did not even think of having a career or being other than a stay-at-home homeschool mom until four years later. Even though I have been out for years and am now in my mid-20s, I still feel like I am a failure because I only have one child. I feel that if I don’t have five or six kids, I am somehow a flop. In my brain, my worth as a woman is still tied to the number of children I have. I know these brain patterns are bullshit and I’m working on eradicating them, but they are still there. And in my conversations with other daughters who have left, I have found that I am not alone in this.
By now, you may be wondering, how is this possible? How can parents indoctrinate their children in this way? The answer, I would argue, is simple: homeschooling. By homeschooling, these parents can control every interaction their children have and every piece of information their children come upon. My parents called it “sheltering.” The result was that I knew nothing of popular culture or the lives of normal teens, besides that they were “worldly” and miserable while I was godly and content. I had no idea that normal teens would see the amount of chores I did as unfair and oppressive, and even when I did realize this, I took pride in it, for the amount of chores I did and my cheerfulness in doing them showed my godliness.
By homeschooling us, my parents could completely control what we learned. I studied from creationist textbooks and learned history from a curriculum that taught “His Story,” beginning with creation, Noah and the flood, and Abraham and his covenant with God, showing the hand of God moving through the 6,000 years of the earth’s history. I never had anyone tell me to dream big, or to think outside the home, or that with my talent and intellect I could have a brilliant career. Everyone around me believed the way my parents did, including all of my friends, who, after all, were without exception children of my parents’ friends. They encouraged me in my steadfastness of beliefs and held me up as a paragon of virtue. Why would I desire anything else?
It didn’t help that I was taught that those outside of our beliefs, including humanists, environmentalists, socialists, and feminists, were evil, selfish people who were destroying our society, and that Christians who did not share our beliefs were “wishy-washy” and “worldy.” There is a very “us versus them” mentality in Christian Patriarchy. They were the enemy, the agents of Satan out to destroy belief in God and pervert the world. They cared only for themselves and their own desires and were not to be trusted. I was taught that the world outside was a scary and dangerous place. If I stayed under my father’s authority, I would be protected and safe.
You also have to remember the sense of purpose that accompanies the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements. We were raised to fight the enemy, be that Satan or the environmentalists, socialists, and feminists, to come against them in spiritual warfare and at the polls. This is why Michael Farris, a proponent of Christian Patriarchy and the leader of the Home School Legal Defense Association, founded Patrick Henry College in 2000 to train homeschooled youth in the law and government. There were more interns from Patrick Henry College in the Bush White House than from any other college. Put simply, their goal is to take over the country, instituting godly laws ruling according to Christ’s dictates.
While the goal is to take back the world for Christ through the polls, force is never completely ruled out. I was taught that someday the government might take away our rights entirely, become a dictatorship, and crack down on everything we believed in. My father used to point out the armory to us and tell us that that is where we would mount the resistance when this happened. Force, though, was to be a last resort. In the meantime, my family campaigned tirelessly for conservative political candidates and attended marriage rallies, pro-life marches, and second amendment rights meetings. I dreamed of someday being a politician’s wife, supporting him in his bids for office and attempts to restore the country to its godly foundation. The world was framed in terms of good versus evil, and I had a role and a purpose.
Taken together, these beliefs comprise a comprehensive worldview that gives those within it a sense of purpose and provides simple answers to complex problems. It can be very attractive. While the world is a complicated place, Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull explain exactly what your role is and what you must do to please God and carry out his will. It provides you with a formula for raising perfect children and upholds order and hierarchy. You know what your role is, what you are to do, and where you are going.
One last point to make is that evangelicals believe essentially the same things as the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, they just don’t take it to the same extreme. Evangelicals believe that husbands are to to be their wives’ spiritual heads, but in practice their marriages are generally fairly egalitarian. Evangelicals believe that children are a blessing, but in moderation. Evangelicals believe that children should receive a godly education, but most of them send their children to public schools. Evangelicals believe that adult unmarried daughters should honor their parents and listen to their advice, but they don’t expect them to always obey it. Evangelicals believe that men and women are different, and that children need their mothers at home, but most evangelical women work outside the home. Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull simply take these beliefs to their natural – and radical – conclusions.
Perhaps now you have a better understanding of the world of Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull and the minds of those within it. While some like me leave, many stay. I watch my younger sisters echo my parents’ beliefs, speaking of the importance and protection of fatherly authority and planning to eschew birth control entirely, and my heart breaks.