When she was presented with the state of Arkansas's Young Mother of the Year award in April 2004, Michelle Duggar was 37 years old and seven months pregnant. A USA Today profile on the award ceremony noted her current reproductive status by describing with notable amusement how she "waddled" into the Capitol building to accept the honor.
Hold on—a USA Today profile? Of a stay-at-home mother receiving an award in Little Rock? No offense to the great state of Arkansas, but surely there must be more to the story. And there is: 14 other children, to be precise.
We don't know if the Young Mother of the Year award was bestowed on Duggar based on quantity alone. But she and her husband, Jim Bob, (This story writes its own Southern stereotype jokes, people!) are devout Christians who believe they should let God dictate how many children they have. As this article goes to print roughly three years after that laudatory day in Little Rock, Michelle Duggar is just about to drop baby number 17, and she shows no signs of stopping. The Duggars and their aggressively fertile lifestyle raise an uncomfortable question for many of us: Can a woman be too much of a mother?
You've probably heard of the Duggars by now, or even channel-surfed by 14 Children and Pregnant Again!, the Learning Channel special that put them on the pop-culture radar. While a few folks might have mistaken the tv listing for a sci-fi flick, 14 Children was a real-life profile of the Duggars in all their identically dressing, homeschooling, tv-shunning, hymn-singing glory. Every moment of the hour revealed a jaw-droppingly unbelievable fact of Duggar life: The kids' names all begin with J! They use six pounds of frozen Tater Tots to make one evening's casserole dinner! They only have two bathrooms! Oh, the horror!
But for all the snark fodder provided by the show, the Duggars had the last laugh: Enough people found the matching plaid outfits compelling that the Duggars quickly became something of a cult sensation. Three more tv specials on the Discovery network followed, along with the Duggar's own website, complete with recipes and parenting tips, and the family received widespread national attention when Michelle gave birth to her 16th child in 2005.
In the media coverage that greets the arrival of each shiny new Duggar, Jim Bob and Michelle coo and murmur platitudes such as, "We both just love children and consider each a blessing from the Lord," and "If the Lord wants to give us more, we will accept them." The couple's complete willingness to bear as many children as come naturally to them often gets lost in the din of the home-construction tv specials and laundry-time news segments, but it's the central principle of their lives: The Duggars are some of the most vocal representatives of the Quiverfull movement, a grassroots Christian endeavor that preaches that couples—those in possession of matching wedding bands, that is—must be prepared for God's blessing to come in the form of children. Lots of 'em.
The Quiverfull movement has no real founders and no established hierarchy, but it is gaining momentum just the same. It takes its name and its justification for existing from the Bible's Psalm 127: "As arrows in the hand of a mighty man, so are the children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath a quiver full. They shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate." (As with many passages of scripture, there are some eyebrow-raising variations on this Psalm; for example, the New International Bible used by many evangelicals translates it to read "sons" instead of "children," and proclaims that the quiver of tykes will actually "contend with their enemies at the gate," which sounds a tad more ominous than just talking.)
Among the movement's central texts are Rick and Jan Hess's 1989 baby-making edict A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ, as well as books titled Birthing God's Mighty Warriors and Be Fruitful and Multiply. The Quiverfull premise, simply stated, is that society has gotten way off track, and that we should look to Christ (and the patriarchal societal structure that so often seems to follow in his wake) to get back in balance. It's a theological foundation that, not surprisingly, holds women responsible for the unmaking of the righteous family. Quiverfull cheerleader Mary Pride puts it bluntly in the introduction to her book The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality: "Feminism is a totally self-consistent system aimed at rejecting God's role for women. Those who adopt any part of its lifestyle can't help picking up its philosophy. And those who pick up its philosophy are buying themselves a one-way ticket to social anarchy."
While the Quiverfull movement is a relatively small one—in a November 2006 article in the Nation, Kathryn Joyce estimated the number of adherents to be "likely in the thousands to low tens of thousands"—mainstream media is taking notice. Since the Duggars proved such a cash cow, the Quiverfull concept has generated a number of copycat TLC shows and specials, such as Kids by the Dozen and Jon & Kate Plus 8. In March of 2007, Quiverfull reached what is arguably the zenith of cultural recognition, a pseudonymous shout-out on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. (The "Replenish" movement doesn't have quite the same ring to it, but those NBC writers work a tight schedule.)
In addition to the Nation piece noted above, Quiverfull has also recently been profiled by Newsweek and ABC News' Nightline program. Jennifer L. Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News, points out, "It's no surprise that Quiverfull families would be so appealing to corporate media—they provide a convenient way to combine messages about the rejection of birth control, male-as-almighty-head-of-household, and woman as obedient breeders into one handy story."
At this point, many a feminist pop vulture might shrug, "So what? A freaky-deaky group of Christian extremists are popping out a ton of kids. No skin off my nose." Except it is—at least, that's the Quiverfull hope. These families are not multiplying like bunnies because it's fun; they are in it to win it. For its adherents, opening their wombs to God isn't an overt political stance. But make no mistake, it's part of a battle for power. And though their odds of winning are slim, when someone wages war against you and your allegedly off-the-wall ideas that women are equal, contraception is a valid choice, and church and state are separate entities, you sit up and take notice.
The Quiverfull movement would like nothing more than for women to be afflicted with collective amnesia about the past four decades. The gains made in women's equality since the second wave of feminism are anathema to the Quiverfull way of life—heck, some of them might even take issue with Susan B. Anthony and her hysterical insistence on the vote. Women in "non-traditional" roles, even if they take on those roles in addition to the classic wife and mother schema, are highly suspect. The modern feminist conundrum of how to have it all is surely perplexing to the woman devoted to having babies for Jesus; she would laugh at the question of balancing career and family. Having babies is her work, and she takes it very seriously. As Joyce points out in her Nation piece, Quiverfull mothers took exception to David Brooks's December 2004 New York Times article "The New Red-Diaper Babies," not because it seemed to nod approvingly at "natalism" (a neologism referring to the idea that reproduction is the most important facet of existence), but because it put forth the idea that these mothers were too busy to be waging a culture war. For the adherents of Quiverfull, the war is ongoing, and fresh ammunition is always needed.
Which is not to say that all babies make good, you know, arrows. Quiverfull adherents have some distinct ideas about what kind of women should be moms in the first place and, perhaps not shockingly, those ideas involve skin pigment. Blogger Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff (who writes about her personal experience in the movement within the context of her feminist, women-only blog, Womensspace.org) asserts that you won't find any more racists among the Quiverfull movement than among any other cross-section of the country. But the chatter about declining Western birthrates and the concurrently rising fertility rates of Middle Eastern, African, and Latin American countries that permeates Quiverfull message boards tells a different story. The fear of white Christian culture being outpaced is right there in the scripture, in the specter of "enemies at the gate."
Coincidentally, the swaths of America most apoplectic about immigration and letting the terrorists win are the ones most likely to produce families with double-digit dependents. As Brooks pointed out in "The New Red-Diaper Babies," in the 2004 presidential election, "George Bush carried the 19 states with the highest white fertility rates, and 25 of the top 26. John Kerry won the 16 states with the lowest rates." In other words, white people with lots of white children responded to scare tactics and political rhetoric that threatened their sense of cultural supremacy.
And the rest of us? Well, there's been no discernible left-wing rejoinder to this population challenge, a fact mourned in an overcaffeinated, tongue-in-cheek October 2005 screed by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford. Musing on the inherent ickiness of Quiverfull, Morford queried, "Where…is the funky tattooed intellectual poetess who, along with her genius anarchist husband, is popping out 16 funky progressive intellectually curious fashion-forward pagan offspring to answer the Duggar's squad of über-white future Wal-Mart shoppers? Where is the liberal, spiritualized, pro-sex flip side? Verily I say unto thee, it ain't lookin' good."
But even if those poetesses were unleashing babies Salad-Shooter style into our nation's Montessori schools, it wouldn't be nearly as good a story. The beauty of the Quiverfull narrative is that it combines three always-provocative cultural threads—the restriction of women's access to reproductive choice, the protection of patriarchal social structures, and the insistence that obedience and self-sacrifice must be reintroduced to a female populace that's gotten way out of line with this equality stuff. On the first score, there's no denying the recent progress of the contra-contraception movement in the U.S.—Russell Shorto's May 2006 piece in the New York Times Magazine about the conservative push to restrict not only abortion, but also various forms of birth control, finally acknowledged in mainstream print what so many feminist writers had been pounding the keyboard about for years. The stakes have been raised, and while not all conservatives looking to restrict access to birth control necessarilywant you to have 17 children, they're also more than happy to see smiling Quiverfull families portrayed on the nightly news.
As for the latter two, the push for full quivers is in direct contradiction to much of the legal and societal equality that has (at least purportedly) become the norm. It is a movement deeply antagonistic to women's very autonomy; it exacts a high price from them—no less than an entire life of submission and devotion to "Him," in both senses of the word—in exchange for God's good will and benevolence. But when is the cost too much? A woman's uterus is not designed to be a revolving door, and a 2006 study highlighted in the U.K.'s Telegraph points out that mothers who bear children at intervals of less than 18 months have a shorter lifespan and more health problems overall. And those are just the physical ramifications. This reproductive hamster wheel also gives such mothers little room to question the efficacy of what they're doing.
At the time of her arrest, few people knew that Andrea Yates was part of a Quiverfull family, and that her mounting certainty that she was an evil woman who was going to hell—a certainty that led her to drown her five children in the bathtub—coincided with an inundation of misogynistic pamphlets and literature provided to her by the family's Quiverfull-minded mentor, Michael Woroniecki. (For more on this troubling and oft-elided detail about the Yates case, see Seelhoff's "The Quiverfull Movement, Hate Speech, and Discrimination Against Women as Women" post at her aforementioned blog.) It goes without saying that not all Quiverfull women are driven to commit such atrocities. But when a way of life requires a radical erasure of women's individual wants, and of their individual worth, you can bet that their suffering is negated and discounted too.
Overall, media coverage of the Quiverfull movement mirrors the general rise of conservative Christian influence across the country. Stephanie Coontz, director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families, notes that movements like Quiverfull have influence "to the extent that people get in positions of authority and planning—for instance, in the Department of Health and Human Services where they have control over abstinence-only education funds. Then you have choices being made, behind closed doors, about the options that will be available for everyone." The Quiverfull movement might seem like merely a drop in the bucket of conservative Christian thought, but these days it's a pretty full bucket, and you never know when it's going to overflow.
In a section of the Duggar family's website called "A Message to Mothers," Michelle Duggar recalls a night she found herself sobbing while folding laundry at 1 a.m. She felt overwhelmed and inadequate. She prayed to the Lord for help, and then a thought came to mind. It was from scripture: "Offer up a sacrifice of praise." Offer up a sacrifice. This is what the God of conservative Christianity wants women to do. This is what the men of the movement (and of many other types and stripes) want women to do. This is what society, on a deep and abiding level, wants women to do. Even in circles where no one is trying to take away your NuvaRing, there has been a troubling resurgence of the cult of domesticity: In the six years since 9/11, how much anxious ink has been spilled identifying everything from bread baking to the rise of hipster crafts as a "return to domesticity"? When a phenomenon like Quiverfull moves in from the fringes, people are drawn to it—they can relate to it, in a collective-unconscious kind of way, regardless of their religious views, how many children they have, or their stance on birth control. Coontz reckons that "this movement gets attention today because we've altered gender roles more in the past 30 years than we did in the previous 3,000 years. As a result, Quiverfull adherents' absolute certainty about what they're doing strikes a chord, even among people who would never consider living that way."
Unfortunately, a by-product of all the fascination is that the attention allows the movement to gain traction—it adds a decibel to the drumbeat of war that Quiverfull advocates are trying to wage. This war sees no place for women except in the home, and ultimately seeks to foist that vision upon all of society—and thus the levers and mechanisms of power—through an eventual numerical stranglehold on the population. We—feminists, environmentalists, gay rights advocates, liberals, progressives—are the enemy at the gate. If the Quiverfull movement gets its wish and good Christian breeding continues apace, we will be easy enough to contend with in the future.