“You’re Supposed to Be Creating An Army for God”
One woman’s courageous struggle to be more than a “womb man”
In the fall of 2007, Vyckie Garrison’s faith began to crumble. Her fundamentalist Christian beliefs, which had previously encased her in what seemed like an armor of God’s love, had led her to have seven children as a submissive wife, a similar fate as almost every other grown woman in her religious community. She spent her days home schooling her kids and publishing a pro-life Christian newspaper with her husband.
So strong was her faith that when she was warned to steer clear of a hippie, nonbelieving uncle, she felt insulted that others thought one outsider could so shake her faith. “I was the best Christian I knew,” Garrison remembers, chuckling.
The uncle had no interest in testing Garrison’s faith and was merely interested in her lifestyle. In trying to explain and justify her world to someone who didn’t believe in God or the Bible, Garrison realized that though she’d constructed her reality around what she believed God wanted her to do, “I saw how my kids were just really not thriving.” Between the continual pregnancies, her own health issues, and caring for all those children, “I just couldn’t keep up,” she says. As she began to question her family’s structure, she also began to doubt its foundation.
Over the course of a year, her skepticism grew. “There were enough questions that people were like, ‘wow, be careful,’” says Garrison of her religious community’s reaction to her self-inquiry. “I was trying to find what to salvage, something I [could] still believe in to give me some hope,” she recalls. After all, “I had built my life completely centered around my Christian beliefs.” Eventually, she realized she couldn’t even call herself a Christian anymore. At the same time, she says her then-husband felt like he was losing control, because she was no longer submitting child planning to God’s will, or submitting herself to her husband’s will. “It all kind of came crashing down at once,” remembers Garrison.
She escaped to a friend’s house in Kansas City for two weeks to sort through the ramifications of her crisis of faith. “I probably should have been hospitalized to tell the truth, because I was coming apart physically and mentally,” she admits.
How Blessed is the Man Whose Quiver is Full of Children
Garrison was once a quasi-celebrity in the Quiverfull movement, a fundamentalist worldview that places primacy on male headship, wifely submission, and Psalm 127, which calls children a gift from the Lord: “Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them! He will not be ashamed as they confront their enemies at the city gate.” Garrison’s family was named Nebraska Family of the Year in 2003 by the conservative Nebraska Family Council, largely due to the Garrisons’ work to pass the Defense of Marriage Act in that state.
In Quiverfull’s very heteronormative view of family life, the husband is the protector and provider while the wife tends to domestic duties and childrearing. Aside from being precious bundles of joy and the sole context of the wife’s life, Quiverfull believes these children will also fight the enemies of the God. “You're supposed to be essentially creating an army for God… out-populating the world with Christians,” notes Christy Mesaros-Winckles, Ph.D., a scholar of women’s religious rhetoric who studies the movement. “There's really no alternative but to continue having children until typically your body has gone through menopause,” she adds.
If this devout, rabbit-inspired approach to procreation sounds vaguely familiar, you can thank reality television. The Learning Channel’s 19 Kids and Counting Duggar family members have become “the unofficial spokespeople of the Quiverfull movement,” writes Mesaros-Winckles. The Duggars, whose last wedding special had 4.4 million viewers, started their first season—back when they were just 17 and Counting—focused more heavily on the family’s religious beliefs and their assertion that theirs is the best way to raise a healthy, godly family. (In subsequent seasons the focus shifted to the more broadly palatable challenges of managing such a large brood.) Although the Duggars eschew the Quiverfull label, their ideology so tightly matches the movement that publications like Newsweek and The Daily Beast, not to mention Quiverfull adherents, consider the family to be pop-culture standard-bearers for this strand of Christian patriarchy. As Mesaros-Winckles points out, the family frequently cites Quiverfull biblical verses on their show and further, “the Duggars’ hesitation to verbally confirm their association with the movement draws attention to [its] negative aspects.”
The Quiverfull movement’s history can be traced back to a few foundational books. In 1985, home-schooling advocate and self-described former feminist activist Mary Pride wrote The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, The book linked the decline of the traditional Christian family with women working outside the home. Five years later, Rick and Jan Hess’ A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ gave the movement its name and its model of trusting the Lord’s timing in conceiving children.
Much like the Duggar family’s hesitation, no one church or denomination aligns itself directly with Quiverfull. It’s an ideology, a set of teachings that may be adopted by a few conspicuously large families in a single church, or it may sweep to fill one congregation’s accepted doctrine via visiting speakers, popular books, and various conferences.
As Mesaros-Winckles describes it, “We're in a time of confused theology in Christian culture,” one in which traditional authority is often questioned, especially in nondenominational churches. The ascendancy of believers unschooled in traditional theology “allows a lot of individuals coming in and seeking power [an opportunity] to take advantage of the situation, and the most dynamic personality is going to become the leader.”
Among the most popular readings for Quiverfull women is Above Rubies, a magazine run by Nancy Campbell, who heads up a ministry of the same name and makes a point to walk a conspicuously fine line, not calling herself part of Quiverfull per se. Instead, she simply says the movement “comes from the scripture in the Bible that I totally believe.” Despite her coyness, she is broadly recognized as a Quiverfull leader by followers of the movement and is one of the most vocal proponents of its teachings.
Campbell, also the author of Be Fruitful and Multiply: What the Bible Says About Having Children, explains that “a quiver is a weapon of war.” As she understands Psalm 127, a man is blessed “who has many sons, and when the enemy comes to the gate... he's got all his sons there to stand and protect, with him.” A large family populates your army against the enemy, and that enemy is quite real to Campbell. In her view, the world is dichotomous, divided into the “Kingdom of God” (the kingdom of life, hence the reproducing) and the “Kingdom of Satan” (one of death, destruction, and other perceived enemies like abortion, humanism, and homosexuality).
Campbell teaches, sometimes citing Webster’s Dictionary, that a woman is a “womb man.” “Why is it that a woman has a womb? She has breasts. What are they for?” she ponders in her purring New Zealand accent. “For embracing children and nourishing them,” she answers herself and then asserts that the womb “is the very seat of who we are as a woman.” To give her assertions the appearance of medical relevancy, she claims that dropping birth rates—lack of use of the womb—are related to epidemic “female cancers.” In her talks, she’s also quick to dismiss the well-supported risk factors of conception after 40 by asking women who have conceived later in life about their experiences. Many of them share that these later pregnancies were their easiest. But, according to Campbell, a woman’s own health is not as important as her childbearing capacity anyway.
“God wants his earth to be filled with families—strong families, families that are knitted together. They are blessed and they are happy and they are whole and they are sound, and this makes a sound and strong nation,” says Campbell, nodding to a nationalism that appeals to many American evangelicals. Campbell continues, “As the family breaks down, society breaks down, and then the nation fails, because a nation will only be as strong as its families.” She’s deeply concerned by an average American birth rate of roughly 1.8, which, in Campbell’s opinion, reflects a shift away from family life and leaves our nation at risk from groups with higher birthrates. As Kate Dixon wrote in her article on the Quiverfull movement for Bitch: “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.’ ”
Quiverfull’s philosophy has been adopted by thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. (There are no exact figures available for what Mesaros-Winckles notes is an extremely insular movement.) But it multiplies exponentially as couples have children ranging in number from Garrison’s seven to the reality-TV Duggar family’s 19. “They’re your next-door neighbors,” says Garrison. “You see those families at WalMart or at restaurants. They go to Taco Bell, and they’ve got all these kids, and they look like normal, happy families.”
Notably, a sexual harassment scandal surrounding Bill Gothard, one of the Quiverfull movement’s luminaries, may have made association with the term less attractive. Mesaros-Winckles suggests that so much media attention on the Quiverfull movement over the past decade has some shying away from identifying their organizations and families with it. She adds, “No matter what people are rhetorically saying, actions speak louder than words.”
Becoming Quiverfull happened to Garrison incrementally. Her eldest was a bright kid but was not old enough for kindergarten. Her pastor’s wife suggested homeschooling, and Garrison immediately became involved with Christian homeschooling support groups.
She was told home schooling was the godly way, that “public schools are basically evil, run by a bunch of secular humanists who just want to turn your kids into lesbians.” She went to conventions—some secular, some sponsored by the Nebraska Christian Home Educators Association—to gather curriculum in spelling, math, and creation science. “But what they really emphasize,” says Garrison, “is this whole family lifestyle, family values.”
The Quiverfull connections she made through homeschooling further encouraged Garrison to trust God with family planning. She learned about male headship and wifely submission as well as about sheltering her children, not letting them watch TV or participate in Sunday school—or any activity where they might make contact with “worldly” kids. Teens, she was taught, should not date, and parents should be much more involved in matchmaking and the courtship of their children. Believers are encouraged to trust the Lord with their health and their ability to provide for their (many) children. As a few members on one Quiverfull message board advise, the pill is a form of abortion, and even natural family planning shows a lack of trust in God’s plan.
Garrison has a bone condition that leads to chronic pain and mobility issues and caused extremely low blood pressure in her first three births that necessitated C-sections. Elevating trust in God over medicine, Garrison attempted a fourth delivery at home and wound up at the hospital with an emergency C-section. Her fifth child was a successful homebirth—“I couldn’t afford another C-section,” she says. Baby number six was delivered at the hospital without much drama. “For the seventh, I was so confident the Lord was slowly blessing my obedience,” Garrison says, that she planned an unassisted home birth. But when she went into labor, something didn’t feel right. She was rushed to the hospital and learned her uterus had partially ruptured.
“I almost died. The baby almost died,” she says. “I was so fully convinced to trust the Lord that I got pregnant two more times after that and miscarried very early. I probably would have kept going until I was dead.”
Garrison paraphrases a common scriptural reference, saying “whoever would save his life will lose it; whoever loses his life, for my sake, will save it and have eternal life.” That became her rationale: “My discomfort, my near death experiences, all of that is nothing compared to eternity, compared to Jesus’s own sacrifice. He died for me, so why would I not be willing to die for him?”
Garrison’s Quiverfull marriage provided little comfort. Looking back to how marital roles evolved in her family, she says, “It was mostly control and manipulation and power, which are not love.” Surprisingly, it was Garrison who indoctrinated her then-husband, who is blind, not the other way around, when she brought home Quiverfull literature and presented it to him. She considers him a victim of the movement, too. “It was so rigid, the whole gender role thing,” says Garrison. “It just gives no room for a couple to negotiate and to play on their strengths and make up for each other’s weaknesses… if it doesn’t work, you make it work. And you trust God and keep going. It turns into abuse. It turns into a very twisted system."
Recovering from Spiritual Abuse
After Garrison took those two weeks to clear her head, she returned home much changed. Her husband took the kids, left, and was surrounded by other members of the Quiverfull movement who encouraged him to get his estranged wife right with Jesus.
Garrison remembers, “They decided to use my kids as a way of making me comply. They said ‘you can’t see them unless you agree to these terms,’ and they had a list of things they wanted me to do.” Garrison sent money to cover the costs of food and other expenses for her children and husband. Additionally, her husband still had access to credit cards in her name, which the Quiverfull community members self-appointed to care for her children used to cover what they said were additional childcare expenses, racking up debt on Garrison’s record.
She just wanted her kids back. “It cost me a lot to bring my kids into the world, and there was no way I was going to let them be used to manipulate me and control me,” says Garrison. She filed for divorce and went to an abuse shelter.
Garrison recently gave a speech at the American Atheists National Convention about her experience at that shelter. Intimidation, isolation, and shame had become a staple of family life, she recognized in therapy, but she hadn’t identified it as abusive because it was religiously coded. She saw herself as a depraved sinner; she refrained from contradicting her husband, not because she feared him, but because she feared that would mean she was a mouthpiece of Satan. Her children, too, were trapped in a radical, insular home life without outside friends or family, tasked with helping maintain the house and limited to two meals a day (plus a snack) to save on time and dishes, while their homeschool education was often neglected or totally abandoned. Quiverfull daughters often suffer particular strains, training to be their future husbands’ helpmeets through tending to their many siblings. Some even become part of the Stay-At-Home-Daughters movement, foregoing college and staying under the father’s authority until it can be transferred to the husband.
After a court fight, Garrison was awarded custody of her children but was saddled with the family’s debt. She was also profoundly alone. “I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t a Quiverfull, conservative Christian,” she explains.
Garrison had no real support system, so she created one at No Longer Quivering to process and write down what she had been through. “It was amazing to see how much that resonated. I had a ton of traffic on that website. It turned into this support group,” says Garrison. “Other Quiverfull moms started trickling in… It’s really grown into an online community of women and kids raised that way.” Through the site she met one of her closest friends, Suzanne Titkemeyer, who left Quiverfull along with her husband. No Longer Quivering averages 70,000 visitors per month and has developed an offshoot blog network for spiritual-abuse survivors including sites like Homeschoolers Anonymous and Becoming Worldly.
For all the blessings that are supposed to come to women who use their wombs to populate Christ’s army, the threat of complete social isolation, financial destitution, and lost custody of their children is, unfortunately, often a real risk for those who want to leave. Even Garrison, who lives with her children and is working to help them adjust to less restrictive lives, was burdened with so much debt that her family home is now at risk of foreclosure. The women whom she’s helped through No Longer Quivering are rallying together to save Garrison’s home via crowdfunding—and are more than three-quarters of the way to their goal. For women who were reduced for years to vessels whose fruit populated their husbands’ “quivers,” there’s potency in acting together, no longer silenced.
“More research is needed to fully understand the stress this lifestyle can have on a woman’s physical and psychological health,” writes Mesaros-Winckles in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. There are thousands of women silently struggling, some adopting more moderate Quiverfull lifestyles, certainly some trying to stave off the extreme self-doubt of someone like Andrea Yates, part of a Quiverfull family. In Bitch, Dixon noted Yates’ drowning her five children “coincided with an inundation of misogynistic pamphlets and literature provided to her by the family’s Quiverfull-minded mentor.”
When Garrison left, she kept thinking back to her friend Laura from her small church of Quiverfull adherents—a woman with 11 children whose Quiverfull husband moved her to a farm in Nebraska, cut her off from her mothers (seen as sinful lesbians), and dictated she wear “women’s clothing” (no pants). After her own divorce, Garrison met up with Laura, then clinically depressed. “She was at that point… She felt like she was a terrible failure as a wife and a mother and a Christian. And she felt like her only option was to continue with the suffering or just kill herself,” Garrison remembers. Laura left her husband and moved in with Garrison for a time. “She actually started the blog with me,” Garrison says. But Laura lost all her children in the divorce. The pull of Quiverfull is a double-bind for women, because so much reproducing can become too much, but the pull of motherhood can make it agonizing to leave.
“It’s an unsustainable kind of lifestyle,” says Garrison. About leaving, she adds, “it wasn’t bravery, just pure desperation. It was that or die.”
Perhaps feminism truly is the enemy of the Quiverfull movement—not as a perceived harbinger of familial breakdown but as a salve for women who have given and submitted until almost nothing is left. It’s that community of women who tell one another they are worth saving on the No Longer Quivering blog. It’s the women raising funds for Garrison’s house. It’s these women, not quivering, no. But bold, so bold, in support of one another.
Illustrations by Daniel Zender
Illustrations by Daniel Zender
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