Patriarchy: the glue that holds the culture war together.
(Penguin Press, 2009, 259 PP)
Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement
(Beacon Press, 2009, 258 pp)
THE MEANS OF REPRODUCTION: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, by Michelle Goldberg, and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, by Kathryn Joyce, are very different books in many ways. But at the core of their arguments they are actually quite similar to each other. Both authors set out to detail (and I do mean detail) the count less ways in which, in Goldberg's words, "conflicts between tradition and modernity are being fought on the terrain of women's bodies." And both books convincingly establish that aggressive and relentless attacks on female sexuality and reproductive freedom reside, as Joyce puts it, at the very heart of "a new cold war, a 'clash of civilizations' to be fought through women's bodies, with the maternity ward as battleground." Patriarchy, Goldberg and Joyce both believe, serves as the indispensable glue for a powerful intersection of three complex phenomena: religion, reproductive politics and the globalization of the American culture war. And that intersection, they also both believe, is not only disastrous for millions of girls and women whose aspirations for individuality and equality are being snuffed out by their religious and political oppressors from Sierra Leone to San Antonio; that intersection is also the place where a clearly defined worldview has emerged that aims to determine what Goldberg's provocative but appropriate subtitle defines as "the future of the world." Goldberg and Joyce have ventured forth into worlds where female sexuality is explicitly defined as submission, and where female aspiration is exclusively defined as motherhood. They have returned to write disquieting books that ought, at the very least, to challenge the most complacent among patriarchy's opponents.
Of the two books, Joyce's Quiverfull focuses more directly on the United States. The tide refers to the Quiverfull movement, a relatively loosely organized set of communities that believes that women have the responsibility to produce a quiverfull of children who can serve as "arrows" in the "war" against feminism, or against any notion of family or societal structure that is not defined by the supremacy of male power. Kathryn Joyce is a freelance writer rather than an academic, so she is never really explicit about her method. But more than anything else, her book is an account of her anthropological fieldwork conducted in and among segments of the Reformed Christian churches, and the homeschooling movement. She was a participant observer in the Quiverfull community, and observed some pretty awful ideas being purveyed and some pretty distasteful practices being advanced, including early arranged marriages; constant pregnancy and childbirth; absolute female submission to male authority, whether in the person of a father, a brother, a husband or most cringe-inducing, a self-appointed pastor. Joyce recounts story after story of girls being raised for submission, "Jezebels" being shunned by their communities and men equating their own power in their families with God's power in his kingdom. The worldview she is trying to convey is captured perhaps most dearly in the quiverfull notion that a woman's constant sexual availability to her husband is not only her wifely "duty," but also at the heart of her "ministry" as a believing Christian. Oh my.
Joyce does an excellent job of describing these familial and societal dynamics, and she had no trouble convincing me that the Quiverfull movement is distasteful and deeply damaging to the daughters who are born into it. What she was a little less successful at was convincing me that this subculture, regardless of how unnerving she and I might find it, poses a danger to the values and future choices of American society, and American women, at large. The communities that she visits are sometimes quite small (300 families in one case), and as she puts it: "the number of families who have committed themselves wholly to the Quiverfull path doesn't represent any pollster's idea of a key demographic." For me, then, the least compelling parts of Joyce's book were the concluding chapters where she tries to connect these communities and their practices to larger forces in society, where she argues that the marginal Quiverfull movement is "nonetheless significant for representing an ideal family structure that many conservatives reference as a counterexample when they condemn modern society." Well, maybe. But at times, Kathryn Joyce reminded me a bit in this book of Michelle Goldberg's previous book, Kingdom Coming, another warning flare that may have oversold its dangers just a bit (as I argued in a review in these pages). I don't doubt the need for vigilance in the face of patriarchal movements that have marbled themselves into American culture, and that have sometimes secured for themselves powerful allies in political and other institutional venues. I hope I am not the complacent reader, the complacent male reader, to whom I referred a couple of paragraphs ago. But sometimes subcultures, no matter how troubling they might be, remain just that, subcultures. Such communities do not always morph into significant threats to the nation as a whole.
IN THE MEANS OF REPRODUCTION, however, Michelle Goldberg is after much larger prey than she was after a couple of years ago in Kingdom Coming, or for that matter than Kathryn Joyce is after in Quiverfull. This time, taking an explicitly global and long-term view, Goldberg's arguments and warnings hit the mark exactly. Every single page of The Means of Reproduction conveys the tragic effects that a toxic mix of misogyny, religious zealotry and American power are having on women across the world. It is an ugly tale, and Goldberg doesn't shrink from depicting the ugliness graphically. She touches all of the woeful bases: the anti-contraception policies of the United States; the expedient alliance between the Vatican and Islamic states at UN conferences on population and on women; genital mutilation; female infanticide; feminism's purported (but utterly bogus) role in Europe's demographic crisis; and the general and unavoidable conclusion that many powerful men, both here in the US and abroad, are really, really afraid of women, and of the threat that women's sexuality ostensibly poses to male dominance of religious and political institutions.
Beyond presenting that catalogue of abuse, however, Goldberg goes much further in her analysis of "sex and power," and tries to do for "the globalization of the culture war" what Robert Wuthnow did years ago for American religion: she endeavors to "restructure" it. The real clash in today's world, she writes, is not between different religious traditions or between competing cultures. Rather, the real battle is between two overarching worldviews, neither of which is housed exclusively in any particular religion or culture, and both of which are based largely on notions of the role women ought to be playing in society, and in directing their own individual lives. "One" of these worldviews, she argues, "saw women as ends in themselves, human beings with dignity and autonomy. The other treated them as the means of group cohesion and identity whose primary value lay in their relation to men." Michelle Goldberg is not responding here to the mere words of repugnant pastors, or even to the machinations of ambitious politicians. She is, instead, reporting on a titanic global struggle over the status of female bodies and the possibilities of female lives, and she is arguing that no less than the "future of the world," for all of us, is riding on its outcome. Based on the evidence that she presents in this elegant and persuasive book, neither that outcome, nor our future, is anywhere near assured. The Means of Reproduction in that crucial sense, is a call to arms from a raging battlefield.
TIMOTHY A. BYRNES is professor of political science at Colgate University. He has authored several books on religion and Catholicism, including Transnational Catholicism in Postcommunist Europe (Rowrnan and Littlefleld) and Catholic Bishops in American Politics (Princeton).
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|Title Annotation:||'The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World' and 'Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement'|
|Author:||Byrnes, Timothy A.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|
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