Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Conversation With Vyckie Garrison, Part I

[Vyckie Garrison is a former follower of the fundamentalist Quiverfull Movement, where women shun all forms of birth control and remain obedient to "God" and men. For some background on this movement and of Garrison herself, you can read this Salon article and her website, No Longer Quivering. The second half of this conversation will be posted later this week.]

Fannie: As someone who is involved in the same-sex marriage struggle, I see many similarities between the definitions of family and marriage offered to us by both the Quiverfull Movement (QM) and the "marriage defense" movement.

A key argument that "marriage defenders" put forth in the Prop 8 trial was that marriage exists to ensure children are raised by both biological parents. Organizations like the National Organization for Marriage say, for instance, that each child needs a mother and a father because men and women, being very different from one another, bring unique skills to the parenting table that same-sex couples by definition lack.

The Quiverfull Movement seems to be a real-life exaggeration of this gender essentialist thinking. Is that your experience?

Vyckie: Unlike the "traditional-family" marriage defenders who attempt to make a secular/sociological argument for their opposition to same-sex marriage, Quiverfull believers boldly proclaim the Christian belief in the spiritual purpose of the sacred husband/wife union -- that is, to be a living reflection of the very nature of God. The Genesis creation story states that God created male & female in His image -- and that Divine image is incomplete, distorted and perverted when two men or two women presume to redefine marriage in their own image rather than that which is revealed by God in His infinite wisdom for our benefit. According to the Quiverfull understanding of the Bible, gay marriage is not only bad for children -- it is a defilement -- a blasphemy against the very nature of God.

Now this is not to say necessarily that when it comes to the marriage covenant, Quiverfull believers care much about the female characteristics of God -- the emphasis is more on the idea that in marriage, women represent the subordinate, submissive, obedient role of Jesus Christ in relation to God the Father.

In other words, marriage is to be a picture of the hierarchical nature of the Godhead -- with men dominating and women willingly submitting always. If you have a woman acting of her own accord and apart from the authority of a man, or if you have a man abdicating his authority, forsaking his God-ordained position of leadership -- then you have perversion and chaos reigns as doors are left wide open for demonic attack on families. (This is not an exaggeration -- fundamentalist Christians really do believe that Satan controls and destroys "ungodly" marriages.)

Fannie: Gah. It seems like rather than letting people be individuals with their own goals, desires, and characteristics, both the anti-SSM movement and Quiverfull movement strive to limit human behavior by telling us that there are correct, natural, and "god-given" ways to be male and female.

In the QM, what was your role as a woman? Did you ever feel as though in fulfilling that role you were "acting," so to speak? Did trying to be a good Christian woman resonate with who you thought you were?

Vyckie: I never for a minute believed that women are essentially inferior to men -- just different. And the difference was -- as a woman, I had a womb.....I experienced the miracle of life in my womb and I had the privilege of loving and nurturing my newborn babes at my breast. I felt sorry for my husband because he could never know such intimacy and connection with another human being as I experienced with my babies.

It's true that he also got to have children with very little inconvenience to himself and without putting his own life at risk -- but I was so caught up in the Quiverfull head trip that life-threatening pregnancies, gestational diabetes, toxemia, polyhydramnios, c-section deliveries, and partial-uterine rupture seemed a small price to pay for the privilege of bringing souls into existence -- souls which would glorify God and live with Him forever. That's an extremely heady purpose and mission in life -- and it's what motivates Quiverfull women to welcome as many pregnancies as possible no matter the cost to their personal well-being.

Admittedly, I always felt like I was not cut out to be a mother....[but] Quiverfull radically changed my way of thinking in regards to motherhood. I was mesmerized by the ideal of Children as Blessings rather than burdens. Knowing that my womb was God's gift -- not a curse, not an affliction or liability -- and having the assurance, the promise from the Psalms and Proverbs that the Lord's blessing of children is always accompanied by His guidance and wisdom for "training them up in the way they should go" -- I actually got inspired and excited at the prospect of bearing and raising "Blessed Arrows" for the Lord's Army. It was a sacred calling -- and there was absolutely nothing more significant and noble that I could do with my gifts and talents.

Quiverfull also provided a blueprint for my marriage -- a sure-fire plan for success in that most important human relationship. I learned that, as a woman, I was by nature more susceptible to deception (like Eve) and also inclined to dominate and usurp rightful authority (like Jezebel) -- and the only protection I had against the pitfalls of my female nature was to be in right relationship with God (submitted to His will -- "though He slay me" a la Job 13:15) and with my husband -- that is, to be his "help meet" -- working in submission to my husband to accomplish the vision which God gave him for our family.

I am a natural born leader -- and that was a real problem considering that the Bible told me it is the man's role to lead and my place to respond to my husband's leadership. Never mind that my husband was seriously lacking in leadership skills. It seemed "natural" for me to take the wheel and steer our family on a sensible path which capitalized on our strengths and compensated for our weaknesses -- BUT, "there is a way which seems right to a man, but the ends thereof lead to death (Proverbs 14:12). So I couldn't do it -- instead, I had to submit and he had to lead.

The Quiverfull worldview taught me not to trust my natural instincts, inclinations and common sense. A woman's intuition/internal compass is her greatest asset -- but as a devoted female follower of God, I learned that my heart was deceitful and desperately wicked, I learned that my thoughts were continually inclined toward wickedness, I learned that I was particularly susceptible to Satan's lies, I learned that I was selfish and left to my own devices, I would only and always act in my own perverse and power-hungry interests, I learned that my very best efforts to do good were like filthy rags (a woman's menstrual cloths, which is apparently the ickiest thing God could think of as a comparison for worthless and vile deeds).

In short, I was in desperate need of salvation -- and I thanked Jesus daily for His selfless sacrifice on my behalf. Jesus became my role model, which meant that the new Me, the saved and sanctified Me, lived to serve others and to sacrifice myself for the benefit of everyone except Me. For Quiverfull women, the martyr mentality is central. There is NO thought for self-preservation. So even if someone could have convinced me that having six babies in eleven years was killing me, or that indiscriminately submitting to my husband's every whim was abusive -- I'd have said, "Maybe true, but it's not all about Me." Me, myself, and I did not figure into the equation -- it was all about serving God by serving others -- and if it killed me in the process, well then, I was in good company because Jesus was nailed to a cross and I should not expect anything better as His devoted follower.

Fannie: For some of us who haven't lived in such extreme communities, it can be difficult to see why women are complicit in such attitudes and are anti-feminist. In Andrea Dworkin's Right-Wing Women, she posits that some women are anti-feminist, primarily, because rightwing religion and politics exploit the fear of male violence, which they frame as "unpredictable and uncontrollable." Traditional marriage and religion, she says, "promises to put enforceable restraints on male aggression." Dworkin also argues that anti-feminist women do not believe that they can survive independently of men, on their own non-sexual terms.

Having previously been an anti-feminist woman, does your experience reflect any of these fears? What motivated your anti-feminist opinions?

Vyckie: In the initial days following the publication of Kathryn Joyce’s “All God’s Children” on Salon.com, No Longer Quivering received a tremendous response of supportive feedback and posts around the blogosphere heralding “two brave women.”... At the time of the nomination, my escape from Quiverfull was still so fresh and my comprehension of what I was doing so naive, I asked my friend, Laura (another Quiverfull walkaway who started the blog with me), “Are we feminists?” To which Laura hesitantly responded, “I guess so.”

Feminism used to be a dirty word to me. I followed all the anti-feminist groups such as Concerned Women for America, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, Ladies Against Feminism, etc. -- and from those sources, I learned that a feminist is a woman who rejects God's design and purpose for her life, preferring instead to embrace the curse of barrenness, personal power and autonomy (not a good thing to the fundamentalist way of thinking), perversion and a love of death as ultimate values because otherwise, she would have to submit to God and His divinely-appointed male authorities. I preferred to think of myself as "feminine" -- the distinction being (in my mind) that I embraced that which made me female (my womb), while feminists hate men, envy men, and ironically want to become just like men (that is, free of the burden of childbearing) in order to prove that they are better than men.

And yes -- deep down, I was terrified of men. I almost wrote here that I harbored an irrational fear of men, but considering my upbringing and the fact that I had never personally known a decent, kind, honorable man -- I'd say my fears were reality-based and well-founded. Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, argues that the radical Christian Right is built on despair -- much as I wanted to deny this claim, I had to admit that in my own life, fear and despair were at the core of my desire to know God and His will for me as a woman. I believed that my Creator loved me and knew what was good for me -- that my best chance for protection and success in this big, scary world was to find safety in "The Hiding Place" (think Corrie ten Boom) -- i.e. right smack dab in the center of His will.

The promise of Christian patriarchy is that you will have a husband who loves his wife "as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her." In other words, through humble submission to the husband's God-ordained spiritual authority, the Lord will transform an otherwise inept man into a servant-leader who is very much like Jesus in his self-sacrificial love for his family....

Sadly, the way it works out in this practice of Patriarchy -- it is the wife and children who end up doing all the Jesus-like self-sacrificing … to the point of self-abnegation and burn-out.

One thing that the spectacular failure of my Quiverfull life has taught me is that Utopian idealism is a set-up for disappointment. What I’ve learned is that all of life is a gamble -- there are no guarantees, no sure-fire formula for the good life. Following the divinely-sanctioned "traditional marriage" model which we found in the Bible did not protect our family from abuse, disintegration and divorce -- and neither did the myriad other ideals in which we invested every ounce of our time and energy until we were utterly exhausted, crushed, and devoid of all pleasure in life.

These days, I haven’t gone quite to the opposite extreme from formula to fatalism -- but I have come to what I believe is a more realistic approach -- and that is to ask, What is possible? What is reasonable? And, most importantly ~ what is sustainable over the long haul?

During the time that I was caught up on in the Quiverfull worldview, I was also the mother of five daughters. Toward the end, I was seriously questioning the value of the strict gender distinctions and limited roles for women and girls which we had accepted and lived out in our daily lives. I was beginning to feel that my daughters and I were being ripped off.

[Stay tuned for the rest of this conversation, which will be posted later this week.]

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