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Journalist Sarah Stankorb outlines how access to the internet—its networks, freedom of expression, and resources for deeply researching and reporting on powerful church figures—allowed women to begin dismantling the false authority of evangelical communities that had long demanded their submission.
All the while, their male leaders built fiefdoms from megachurches and sprawling ministries. They influenced politics and policy. To protect their church’s influence, these men covered up and hid abuse. American Christian patriarchy, as it rose in political power and cultural sway over the past four decades, hurt many faithful believers. Millions of Americans abandoned churches they once loved.
Yet among those who stayed (and a few who still loved the church they fled), a brave group of women spoke up. They built online megaphones, using the democratizing power of technology to create long-overdue change.
In Disobedient Women, journalist Sarah Stankorb gives long-overdue recognition for these everyday women as leaders and as voices for a different sort of faith. Their work has driven journalists to help bring abuse stories to national attention. Stankorb weaves together the efforts of these courageous voices in order to present a full, layered portrait of the treatment of women and the fight for change within the modern American church.
Disobedient Women is not just a look at the women who have used the internet to bring down the religious power structures that were meant to keep them quiet, but also a picture of the large-scale changes that are happening within evangelical culture regarding women’s roles, ultimately underscoring the ways technology has created a place for women to challenge traditional institutions from within.
In my early days reporting, I might do an interview with a “mompreneur,” then spend the afternoon poring over Pew Research Center stats on Americans disaffiliating from religion. I’d write about startups trying to make clothing, coffee, or even concrete more environmentally sustainable, then search for religion articles, wondering why no one else was talking about the fact that growing numbers of women were leaving the church. I suspected the phenomenon presaged an important cultural shift.
When faith is inherited, it’s often mothers who ingrain affiliation in their kids. They organize the baptisms, funerals, and pancake breakfasts. They drag their kids to church, much as my own mother did each Sunday. Traditionally, throughout the world, and in almost every religion, women were more religious than men.
While more men were still nonbelievers than women in the U.S. in the 2010s, women were catching up, with millennials like me representing an even greater turn away from religion. A few sociologists of religion (and in turn, I) found female rejection of faith to be a sort of canary in the coal mine for the future of religion and the church in America. I was just one among the millions who had walked away.
So, I perked up when one of the crowdfunders I’d reported on gave me a tip about a funding campaign on his site to save the home of a woman who would soon be named American Atheists’ 2014 Atheist of the Year.1
Vyckie Garrison was no garden-variety secular empiricist. Nor was she among the growing numbers of women my age who were sluffing off faith. Vyckie, fifteen years my senior, had lived a far more extreme version of faith than I’d ever encountered. For me, lost faith was a breakage; for her, it had been an escape.
As I started reading on her blog, No Longer Quivering, an intellectual door opened for me. I’ve been passing through versions of that door, learning what I can, tracing women’s stories across the internet and into the world, ever since.
Vyckie’s childhood homelife had been chaos—she didn’t know her father, and her mom dabbled in crystals, pyramid power, and natural healing.2 She moved out at fifteen, married at sixteen.
“That was pretty much a disaster,”3 she told me. Those early years led her to crave stability, answers.
She found them listening to a Christian radio station where she discovered the Bible offered an objective set of rules. Order.4
Vyckie met her next husband at a church picnic.5 But she fell into Christian homeschooling by accident. Her four-year-old daughter was precocious and an early reader. Their pastor’s wife suggested homeschooling her just for kindergarten. Vyckie didn’t think she could manage it, but the pastor’s wife insisted—it was just a year. Between the homeschool curriculum and her Christian homeschool support group, Vyckie was introduced to a series of notions that affirmed the choice she’d made was good.
She swallowed the rhetoric and reshaped her life.
She continued homeschooling because she’d accepted it was the “godly way.” Public schools were “basically evil, run by a bunch of secular humanists who were just going to turn the kids into lesbians,” and they were part of the World System, she learned. “Satan is the one in charge of the World System.”6 God should be her child’s educational focus.
When we talked, Vyckie explained to me how churches like hers didn’t allow young adults to date, but instead practiced what she described as a form of matchmaking via courtships.7
From speakers at Christian homeschool conventions, Vyckie heard children are a blessing from God, and God should be trusted with family planning. She should bypass Sunday school or other activities where her children could come in contact with worldly kids. She also learned the husband is a family’s spiritual leader and the wife’s godly role is to serve as his helpmeet (a biblical term for a helpful companion, popularized in some churches as an accommodating and submissive wife).8
Talking to Vyckie, and later reading primary sources from within the movement, I started to put together a rough sketch of a crusade that encourages having as many children as possible, to create a “full quiver” of arrows in an “army for God.”9 A favorite Bible verse, Psalm 127, served as the rationale: “Children are a heritage of the Lord, and fruit of the womb is his reward.”10 Happy is the man with a full quiver. Women’s wombs, then, could forge weapons for the Kingdom of God.
Vyckie wore dresses, with a shirt or turtleneck underneath. She grew her hair out to her waist.11 On the radio, she listened to R. C. Sproul, a theologian and advocate of Christian patriarchy.12 (She found conservative, Christian Focus on the Family “pretty liberal.”13) She followed teachings gleaned from a ministry called Vision Forum, subscribed to Patriarch Magazine, and though she didn’t refer to herself as “Quiverfull” per se, subscribed to the QuiverFull! Digest.14
Together, she and her husband ran a business: a Christian newspaper called the Nebraska Family Times.15 Vyckie edited and published. Her husband handled sales and distribution.16 In 2003, her family was named Family of the Year by the Nebraska Family Council, a conservative, religious policy organization.17
But Vyckie’s body was taxed by pregnancy. She has a chronic bone disease and adrenal problems, and during pregnancy developed preeclampsia and gestational diabetes. Her first three babies were C-sections.18
“When I didn’t die and my baby didn’t die, then that was confirmation, you know, we were on the right track,”19 she said. She thought God was blessing them.
Finally, though, Vyckie’s doctor told her, “You really, really cannot keep doing this. This is going to kill you.” Her husband had a vasectomy.
But over subsequent years, Vyckie read transformative books, such as Be Fruitful and Multiply, in which author Nancy Campbell argues “God calls our children arrows… in the context of Bible days, arrows were for the purpose of war! We are in a war today and God needs arrows for his army.” A warrior wants as many arrows as possible to slay the enemy. God’s blessing is “maximum population.”20 Campbell offered an etymology lesson: Woman is a “womb-man.” Motherhood is a God-given purpose. When I interviewed Campbell for my article about Garrison, Campbell told me the womb is “the very seat of who we are as a woman.”21
Elsewhere, Campbell argued “fruitfulness of the womb is always considered a blessing. Barrenness was considered a curse, a shame, and a disgrace.”22
Beginning background research, I read a popular book called A Full Quiver, by Rick and Jan Hess, which discounted common reasons families might have for limiting the number of children they raise—ranging from overpopulation and food shortage to the cost of a massive brood. They pointed out that avoiding childbearing would hardly help starving “little kids on the other side of the earth,”23 ignoring the possibility of hungry, impoverished children in the West, or in fact, within Christian families. There was no need to worry about depletion of natural resources due to overpopulation because “God gave to man the command and ability to fill up the world with people and to subdue the earth for their own needs.”24 Fathers (as sole breadwinners) would be able to provide for their children with God’s help. “Attention, fathers,” the Hesses wrote, “living a life of faith in God with regard to our family size may just be our Divine ticket to a better job.”25
Vyckie read in The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, Mary Pride’s thesis, that women’s essential role—at home and for the health of a Christian country—was to make themselves open to as many children as God would grant.26 “Why doesn’t it bother us that, thanks to family planning, the number of Christians in the next generation is being thinned out from within?” Pride puzzled. But she offered a back-of-napkin alternate formula: Say Christians are 20 percent of the population. “If each Christian family had six children, and the humanists, feminists, and others kept on having an average of one… then in twenty years there would be sixty of us for every forty of them. In forty years 90 percent of America would be Christian!”27
Pride suggested, per God’s gracious design, most women would have a reasonable span between pregnancies, given a year or two of breastfeeding. After her fame grew, Pride responded in her subsequent All the Way Home, to women asking why despite breastfeeding they were having children so close together. “My theory is,” she wrote, “that God is making up for lost time with many of us who are still willing to have children. He is giving Christians in this generation a chance for revival instead of just shutting the door on us.”28
Pride, who published the magazine Practical Homeschooling, was considered one of the four pillars of the Christian homeschooling movement, along with Michael Farris, founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA); Brian Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute; and Gregg Harris, author of The Christian Home School, a foundational reading within the movement. One set of workshop tapes produced in 1996, Mary vs. Martha, features Gregg Harris’s wife, Sono Sato Harris, who shared how she had once been a “barren woman,” not literally but “influenced instead by careerism and feminism.”29 But when she gave birth to their first, Joshua, then Joel, and once the number of her children swelled to six, she had to settle down at home. She describes the practical challenge of mothering vibrant, messy children while serving as their teacher. Sono Harris played on a verse from the book of Luke, creating two archetypes for women, a “Mary” focused on care and loving and a “Martha” so invested in organizing a tidy, well-functioning home she misses the point of having Jesus visit them.
It can be hard for a “Mary” to learn to be a “Martha,” and vice versa.
“Can a leopard change its spots or an Ethiopian the color of his skin?”30 she queried her listeners. She continued with Martha-type lessons on organization through decluttering.
Whether storing household items in carefully labeled storage containers as Sono Harris suggested or Nancy Campbell asking a reader to answer just what might qualify as a “quiver full,” evangelical women who consumed this content, went to the seminars, and patterned their days and reproductive choices on the advice within could have an intellectually coherent worldview reinforced over and again by internally consistent and trusted sources.31
In Pride’s work, Vyckie learned that birth control blocked God’s prerogative over whether a human soul can come into existence. Pride declared that the Pill was associated with hypertension, blood clotting, fungal infections, and, possibly, cervical cancer.32 Campbell, for her part, argued that birth control pills precipitated abortion; both Campbell and Pride framed IUDs as abortive.33
Pride’s argument that compelled Vyckie most deeply, though, was that Christian mothers seeking salvation through childbearing may run some risks, but no more than Christian missionaries who risked death answering their calling. “Even if maternal missionary work has some hazards (what missionary work doesn’t?), the noble way is to face them with courage,” Pride wrote. “Likewise, we really ought to honor women with medical problems… who are willing to serve God as mothers.”34
“I had such a martyr’s mentality,”35 recalls Vyckie.
She accepted Campbell’s advice on vasectomy reversals and encouraged her husband to reverse his. He did, and more children followed.36
Pregnant with their fourth child, Vyckie was set on a home birth. “If you’re trusting God with your family planning… you have to be the most natural,”37 she reasoned. Over the course of the pregnancy, she packed seventy pounds onto her ninety-five-pound frame. She was miserable and cried to her midwife, saying she wanted to see a doctor.
Instead, the midwife told her a Bible story about Moses leading the children out of Israel. They were getting manna from heaven and grew weary, and God rained down quail. They had meat in abundance but leanness of soul. Not wanting leanness of soul, Vyckie worried that if she was asking for a doctor, “do I trust God?”
Toward the end of the pregnancy, Vyckie was having contractions almost continually, maybe a minute long and intense, coming every five minutes—but she wasn’t dilating. Her midwife suggested a warm bath. Relax. She was exhausted, sitting in the tub, when her eyes tripped over a razor.
“It came to my mind, if I just cut my wrist, then maybe this midwife would believe I can’t handle this,” she recalls.
Eventually, she was taken to the hospital. The doctor later told her he’d never seen any woman in her condition—a preventable state. Her blood pressure had bottomed out. As the anesthesiologist put the oxygen mask over her face, she said, “I really, honestly thought I was about to meet my maker.”
But she and the baby survived.
By the fifth baby, she did have a home birth (and truly couldn’t have afforded another C-section).38 Her sixth was another vaginal delivery. Her seventh she planned to have at home, unassisted, but after one contraction, she knew something was wrong. It was good she listened to her own intuition—something she often didn’t, had been trained not to. It was too easy as a woman to fall under Satan’s influence.
Nevertheless, she asked to go to the hospital, and there she learned she was having a uterine rupture.39
Again, mother and baby survived. Her eldest daughter took care of the newborn, staying with them at the hospital, bringing the baby to Vyckie’s breast as she slowly recovered.
Vyckie got pregnant again, and again. Miscarriages followed.40
Managing the house full of kids became too much, Vyckie told me.41 She couldn’t keep up with homeschooling or even feeding the kids three meals a day. “My kids were not getting educated.”42
There was such a vast disconnect between the godly prescriptions she was attempting to follow and the result in her lived experience. “I was trying to manifest, I guess, the world in my head, in my home,” she says. But the distance between just made her “study more and try harder and pray more and submit more… in this desperate attempt to get it right.”43
And it was killing her.
Another element of Vyckie’s urge to live right was a sense of duty to honor her parents. Although she had been raised without her dad, in an effort to fulfill that obligation, she reached out to her father’s extended family.44 This is how she connected with an uncle who happened to be an atheist.
Vyckie’s father warned that her uncle could confuse her faith. She felt insulted, as if “some atheist uncle is going to talk me out of my Christianity.” She liked the uncle immediately, and they kept in touch via email. While he made no attempt to “de-convert” her, he asked questions about how she lived. This challenged Vyckie to explain choices she considered Bible-based to someone who didn’t believe in God.45
All of it tested Vyckie’s ability to articulate a clear rationale for her beliefs without being able to lean on shared theology, given premises. It was harder than expected.
She’d built her life entirely around what she was taught God wanted. But as she struggled to describe her world, her certainty faltered until she got to the point where she didn’t believe in Jesus.
“It all just kind of came crashing down at once,”46 she recalled.
She was coming apart physically and mentally and left home on her own and stayed with a friend in Kansas City for two weeks, which naturally escalated marital conflict. When she returned, her husband left and took the kids to his mother’s. Their network of Quiverfull families tried to negotiate on her husband’s behalf: She could only see her children if she got back into the “right relationship with Jesus.”47
Vyckie went to the courthouse and filed for divorce. When we first talked, she saw her ex-husband as a victim of the beliefs they’d adopted. The rigid gender roles they adhered to damaged him, she felt, and gave sanction to his worst traits and suppressed his natural, good qualities.48 She was the one who brought the ideas home, after all. Her ex, who is blind, was not the one going to conventions and lugging home books. She was left wondering, “Why would I participate in my own oppression and abuse and even bring it on myself?”49
In the end, she won custody but was also sunk in debt. But she was out, and her children were safe. Now she only needed to figure out how to rebuild their lives.
After her divorce, Vyckie had been thinking back to a friend from her home church, a mother of eleven who had contemplated killing herself, thinking it might be the best thing for her children and husband. Then, her friend’s logic ran, “All these other Christian families are going to rally around my husband and kids.” Her friend thought the other families could take better care of her children than she could, because regardless of effort, their lifestyle didn’t work. Everyone was so unhappy.50
Instead, the friend lived with Vyckie for about six months after she left her husband, then ultimately lost custody of her children.51 That loss, more than anything, demonstrated to me the risk women in high-control religious communities face. They pour everything into what they believe is the best way to raise their children and, if they leave, jeopardize losing them in the attempt to free them and to save themselves.
Just as Vyckie had undertaken a gradual adoption of stricter and stricter theology,52 she later systematically processed what her faith had been and how it impacted her kids and her own life. With her friend, she started a blog called No Longer Quivering. It was a place to write down what they had experienced, try to figure out “what was it that had appealed to me. What was my thinking?”53
Surveying No Longer Quivering, I found photos of Vyckie, a blonde who wore glasses and seemed fond of floral-print dresses and tops. In current pictures, her kids wore T-shirts and shorts or jeans.54 It was a leap from the older family shots with waist-length hair and frumpy cardigans.
Within months, No Longer Quivering (NLQ) was built out with forums and a growing community.55 As the site gained attention, Vyckie “loaded NLQ with keywords” and got it to the point where No Longer Quivering would appear at the top of search results if someone googled particular ministries.56 If a family was searching evangelical-famous pastor “Bill Gothard” or his ministry “Institute in Basic Life Principles,” Vyckie says, “they’re getting information from us, saying, warning!”57 The margins ran with NLQ’s Twitter scroll, ads for blogs Under Much Grace (with a graphic that read “fight the mental burqa”) and another for Quivering Daughtersi.
NLQ writers tackled Christian patriarchy, too, arguing “‘Biblical Womanhood’ turns Scripture (often in well-intentioned ways) into a spiritual abuse guidebook, a manual for how to slowly but steadily crush every last spark of life in your bones.”58 One post, “Daughter of the Patriarchy,” described the shame a young woman lived with growing up to believe her developing body was “Satan’s trap” for men.59 (It’s worth noting that years later, on online message boards, some former homeschoolers turned on Garrison; they couldn’t support someone who’d raised her children as they had been.)
On NLQ, Garrison shared pull quotes from OneNewsNow, an outlet she used to follow and republish in her “pro-life, pro-family” newspaper. Doug Phillips, who then ran the evangelical organization Vision Forum, and another “family advocate” named Geoffrey Botkin had been quoted in an article equating the Pill and abortion. Phillips further claimed “our daughters are going to be asked by their physicians whether they want to carry their children or put them in external wombs, which have been created by the scientific community so that women no longer have to carry babies.” Vyckie warned that although the Quiverfull movement represented a small segment of evangelical Christianity, “its ideals are making massive inroads into mainstream thought via these ‘pro-family’ organizations.”60
After learning about Vyckie’s life, I couldn’t help but wonder, who were these guys, Phillips and Botkin, and why were they so anxious about their daughters’ wombs?
i It’s unsettling to look back at the aughts and how commonly burqas were used as metaphors of oppression within Christian communities (where Islamophobia was nearly a norm). It makes sense that over a decade later, when sociologists such as Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry studied Christian nationalism that Islamophobia was a common characteristic. By then it had been normalized for years—both within Christian communities but also across the U.S. broadly. Readers will see other examples, but this detail is one among those I am including, hoping the reader pauses to feel unsettled seeing this language through modern eyes, and I think here, see an example of someone working to leave a system but still carrying some of the residue of its biases.
Around 2001, in Lynchburg, Virginia, when little Ashley Easter was about eleven years old, she sat on her bed distributing small medicine cups to her stuffed animals, leading a pretend Communion. She felt like God had a plan for her life. She was told by her grandfather she could never be a pastor, though; women could not be pastors. Since Eve, women had been more susceptible to deception than men.
Ashley’s very essence seemed to set her up for sin. Brown-eyed, petite, she was outgoing, a natural leader—she ought to be more submissive.
Ashley was what tight-lipped mothers call “spirited.” Her parents saw her behavior as rebellion to their authority and, by extension, to God. Her grandfather was a pastor at the Easters’ independent Baptist church in Lynchburg, home of Liberty University, one of the world’s biggest evangelical universities. One day, her grandparents came and stayed at their house while her parents were away. She either misbehaved or her grandfather perceived she had.
Ashley has crisp memories as far back as two years old. It’s strange, then, that an hours’ long period retold as part of her family’s mythology for years holds a gap, what seems to her to be a block. After Ashley acted up again, her grandfather took her down to a basement bedroom and locked the door. She remembers the bed, the door, the lights, trying to escape and not being able to get out. She cried. But then there are the blanks.
“For those four hours alone with him, he says that, you know, my will broke.” In her church circles, it was called “will breaking.” She told me, “He called it the day he made me a submissive girl.”
He later recounted he was calm and did not hit her the entire time, but that she finally realized he was in charge.
Her light, gentle voice was so heavy the first time she told me this story—frustrated, angry at her mind for not being willing to reveal the gap in memory.
What she does remember is that when they emerged, Ashley’s grandfather bought her a flower and put food coloring in the water so that the flower drew the new color into its petals. It symbolized her change into a submissive woman. For years, her grandfather would tell the story of the time he took her to the basement, and she came back submissive.
As an adult, what happened in that room still gnaws at her. She just doesn’t know.
“Filled with accounts of survivors who exposed the shocking patterns of abuse plaguing conservative Christian churches, Disobedient Women centers the voices of women who spoke truth to power and forced an evangelical reckoning. A moving testament to the courage and resilience of women who refused to stay silent.”
—Kristin Kobes du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne
“Journalist Stankorb debuts with an intimate and engrossing look at how a small number of evangelical women have engaged in an "Online battle" with the American evangelical church, challenging the rigid gender roles favored by ultraconservative church leaders… Sheds fascinating light on the process of deprogramming from extremist religion. Weaving in her own faith journey as the child of an abusive alcoholic father, Stankorb delivers a compassionate portrait of pain and perseverance.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Sarah Stankorb takes readers through the ugliest sins and broken places of modern American Christianity, and reminds us that our country’s best heroes are those whose voices were silenced for far too long. In Disobedient Women, you won’t be spared the hard truth about religion - but you’ll also find women in whom to place your trust."—Angela Denker, pastor and author of Red State Christians
“With meticulous reporting and deft writing, journalist Sarah Stankorb tells the story of women who despite great odds and opposition stood up to the Christian leaders and system that abused them and told them they were worthless unless they obeyed… In between the stories of survivors, Stankorb tells the story of the unraveling of her own faith and her own struggles to escape the pain of her family’s past and find a way forward.”—Bob Smeitana, author of Reorganized Religion
“A book full of devastating honesty, active empathy, and a desire to bring what is holy and abject to light at the same time… As a seasoned reporter, she writes with candor and grace. Stankorb’s is a mature voice, but one that hasn’t lost its sense of urgency or care. The result is a work that will open readers’ eyes to the devastating effects such abuse can have on women, and hope that the more things change . . . the more they might be different next time.”
—Brad Onishi, author of Preparing for War and co-host of Straight White American Jesus
“For much of its history white evangelicalism thrived on identifying threats external to the church which served to mobilize those in the pews toward greater devotion. By elevating the brave voices of those who were sexually abused by church leaders and then ignored and abandoned, Sarah Stankorb demonstrates that one of the greatest threats to evangelical witness actually came from within. If there is a future for white evangelicalism, it must include a deep reckoning with the savage destruction caused by abuse. This story is far from over and this book is an ideal place to start the journey.”
—Andrew Whitehead, author of Taking America Back for God
"Sarah Stankorb writes with extreme empathy about generations of women who grew up in the church and are finding a way out... unwinding a mental landscape of power and sexuality that informed their entire selves. It takes incredible strength to do this, and Stankorb deeply understands each woman’s journey."
—Michelle Legro, editor at WIRED
- On Sale
- Aug 8, 2023
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Worthy Books