Michelle Duggar, of the Duggar family fame, is expecting her 20th child and the internet is not happy.
A quick glance at the comment section of the Daily Beast’s announcement of her pregnancy gives a general idea of how many in our culture perceive her decision to have yet another child. And it’s a reminder that our culture by and large views the decision to have a large family, to reject the use of contraception, and in many instances, to forgo a career to be a stay-at-home mom, as anti-feminist.
Michelle Duggar is an admittedly extreme example of a lifestyle choice that challenges today’s feminist norms. But can we write off her choice as anti-feminist? Or is that in and of itself a violation of feminism’s first principle: choice?
Back in 2009, Double X writer Noreen Malone reminded her feminist readers that Michelle Duggar, then pregnant with baby 19, had freely chosen her lifestyle. She even suggests that, “The word choice, when we’re applying it to the reproductive sphere, often ends up getting defined too narrowly.”
Over at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Morice-Brubaker writes that, “Shaming Michelle Duggar for not making the choices you personally would have liked,” is in fact, misogynistic.
Much of the debate centers around the Duggars’ purported adoption of a movement called Quiverfull, which essentially teaches that women should have as many children as is physically possible and rejects any form of family planning, be it artificial or natural. In fact, the Duggars are not part of the Quiverfull movement and have chosen their lifestyle based on their own personal religious beliefs. And most notably, in the Washington Post’s own interview with the couple, Jim Bob said that he leaves the decision of whether or not to have more children entirely up to Michelle.
So the choice is entirely Michelle’s. Is she not exercising her own personal decision to live in accordance with her vision of a happy and fulfilling life? And how is that anti-feminist?
Somehow, somewhere, feminism became a dirty word for many women, in particular political and religious conservatives. Perhaps this is because somehow, somewhere, the feminist movement became co-opted by an extraordinarily narrow view of woman, one as narrow as the previously prevailing view that a woman’s only place was at home barefoot in the kitchen. Now it would seem, the view is that a woman’s only place is at her desk, in a pantsuit, with a nanny at home watching her two children. She must be a card-carrying supporter of Planned Parenthood, or else she is complicit in the ever-illusive “war on women.”
That view presents a woman who is opposed to abortion, eschews contraception, opts out of a career to tend to her children, or has a large family (or all of the above), as anti-feminist, oppressed, and ignorant. It, ironically, makes her a second-class citizen, because of her choice.
So it is with Michelle Duggar. Feminists have by and large written off her choice as ignorant and backwards, merely because it does not fit the box they have created for what makes a feminist.
Furthermore, by focusing on such a marginalized example of alternative lifestyles, the seemingly obsessive conversation about Michelle Duggar presents women with a sort of false choice: either use contraception and have 2.05 children, or don’t and have 20.
But the reality is that many women, myself included, chose not to use contraception. Some do it for religious reasons, others do it for personal and health reasons. Catholics, for example, believe contraception is sinful because it subverts the procreative nature of sex. But our faith does not teach us that family planning is taboo. In fact, Pope John Paul II routinely linked natural methods of family planning with the “freedom and emancipation” of women, a stance that earned him the adulation of many.
Most of us won’t chose to be Michelle Duggar, whether that’s the having-20-kids part or the having-our-family-on-reality-tv part. But we are all shamed by what feminism has become today for the very thing that feminism claimed to be fighting for: respect for a women’s decision to break out of the box that society would otherwise cage her in.
Perhaps it’s time we revisit what exactly feminism entails. Rather than jump to label Michelle Duggar a disgrace to all that the women’s rights movement stands for, we can use her choice as a springboard for conversation about respect for women more broadly. Because all women suffer when society’s view of woman is too narrow.
Ashley McGuire is editor of AltCatholicah.com.