Fascinating Womanhood: Perfect Follower

stepford wife

When I first started this series, I mentioned how Helen had the unpleasant habit of appearing to be quite supportive. In many places, she tells women that they need to be bold, strong– she even uses the word assertive at times. However, I also mentioned how whenever she says something that seems forward thinking, she always undoes it in the surrounding texts. In this way, she’s a bit like Lucy and the football. She tells you that it is perfectly alright to expect your husband to listen to you, or to not be abused, but then she does complete about-face in everything else she says.

The problem with this is that it makes her book, and what she’s saying, even more pernicious. She’s catering to “modern sensibilities,” the expectation that women have these days to, oh, I dunno, be a person. It’s lip service, and that’s really all it is. Because, running underneath and surrounding all of her sentiments of “strength” and “don’t be a door mat” is the philosophy that women are doormats.

The section I’m covering today is still from chapter eight, “The Leader,” and this part is titled “How to Be the Perfect Follower.” And yes, I gagged a little. She lays out what she has started calling “laws” or “rules”: honor his position as the head, let go of your need to control, be adaptable, be obedient, and always be united in front of the kids. To those of us who grew up in heavy-handed complementarian environments, of if you’ve read Created to be His Help Meet, none of this is especially new. It’s frustrating, but old stuff to us by now. What especially jumped out to me about this section is that it sounds eerily similar to what I’ve read in child-raising manuals like No Greater Joy:

The quality of obedience counts. If you obey, but at the same time drag your feet and complain, it won’t get you far. But if you obey willingly, with a spirit of sweet submission, God will bless you and your household and bring a spirit of harmony into your home.

This might sound familiar, because I’ve written about it before. What Helen is writing about here sounds a lot like the “instant obedience doctrine” I grew up with– only for wives and their husbands, instead of children and their parents. I wasn’t joking when I said that Helen infantalizes women.

But, one of the biggest problems in this section comes after the rule “Have a Girlish Trust in Him.”

Don’t be concerned about the outcome of things . . . Allow for his mistakes, and trust his motives and judgment . . . Sometimes your husband’s decisions may defy logic. His plans may not make sense, nor his judgments appear the least bit sound . . . Don’t expect every inspired [which Helen defines as “appears to defy reason, but is prompted by God”] decision your husband makes will be pleasant, or turn out the way you think it should. [sic]  We must all be tried by the refiner’s fire…

There may be frightening times when you would like to trust your husband, but you cannot. You detect vanity, pride, and selfishness at the bottom of his decisions and see he is headed for disaster. If he won’t listen to you, how can you avert it? The answer is this: if you can’t trust your husband, you can always trust God. He has placed him at the head and commanded you to obey him . . . if you obey the counsel of your husband, things will turn out right in surprising ways.

And under “Support his Plans and Decisions”:

Sometimes your husband needs not only your submission, but your support. He may face a decision he doesn’t want to take full responsibility for. He may want you to stand with him. In this case you will have to take a look at this plans to see if you can support them. If you can, give him the encouragement he needs. If you can’t, assert yourself . . . he may be grateful to you for expressing your point of view. If he insists on having things his way, you must still support him, even when you don’t agree. You can support, not his plans, but his authority and right to decide.

So, here’s a summary:

  1. Don’t worry your pretty little head about any of the decisions that could have extremely negative, long-term effects on you and your family. You just sit there and look pretty in your pearls and high heels.
  2. If your husband’s decisions look crazy and disastrous, they actually aren’t. You’re just too stupid to realize that he’s been inspired by God.
  3. If it turns out his decision really was a horrific mistake, oh, yayness, you get to enjoy the refiner’s fire!
  4. If you are actually perceptive enough to realize he’s doing something for bad reasons, and you think it will turn out badly? All you have to do is your needlepoint and wait for God to fix everything.
  5. If your husband doesn’t want to take responsibility for his own decisions, you must support him.
  6. If you tell him they’re bad decisions, and he decides “nope, I think they’re awesome!” you must support him.
  7. Stand by your Man. Always. No matter what.

The next section, “The Feminine Counselor” has some really solid, common-sense advice. She tells women to ask leading questions, which, as a teacher, I’ve used for great effect. Leading questions can be extremely helpful in getting people to explain their thought process, and understanding your husband’s thought process: good. Figuring out not only what a person thinks but also why they think it… just seems like a good idea. After this step, she says we should listen. Which, listening = awesome, in my book. We could always do with a little more listening, pretty much always.

And then… we run into problems. In step three, she tells us to “express insight,” or, to use words like “I sense,” or, “I feel.” And, to a certain extent, I can agree with this. How someone feels about an idea is important, and, I try to live by the principle that how someone feels is always valid and justified. However, she tells us to phrase it this way because using “I think” means “he can put up a good argument to what you think.”

To Helen, having any kind of discussion whatsoever, no matter what it is you’re talking about, is always bad and must always be avoided at all costs. Small things, like whether or not you’re talking the dog on a picnic? Not up for debate. Big things, like career moves and where you’re going to live? Don’t even think about it. No, really:

Don’t have ideas about what you want out of life, such as where you’d like to live, the kind of house you want. . . this may clash with your husband’s plans, plans he must carry out to succeed in his masculine role.

What does a successful, happy marriage mean to Helen? Well, there’s a reason why I chose the cover for Stepford Wives for today’s post. She goes on, though, and it just gets so much worse. She orders women not to “appear to know more than he does,” and, later on in the book, we’ll see how she really does think women need to play stupid. We’re not supposed to talk “man-to-man,” which means “don’t put yourself on an equal plane with him,” and “keep him in the dominant position to help him feel adequate as a leader.”

Which– seriously? What kind of man needs this sort of behavior to feel “adequate”?

Oh, but it gets better:

If you are giving advice to a man on a matter in which he is filled with fear, don’t make the mistake of acting braver than he is . . . If you courageously say “you have nothing to be afraid of,” you show more many courage than he does. Instead say, “It sounds like a good idea, but it seems so challenging! Are you sure you want to do this?” Such meekness awakens manly courage . . . Whenever a man detects fearfulness in a woman, it naturally awakens masculine courage.

Excuse me while I go beat my head into a wall.

I can imagine that these sorts of interactions take place between husbands and wives. I’m not privy to the inner dialog of every single marriage, and if your conversations with your spouse goes something like any of these examples, I don’t think that’s inherently bad. I don’t think complementarian marriages are always awful. When that is what works for you both, that’s what works, and I wish you all happiness.

However, Helen is arguing that this is how all marriages should be, and if your marriage is not like what she says it should be– “you may think you are happy, when in reality you are not. Your marriage may seem happy, but you fail to see that there is more” (pg 1). Asserting that all marriages must function this way can only lead to disaster, heartbreak, and pain.

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  • Here is a thought I pointed out to a blogger who was encouraging woment to submit to their husband’s leadership: God never calls anyone to lead just for the sake of leading. He also doesn’t place a person in leadership simply for the benefit of the leader. There’s always a purpose–something that God is trying to accomplish for everyone involved. One of the many (many) problems I have with complementarians is that they tell men to lead and women to follow, but don’t explain what it is that men are supposed to be leading their families to. Which is particularly threatening to the stabilty of the home, as leaders without goals often become egotistical and disillusioned. Leaders don’t exist simply to make decisions; decisions are supposed to be made within a clear context of a vision that moves everyone in the unit closer to happiness, unity and fulfillment. Appointing men to lead without giving them a goal and the tools to acheive it will do nothing to satisfy their “God-given nature to lead.” Instead, it will only frustrate them and result in failure, abuse and warped expectations. Being in a position of authority does not make one a leader.

    For the record, I’m egalitarian.

    • “leaders without goals often become egotistical and disillusioned.”

      This is an apt observation, and to me, it seems like this is moving in the direction of a chicken and egg problem: I’m not sure if we see a bunch of egotistical disillusioned men in complementarian homes because they believe that God picked them personally to run things, or whether they believe God picked them to run things because they’re egotistical. Either way, it’s leading to a lot of messed up, hurting homes.

  • Koko

    My mom “gifted” me many books of this ilk when I got married. I tried to follow them to the letter & it was a disaster. The thing is, even now with our egalitarian relationship, there is a HUGE disconnect between my husband & me when talking about our early married years. He thinks it wasn’t that bad (why would he? I never voiced overt dissent about anything!), whereas I was exceedingly miserable.

    At this point, we believe books like this teach either “manipulative submission” or absolute subservience.

  • I was in a marriage like this for 21 years. In that time, we moved a dozen times. I homeschooled my children just to give them some kind of stability…imagine my children being pulled out of school after school in state after state throughout their school years?!

    In my former marriage, arguing with, reasoning with, or having a plan for my own life with my husband was futile. Not because he lacked courage or was indecisive or whatever. He was USING the complementarian wife and obedient, submissive children to APPEAR as if he had a sweet, intact, pure little family so that no one would actually inquire as to the real person he was. We didn’t stay anywhere long enough for anyone to find out.

    This little front was so effective, he could have untold number of affairs and conduct embezzlement schemes…all the while having Bible study lunch hours and being a leader in church after church! He is such a master of the jargon…he knows exactly what Biblical answer to give for any given life circumstance. He knows his Bible backwards and forwards.

    My problem with this whole thing was that he didn’t let me in on the scheme. I thought that all of this worshiping God, teaching our children the Bible, being a leader in the church, living the life of community, home schooling the kids, etc. etc. etc was REAL! It surely was real to me. And I devoted every ounce of energy, strength, and devotion I could into being exactly everything that Helen teaches here!

    What Helen teaches is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!!! It is so twisted and depraved! I am just SO THANKFUL that you, Samantha, a young, intelligent, educated young woman can read it and see it for what it is. And that you have the talent and ability to explain WHY it is so wrong. And you have the desire to tell it to others. You are a conductor of light, Samantha. Thank you.

  • MyOwnPerson

    After growing up being taught these kinds of things (less extreme though), I had a hard time making friends with other women. It took a long time for me to realize that it was because I thought that women generally were stupid. And it’s no wonder. After a lifetime of being told that women were led wildly by their emotions, that God only works through men, and that women weren’t as good as making decisions as men, and the subliminal message sent by only men having serious theological discussions and women talking about crocheting baby booties, it had an effect. I’d like to meet more women like you. I want to start over with a fresh take on humanity and realize that my biology does not make me inferior. 🙂

  • Our early marriage was never this one-sided– but whenever I just said “yes, dear” and went along with things, he hated it. What he wanted from me was a second pair of eyes to see what he might be missing, a second head to think through what we were doing. If I had said, “It sounds like a good idea, but so challenging! Are you sure you want to do this?” when I meant “you have nothing to fear,” he would have been extremely frustrated! It wouldn’t have made him feel stronger and more masculine, whatever that means– it would have made him doubt his own thinking. He actually values my advice and wants my honest opinion, not emotional manipulation.

  • Nea

    Which– seriously? What kind of man needs this sort of behavior to feel “adequate”

    One who isn’t fit to lead, frankly, because he’s going to be utterly unprepared to deal with any challenge or reversal of plans.

  • Angela

    Honestly I don’t think this type of marriage could possibly be healthy for anyone. I’m not saying that people can’t assume traditional gender roles in a healthy marriage. In fact, my own marriage is somewhat like that. I don’t believe in assigned gender roles but still gravitate toward the traditional female roles while my husband assumes a lot of the “male” responsibilities. It’s probably because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to do but for us it works. When it comes to decision making I’m actually the one more comfortable taking the lead but I get that many women are more comfortable in a follower role and that’s not necessarily a bad thing either as long as both parties are comfortable with it and it’s not manipulative.

    But here’s the thing. Even the most laid-back, follower type can and should have issues where they are able to assert themselves. The obvious case here is abusive situations but really any time there’s strong objections it’s not healthy to ignore them for the sake of keeping the peace, which is exactly what Helen’s advocating.

  • I am sorry, some of this made me laugh outright the rest simply made me want to hunt down Helen and punch her. Clearly, Madam Helen has never had the need to get up in the morning and figure out how to feed her children without money, pay the mortgage without money, keep the lights on without money. Clearly, Madam Helen has never had to be afraid of the phone ringing knowing it will be another bill collector or worse her ‘fearless leaders’ boss wondering why he isn’t at work, again.

    Stand by your man?

    Not all of us happily give up our identity, intellect, passions and freedoms simply to have a man in our lives. Fortunately, healthy and well-adjusted men would not ask this of us.

    I have one simple rule in my marriage, “You do not have to love what I love, you have to love me enough to compromise.” This works both ways, every big decision is discussed, both sides are heard, every objection considered and compromises are reached.

  • Even my fairly complementarian mother thought this book was full of crap, and I can see why.

    Her vision of womanhood is EVERYTHING I would absolutely HATE in a woman.

    I picked a smart woman. I would rather know what she “thinks” than what she “feels.” Not that feelings are bad, but if her brain tells her something, I want to know it, because she is smart and has good judgment.

    And really, if I am scared, I want to know she is confident in our decision. (And believe me, it will be OUR decision.) I like her self confidence. I like to know that she has my back, not because she feels she HAS to, but because she has confidence in me. And that she actually agrees with our decisions because we came to them together, not because she has to support me in dumb decisions because I am the man.

    What a freaking crazy way to live! Sheesh!

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