Fascinating Womanhood Review: worthy character

joan of arc

Today is the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. This year is a special campaign that will go through December 10, Human Rights Day. Women’s rights activists have honored Patria , María , and Antonia  Mirabal, three sisters who were assassinated by Rafael Trujillo on November 25, 1960, by choosing November 25 as a day dedicated to helping women who are the victims of violence since 1981. There are many organizations dedicated to ending violence against women– some have a global focus while others are concentrated on particular nations.


So, I had a really hard time getting through this chapter– and it’s nothing compared to next week’s, which Helen titled “Domestic Goddess.” This chapter is dedicated to all the different traits the fascinating woman needs in order to have a “worthy character”– and that wasn’t an accidental choice of words. Her definition of “worthy” reminds me a bit of Mr. Darcy’s definition for an “accomplished woman”– and Lizzie’s response of  “I am no longer surprised at you knowing only six accomplished women, Mr. Darcy. I rather wonder at your knowing any.” Her expectations are astronomically high. And, I’m worried about the women who read this book and get to this chapter, because there’s no flexibility in what makes for an “ideal” woman. Having a “worthy character,” in many ways, seems to be “don’t be a human being.”

First off, like always, Helen is capable of giving advice that I agree with. She says several things, in fact, that she didn’t completely ruin with other ridiculous things. One of them was to “perceive people’s needs,” and she says “there is no merit in giving goods or service when not needed, or failing to fill critical needs,” and I couldn’t help picturing what typically happens after a natural disaster, and suddenly the area is flooded with truckloads of old clothes but no food. But . . . that was about it. Everything else was so stomach-twisting that sentiments like that got buried quickly.

She starts of the chapter telling women that the only reason a woman should bother having a “worthy character” is for her husband– forget it being a good idea, even. Nope. It’s because your husband deserves to have a wife that’s more machine than woman:

If he is thoughtless, critical, or weak, he can overlook these human frailties in himself. But he expects a woman to be above such things. At times a man will shake a woman’s pedestal by suggesting she do something wrong. He may do this deliberately to see if she is as worthy as she appears to be. In other words, he tests her. What a disappointment if she lowers her standards and falls to his level.

What the. And this was the first page of the chapter. It’s a good indicator of what we’re about to get into. Also, this is why I laugh hysterically when I hear the claim that feminism paints men as the bad guy. No, feminism respects men enough to realize that they’re not monsters, and are capable of not being an asshole who deliberately screws with his wife to see if she’ll “stoop to his level.”

Then she goes on to talk about literary characters, which I’ve been over how much she twists poetry,  novels, and even history  in order to prove her point. There’s no point in even talking about what she does to Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Princess Maria. It broke my English-major heart.

Anyhoo, Helen spends the rest of the chapter outlining all the traits a woman needs to have a worthy character. They are self-mastery, unselfishness, charity, humility, responsibility, diligence, patience, moral courage, honesty, and chastity. Now, I don’t have a problem with most of these traits– except for the obvious one (coughchastitycough). Almost all of these are, I think in general, pretty good things to try to have. I shoot for many of these on a regular basis, others on a not-so-regular basis. I try to keep things like charity and humility in front of me every day– I believe in loving my neighbor and avoiding being an arrogant jerk, when possible.

However, these traits in the aggregate paint a very specific picture of Helen’s ideal women. If you look at this list, most of these traits have an awful lot to do with being a specific kind of person. The woman Helen is saying you must be in order to have a “worthy character” reminds me of Miss Brooke from Anne of Windy Poplars– the hard, almost dour woman who ruled her classroom through fear and discipline. A woman who Helen would probably describe as “flighty” and I would describe as “joyful and enthusiastic” probably wouldn’t fit into Helen’s picture of a worthy character.

But this is what happens very frequently in fundamentalist and even some evangelical and Protestant circles. Being a godly woman means being a specific kind of woman. If you naturally fit into the mold, then you’re lucky. For all the women who don’t naturally fit the mold, they have to spend their entire lives forcing a round peg into a square hole.

My mother has been affectionately dubbed the “friendly freight train.” She can talk to anyone, she is cheerful and jubilant pretty much all of the time, she adores people, and she is one of the most sacrificial people I know. But I watched her struggle almost all of my life, because she was being told that she had to fit inside of a rigid, inflexible set of parameters that said that who she was as a person was ungodly. She couldn’t ever be just who she was– she was rarely accepted for being who she was because she was so unlike the “godly woman” being preached about from pulpits and Sunday school rooms and ladies’ retreats.

The way that Helen defines these traits is what bothers me the most, though. Take the “self-mastery” trait, for instance. Most people would call that self-control, but what Helen is really going for is mastery, and it sounded eerily familiar:

Another way to gain self-mastery is to train the will. For example, every day do one or more of the following:
do something unpleasant– take a cold shower, or eat a food you don’t like.
do something difficult–do a hard job, or work on a difficult goal . . .  [like] forgoing coffee.
demand quotas of yourself– get up at four thirty . . .

When I was a teenager, my Sunday school teacher told me that if I was wearing a really uncomfortable pair of shoes all day and I got home, I should not take my shoes off for at least another thirty minutes– to “train myself” in this way that Helen describes. I was supposed to “die to self.” This is really just a watered-down form of self-flagellation. Helen is telling women to do the modern-day equivalent of whipping yourself, sleeping on a stone bench, and wearing a cilice. But, instead of us doing this to atone for sin, we’re doing it for no other reason than to make ourselves miserable and prove to ourselves how well we can stand misery.

Helen also completely re-defines unselfishness. She differentiates it from “kindness,” which she says are only the things like “giving away something you don’t want or need.” No, in order to be truly unselfish, you have to give sacrificially. It only counts as being unselfish when it hurts you in some way. It’s gotta make your life substantially harder– and, oh, it’s not “prompted by charity.” You don’t do it because you love people. You do it because it’s your moral duty.

Everything else in the chapter handles other traits in the same sort of binary– you are either responsible, or you are not. Being responsible means that you do absolutely everything possible to the best of your ability and you always, always do it on time. Failure in any one of these areas means that you are most definitely not responsible. Also, all of these traits are only practiced at home. If you’re doing something outside of your domestic responsibilities, there’s no way you could be doing it for a good reason. For example, if you don’t practice patience by doing laundry day after day, you’re going to “turn from it altogether and seek relief in the career world.” Apparently, only impatient, unworthy women go out and have careers.

My heart breaks for all the women who have ever read this book and tried to live by what Helen says– this chapter in particular. No one can be this woman. Ordinary life, the daily ups and downs of being a human being aren’t allowed. You’re either exactly this, or you’re a failure. The problem is, these ideas aren’t isolated to this ridiculous book. I spent 12 years trying to live by them, and I watched everyone in my life try to be exactly what Helen described. The only result was pain.

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  • frasersherman

    Multiple thoughts—
    1)The bit about testing women reminds me of the old idea that when make a pass it’s a test–if you flunk, that proves you’re not worthy of a serious relationship.
    2)I wonder if anyone who follows those “do unpleasant things” tests is actually able to transfer the skills? Does taking a cold shower when you don’t want one actually improve your ability to … well, do anything else?
    3)The stuff about loving unselfishly makes me think of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. The protagonist realizes if she loves someone who’s actually handsome, intelligent and talented, she’s shallow and selfish, so she tries to fall for a guy who’s totally unworthy of her, as that way there’s no selfish element. Of course, that was meant to be funny.
    4)The creepiest thing about this post is that while I’ve seen books like this before, I never took seriously the idea anyone out there was taking them seriously. Talking about the woman who buy into this stuff … god, that’s awful to think of.

    • Nea

      <iDoes taking a cold shower when you don’t want one actually improve your ability to … well, do anything else?

      Studies on willpower suggest the exact opposite – that focusing your will and decisionmaking power is like using a muscle; it can be forced to the point of total failure and it exhausts you for doing other things.

      Andelin is directly mandating that women MAKE themselves miserable, that they go out of their way to make themselves miserable, and that they spend time planning on how to hurt themselves physically and emotionally by giving up what they want and mandating they do what they do not want.

      Once upon a time, I was in a relationship where the guy insisted that I stop watching a TV show I loved and spend that time focusing on a book series that I told him I found distressing. I sometimes wonder what kind of a life I would have had it I hadn’t told him he was full of it. Not a happy one. I might have mde myself “worthy” of him in his eyes, but what kind of a creeper would demand that of another human being? Anyone requesting it is defacto UNworthy!

      • frasersherman

        Yes, that does fit with my experience.

  • frasersherman

    And I’m very glad you broke free of this bullshit.

  • “as a day dedicated to helping women who are the victims of violence since 1981.”

    I think we should help EVERYONE (women, men, children, blacks, whites, latinos) victim of violence.
    As a Germanic Frenchman, I am no big fan of the concept of positive discrimination and believe it can lead to serious problems if it is accompanied by the expectation that some groups of people can only be the oppressors and not the victims.

    I try to be impartial and just in all my judgements and get as indignant if Christians bully atheists as if the opposite happens.

    A woman who abuses her husband is as bad as a man who abuses his wife, regardless of the statistic distribution of such misdeeds.

    I am sorry if I have been too politically incorrect.

    Cheers from Europe.

    • First of all, and this might be a personal quirk, but I really hate it when someone pulls the “I’m sorry if this is too politically incorrect for you” or the “I’m sorry, I know my opinion isn’t welcome here” bullshit. I work very hard to have a welcome, inclusive community where everyone and anyone can express any view– as long as they do it without resorting to attacking people. I get very happy when people step up and disagree with me about something.

      Which leads me to my second point. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here, and it’s always helpful to re-iterate that just because there is a commonality among many/most victims doesn’t mean that the commonality is a determiner in whether or not someone is a victim. Abuse victims can be any sex, any gender identity, any gender expression, any race, any age, any ability level, any weight, etc.

      However, there is a difference between general violence and abuse and violence against women . Violence against women is institutionalized, it is a part of culture, it is legal, it is endorsed by religious practices, it is endemic and systemic. The same is not true of violence against men.

      That is not to say that violence isn’t also an integral part of many cultures. It certainly is in America, with examples like gun culture.

      • Thanks for your answer!

        I have had bad experiences on other blogs while expressing such views, this is why I made this “dumb” remark. I’m glad to learn you foster a dialog here.

        It goes without saying I believe that on a GLOBAL scale, women are much more oppressed than men.
        But I think it is no longer the case in the secular western world.
        Granted, women are still discriminated in some ways, but so are men.

        However there are true problems in conservative Evangelical and Catholic Churches which promote a culture where many women are bound to become victims of the abuses you describe.

        This is clearly something I combat, and it makes me sick to see people forbidding gifted women to become preachers because of their belief in Biblical inerrancy.

  • Beth

    Reminds me of the “keep sweet” motto of the Warren Jeffs cult. Unfortunately, I’ve been the victim of this ideology by the church I used to attend. I never fit in. Free spirits never do. I’m glad I had the self mastery to walk the hell away from that church and never look back.

  • I always find the various lists of “female” virtues to be peculiar. The ones that are actual *virtues* apply equally to men and women, like the ones she listed that you agreed with: self-mastery, unselfishness, charity, humility, responsibility, diligence, patience, moral courage, honesty. I see nothing here that I as a MAN should not aspire to, not something particularly feminine. It is the other “virtue” – that of unquestioning obedience – that is the real “female” virtue that ends up being the difference maker.

    I like that you note the false dichotomies. Like the housework/career choice. As if lower income women who have worked to earn money throughout the centuries didn’t then come home and do the vast majority of the household tasks after that. (And as if they went to work because they rejected housework, rather than doing it because it beat starving…)

  • NuttShell

    Are you sure that this Helen person is not some fictitious person that someone dubbed as the author of this book in order to pull a really, really bad prank??? Surely, that can be the only explanation!!!

    • No, sadly, she made many national appearances for twenty years promoting this.

      • Samantha Vimes

        Did she make sure to always apologize for earning money for her book? I presume it wasn’t being given away.

  • Years ago, Helen Andelin’s website included a bulletin board for discussion of the books, which I poked around on out of morbid curiosity. (This would have been in the late 1990s, I think.) Nearly all the women on the board were utterly miserable and married to assholes. They were trying their damnedest to live up to Helen’s ludicrous standards and found, not surprisingly, that the more they gave, the more their husbands happily took.

    It made me sad and furious. I occasionally tried to subtly troll by telling these women that they had done all they could and clearly, they were married to the sort of guy that the FW approach was not going to work on.

    (Every single one of Helen Andelin’s examples were fictional, is my recollection. Probably because real women never turn out quite like she thinks they should.)

  • jenl1625

    “It goes without saying I believe that on a GLOBAL scale, women are much more oppressed than men.
    But I think it is no longer the case in the secular western world.
    Granted, women are still discriminated in some ways, but so are men.”

    And… that’s where you lost me.

    In the 3rd and 4th grade (granted, I looked older, and could reasonably have been perceived as a 5th or 6th grader), I had construction workers routinely cat-calling me as I walked to work.

    In high school, while walking home from school, I routinely had guys pull over (usually in pickups) to ask if I wanted to “go to a party”.

    More recently, as an adult in my late 30s, I have routinely had men refer to me as “girl” when dismissing the notion that I might know more than they do *about my area of expertise, which has NOTHING to do with their area of expertise*.

    I have had men refuse to actually *listen* to what I say, and respond to the content of my comments. Then they get *angry* when I walk away from the conversation; they say I’m clearly over-sensitive and just can’t handle someone telling me I’m wrong.

    These are only my experiences, true, but they’re my experiences across decades and across various regions of the U.S.

    And you think that men and women are equally discriminated against? I beg to differ.

  • Tests are for high school. Mature adults don’t “test” each other. That’s incredibly childish and controlling behavior. If I had a partner “testing” me, he’d find himself on the curb in short order–let him go pull that drama on some other woman! Also, yeah, I’ve faced the same experiences that Jeni1625 has faced–discrimination may not be legal in the West, but in America at least it is rampant. Check out “rape culture” sometime if you want to spend the day angry–that’s the notion that our culture encourages rapists by blaming victims/holding victims responsible for their own victimization, stigmatizing sex and particularly the women who voluntarily have unapproved sex, discouraging equality between genders, glorifying men’s sex drive and declaring that men just can’t “help themselves” when it comes to sex and rape, and objectifying women’s bodies and turning them into commodities. These cultural facets make rape way more likely, and make it a lot harder for victims to get justice or to even be taken seriously as rape victims. In Europe, I understand that some of these things might not exist to such an extent, but here, it’s bad–and worse for minority women and women who fall outside the cis-gender binary or heteronormative ideals.

    Incidentally, isn’t it funny that the “virtues” this author extolled so lovingly feed right into rape culture? I can’t imagine a better victim for a predator than a woman who acts like Helen suggests. How very strange that her version of the perfect woman is one who can be easily victimized and controlled. A lot of modern Christianity seems to be very, very concerned with making sure the women are acting the way they’re supposed to act. The more I look at it, the more it looks like a grab for dominance and the last gasp of unwarranted male privilege. Women can be greatly rewarded by misogyny sometimes–especially if, as you’ve noted, they can fairly easily slide into the cultural expectations for the “perfect woman.” It doesn’t surprise me that “Helen” has managed to make a good living the way she has by writing this ignorant dreck and very likely speaking to groups about her ideas; she encourages male dominance and glorifies male privilege, so of course they’re going to parade her around like a dancing bear. “We found one! We found one!” you can all but hear them shouting in glee.

    PS: I don’t tweet, but noticed you were asking about manuals for the CPC. Most of them use the Pearson manual, which was written by a guy who started the first CPC in Hawaii; you can find copies of them online but they’ll probably lack all the cutesy-poo line drawings of babies and crosses I saw when I read one long ago. I’ve also written a personal account of what happened when I read a Pearson manual, titled “How I Became the Only Pro-Choice Pentecostal I Knew.”

  • There is a revolving ad running across your blog that doesn’t have an X to kill it.

    • As the admin, I don’t see ads, so I logged out . . . and all I saw was the regular ads. Thank you for letting me know, though– I will be sending an e-mail to WordPress.

  • In the movie M Butterfly with Jeremy Irons and John Lone. Lone plays a kabuki actor filling female roles. He tells his controller from the KGB that the reason men play women in Kabuki is that only a man knows how to play a woman.
    It took me awhile to figure that out, but it’s right that women never match up to the ideal religion and society as a whole expect of them is because men set an impossible standard.
    While reading the list of stuff this Helen advocates and if my wife of 35 years tried to do them, this would make for the most unhappy marriage imaginable. How does a man make his wife happy if she is hell bent on being unhappy? A marriage in which the wife is always unhappy it pure hell for all concerned.