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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