Feminism

Fascinating Womanhood Review: the domestic goddess

french maid

Most of this chapter is, from my point of view, almost entirely normal. It’s the same sort of things that I’ve heard my entire life about what it means to be a “keeper at home.” She makes the same argument that I’ve heard from numerous pulpits, countless books, and endless radio programs and lectures. Some of it could even be considered good advice– her tips on how to get organized seem to be pretty standard fare on all those organization shows I’ve watched on TV.

The problem comes from the basic assumption of the chapter, which she explicitly states at the end: all women with “worthy character” want to be a domestic goddess, and being a domestic goddess always look exactly like this with absolutely no exceptions.

The “no exceptions” part is what frustrates me the most, because people are not all exactly the same, and expecting every single last woman on the planet to be what Helen describes as a domestic goddess is harmful. For many women– many women that I know and love and admire– following what Helen proscribes in this chapter is literally impossible for a variety of reasons. Not every woman can do everything this chapter says, but Helen doesn’t acknowledge that, and in fact argues that any woman who doesn’t do what she says has “a weakness of character”:

Poor homemaking is usually traced to self-centeredness . . .

Failure to follow [God’s example of orderliness] indicates lack of character . . .

Poor homemaking may be due to a lack of knowledge .  . . but when she makes no effort to learn, it indicates a lack of caring, and therefore a lack of character . . .

When a sense of responsibility is lacking there is a deficiency of character . . .

In addition, the woman who will not care for her family because she is lazy demonstrates a lack of love for them, a lack of concern for them, a lack of character.

That’s all on a single page. She’s just spent the entire chapter detailing what it looks like for a woman to “care for her family,” and saying that not doing it her way demonstrates a lack of love for her family is cruel. If my mother had to make from-scratch meals every single breakfast, lunch, and dinner (pages 259 and 260) . . . if she was never allowed to make mac n’ cheese and hotdogs and serve corn out of a can, her physical and mental well being would have been threatened, and she would have been carrying around a completely unnecessary burden of guilt and shame. If using “frozen dinners, cold cuts, packaged mixes, canned foods, macaroni” is a “complete failure in meal preparation” and somehow meant that my mother didn’t love her family? That’s just beyond ridiculous. And it’s not because she was lazy — it was because she was not healthy and was very busy. But there’s no room for that anywhere in this chapter– or this book.

Helen’s ideal woman is a white, wealthy, healthy, fit, reserved, timid, and childish person. Anything else– any other kind of person– doesn’t exist. They’re just people with a lack of character.

And that’s a message I’ve heard a lot in a bunch of different churches, from a variety of books and magazines in more mainstream Christian culture. Women are bludgeoned endlessly with Proverbs 31 (which she says we should read as part of our “assignment” for this chapter), and which is no longer the glorious poem husbands would sing to their wives, but is now a precise checklist for everything a Christian woman is supposed to be and failing to live up to the “standard” of a woman whose “price is far above rubies” is now one of the worst things a Christian woman can do.

And the vision of “biblical womanhood” and “godly motherhood” and “homemaker” that I’ve heard and read all my life is echoed in these pages. Mingled in with lessons on making sure your house is always spotless (but accepting that your husband is going to be messy and not cleaning up until later because he’ll divorce you), all meals are from scratch, your house is decorated (she specifically mentions tablecloths four times), and your children are well-dressed is this idea that being bored with any of that or needing fulfillment in something besides housework is wrong. The problem, Helen says, is your fault:

Many women fail to find happiness in homemaking because they only go the first mile. They only give the bare stint of requirement . . . Women who give just enough to get by never enjoy homemaking. You have to go the second mile to enjoy anything.

So, if you’re longing for something besides keeping your house clean and cooking food? Work harder. Starch those collars, make fresh bread everyday. Do more. Go farther. You’ll never be happy unless you’re constantly working your fingers to your bone– and if any of it is “drudgery”? Still your fault.

Many of our duties [changing diapers, scrubbing floors] are a source of real enjoyment. Caring for children, cooking delicious meals, and cleaning the house can be pleasant experiences . . . Actually little of our work is unpleasant . . .

If you think any of this is boring and you would like to spend a little less time on it to do things you do like to do, like reading books? That’s just something that “robs you of your time” and causes you to be “in a rush for the important things” like making sure your silver is sparkling and labeling plastic tubs for storage.

In short, if you’re not June Cleaver, you’re a failure.

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  • Shannon

    As a SAHM who’s just not that great at housework, I really appreciate this. There’s lots of pressure to “do it right”, especially in Christian circles.

    And can I just say that I wish “man n’ cheese” actually existed. Sounds like my kinda meal. 🙂

  • Katie

    Helen needs to read the feminine mystique.

  • Good lord what on earth are you reading??? LOL I didn’t think books like that still existed. Yikes.

    For all our Mommy friends especially, I’d recommend Captivating by Staci Eldrige. She takes on the “proverbs 31” myth and turns it on its ear. Also, Cynthia Ulrich Tobias has some excellent parenting books, and if you ever hear her speak, she’ll tell you she’s absolutely not the “June Cleaver” craft show type, but having heard some of her story, I would say that she is absolutely a “Proverbs 31” lady.

    You know who that lady was? She was in charge of her own business. An entrepreneur. She dealt in real estate. Sure she sewed- or more likely, had someone sew FOR her, and made sure her family was taken care of, but not all by herself for goodnessakes! She had help! Servants, hired people, whoever, she had HELP. Or she bought clothes from local merchants. She was a WORKING MOM, and she had hired help to make sure her family’s needs were met. Why on earth do we think we should be expected to do all that ourselves??

    And who do you think that lady would marry? Some bum who loafed around and expected her to pick up his socks???? HA No. Her husband is a leader in the community, who participates in local politics. Hanging around the gate is not meeting his buddies at the tavern for a couple jars of wine. That was where a lot of the city’s official business was conducted. He was respected in the community, and made it a point to be vocal about how proud he was to be married to this lady. Bottom line, they were both respected leaders in their homes and in the community. THAT is the standard we’re to keep in mind… Not afraid of hard work, aware of and in tune with the family’s needs, maintaining a home…. Do we really believe this lady, in between buying a vineyard and overseeing her workers, was dusting and picking up camel dung? Um hi, no, she would do it if that were the job at hand, sure, but she DELEGATED. duh.
    And even with that standard as a “high bar”, what fool thinks that God didn’t make us each different on purpose??

    That author would have a heart attack if she saw my house… And yet… My kids are pretty amazing. They’re loving, affectionate and respectful. I’m told that I”m a great mom (though sometimes I honestly wonder!) lol. I’ve pulled my family through a divorce and we’re doing pretty darn well for a household led by a parent who has been out of the work force for over 15 years.
    As wives (or ex wives), as moms, as women, as Christians, we need to come together and reclaim the Proverbs 31 text, take it back from the misogynists and the fools and recognize the very real woman who is represented by that picture. She’s a heck of a lady, and doesn’t deserve the treatment she’s had from the pulpits.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      According to Rachel Held Evans’ blog, Proverbs 31 is understood in a lot of Jewish practice as a chapter of complements to and praises of an archetypal “Woman of Valor”, and in some circles is sung to a wife by her husband as a traditional way of praising her for being her, that she is a Woman of Valor.

  • notleia

    I plan on being a domestic cat goddess (that’s the nicest way of saying crazy old cat lady, right?). Or a domestic liquor drinking goddess (though I have nothing against imported liquors). Maybe if I was a domestic export and trader goddess, I could make a comfortable living off my divinity.
    That’s all the lame puns I’ve got. Anybody else?

    • You had me at liquor drinking goddess… Hmm maybe chocolate goddess? People could appease you by sacrificing dark chocolate?…

      Ok ok Now I REALLY have to get back to work… LOL

  • I will instead write my check to Mary, my housekeeper who is excellent at cleaning my house. She does all the heavy lifting which I am not able to do any more thanks. I am excellent at writing the check though, it comes from the bank account filled with money I earn, thanks.

    I love my clean house, thanks to Mary.

  • word rarely fail me. this just occurred.

  • Koko

    I read & tried to apply this book early in my marriage. The fact that I truly despise housework & find doing the same flipping things day after day to be sheer drudgery made me feel like such a failure. I had 2 small, cloth-diapered children, I made meals from scratch, but I couldn’t keep up with the cleaning & laundry.

    I also rarely spent time with other people outside the house, because I didn’t feel I “deserved” to do something enjoyable if I didn’t have my house sparkling.

    It was a very dark time. I’m so glad I no longer judge my character by my housekeeping (or lack thereof).

    • Margaret

      I’m glad I didn’t have this book early in my marriage, but I did have all the principles. I failed miserably, even before I had kids. It took me a long time to realise that “caring for my family” meant setting the priorities, but did not mean I had to do it all myself OR do everything that everyone else did. (or that I thought everyone else was doing.)

      My husband and I fought over the house work for twelve years, before he finally agreed to let my try hiring someone else to do it. It was so much more peaceful. Order is peaceful and lack of guilt is more peaceful. I also discovered that once I was free of that burden, I was able to go out and be a substitute teacher, which I loved, and made enough money to cover the cost of having my house cleaned.

      I also discovered that when I worried about the house, I became frazzled and frustrated, and yelled a lot. I decided that this was not appropriate, and that my children needed a saner mom, so phooey on the housework. We muddled through and my kids turned out great. If any one of them wants a “perfect house,” more power to them.

      I discovered that I was being responsible by deciding what actually needed to be done and deciding who was going to do it. Then, my life got so much better when I found “FlyLady.” She is a online coach for people like me, who are housework-challenged.

      “Housework done incorrectly still blesses your family!” – Marla Cilley, Flylady.net.

  • This kind of vision only exists in fantasies, though. It applies to such a small number of women in such a limited number of cases. Nowadays, a man would have to be earning a decent amount of money to afford a SAHW and a passel of children–money which most men nowadays cannot earn. There is not only a lot of classism in words like those, since this vision of domestic goddess-ness only existed for upper-middle-classes since the Victorian Age and its “Cult of Motherhood” idealism, but also a lot of racism–because that vision of the SAHM and passel of kids did not exist for women of color throughout history–nope, they pretty much expected work outside the home to be their reality, nor for women who were too unattractive to bag a man (who would always be sponging off relatives or having to forge their own way somehow), nor for women who were unlucky enough to be born into the extreme lower classes (since they were also going to be working outside the home for a living, as poor women always have). It bugs me that Christian women are bashing their brains out to meet an ideal that never really existed except for a very, very narrow subset of people, and even then it didn’t exist in such blissful harmony as fundamentalists imagine. It reminds me of those young women trying to look as much like Japanese anime characters as they possibly can–they’re destroying themselves to reach an ideal that has never been a reality for the vast majority of people.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      ” It reminds me of those young women trying to look as much like Japanese anime characters as they possibly can–they’re destroying themselves to reach an ideal that has never been a reality for the vast majority of people.”

      Have you actually SEEN those photoshops of what Anime characters would look like IRL, if the stylistic and theatrical conventions of Anime WERE their RL appearance and facial/body proportions? They do NOT appear human at all — maybe humanoid aliens or fey folk, at the very bottom of the Uncanny Valley.

  • I’m still wondering when Christians decided the word ‘goddess’ was a good idea.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      When Protestantism refused to have anything to do with St Mary?

  • Nick

    What’s really strange about this is that not even June Cleaver would’ve gone this far. The 50’s and 60’s was all about finding shortcuts to house work. We have frozen dinners and canned vegetables BECAUSE of the 50’s. I looked through Time Magazine articles from the 1950’s during college, and it’s amazing how many ads were geared towards lightening the load of housewives. They never suggested the husband do any of the work, of course, and some of them used the “horrifying” possibility of the husband doing housework as a reason to use the shortcuts, but still, women haven’t been making every meal from scratch since at least before Sputnik.

  • Gram Pol

    Others have talked over the main points so I have to go with the trivial: I take strong, personal offense at the idea that “using macaroni” is a cheap shortcut and means you don’t love your family enough to serve them “real food.”

    Pasta is a wonderful food and can be ruined if not cooked properly. Shame on Helen!