Fascinating Womanhood Review: outward femininity


I’m back from my vacation, and jumping right back into Helen Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood. I know I picked up some new readers over the holiday break (huge thanks to Fred Clark at the Slacktivist for featuring me)– which, welcome!– so it’s possible many of you aren’t familiar with Helen. I did an introduction to my review series that has all the quick-and-dirty facts you’ll need, and if you’re interested in catching up on the series, you can find them all under my Archives–>Projects tab. I’ve been doing an extended review, examining Helen’s book for its damaging teachings.


We’ve got about a third of the book left, and starting a completely new section: “The Human Qualities.” Up until now Helen’s been talking about the “Angelic Qualities,” and she divides these traits up thusly:

ideal woman

And she certainly starts off this section with a bang:

Femininity is a gentle, tender quality found in a woman’s appearance, manner, and nature . . . She has a spirit of sweet submission and a dependency upon men for their care and protection. Nothing about her is masculine– no male aggressiveness, competence, efficiency, fearlessness, strength, or the ability to kill her own snakes.

When I first hit this paragraph, I couldn’t imagine that Helen means exactly what she says here, but oh, she does. Does she ever. She actually does intend for women to be the exact opposite of what she views as “masculine.” Women are to be hopelessly dependent, weak, and incompetent, and she argues for this unabashedly.

This chapter– which is, thankfully, brief– focuses on what goes into “outward” femininity, and she spends most of her time focusing on clothes. Granted, this was hysterical the first time I read it. I ended up reading it out loud to Handsome (that’s my partner’s nickname here, for the newbies) in my best Margaret Thatcher/Julia Child voice. The main point that she makes, though, is that to “acquire a feminine appearance,” women must “accentuate the differences between yourself and men.” We can do this by wearing “only those things” that make the “greatest contrast to their apparel.” Because, after all, “[m]en never wear anything fluffy, lacy, or gauzy.”

Really, Helen? Never?

She tells us ladies to pay attention to our fabric choices– no tweed, herringbone, woolens, denims, plaids, or anything else ever used to make a suit, really, or worn for work at all. First of all, I’m really curious why these fabrics automatically disqualify an outfit from being feminine. I’ve seen Pinterest. And, just because Helen wrote this back in the 60s, I was curious. Was there something about how these fabrics were used that made Helen think that they could not possibly be used in a feminine way?

EPSON scanner image

Nope. That’s all tweed. She looks pretty feminine to me. And warm. In Helen’s world, women can’t be warm, because we have to wear crisp cottons, linens, chiffon, lace, sating, angora, organdy, and silk. Can’t go around looking for comfort, warmth, or durability from our clothes– that would be unfeminine. Also, all those fabrics? They’re upper-middle class fabrics, and completely unpractical for anyone who does anything more physically strenuous than dust. Which I suppose is probably the point. It also just highlights that Helen is completely blind to her privilege– I have no idea how much money her husband made, but how on earth is an ordinary woman supposed to have a wardrobe made up of anything like what she’s describing?

But, it’s not just the fabrics. We can’t wear “drab colors used by men,” which amounts to anything in the “neutral” category. We should aim for prints, not solids, and assiduously avoid anything “tailored” or “mannish,” like pants or sleeves with buttons. She goes on to tell us to look for “trim”– lace, ribbons, embroidery, beads, and braiding– and all of that also says money to me. And, for our accessories, never carry anything that might look like a briefcase, and always be sure to top off our outfits with scarves, flowers, and jewelry.

Then she moves away from clothes and starts talking about “grooming.” She gives a head-nod to cleanliness and hygiene, with the ridiculously made-up assertion that the women on the Mayflower “may not have had enough water to drink, but they sneaked enough to wash their white collars and caps.” She really can’t help it with the “I have to twist historical realities in order to make my point!” thing.

However, the point of this section isn’t cleanliness, it’s makeup. Apparently, women have “for generations … applied eye makeup and used fragrances.” To a certain extent you could probably make that argument, with a caveat: for generations, noble or extremely rich women have used eye makeup and perfumes. So did men, for that matter. “Women today are essentially the same,” she says, though, and it’s because we do things like “have a wide variety of makeup” and “from time to time fix up their makeup.”

I’d like to take a moment to stop and talk about that.

I love me some makeup, don’t get me wrong. I even have a whole Pinterest board dedicated to the stuff, and I have literally spent days watching makeup tutorial videos on YouTube, just so I could learn to do this:


However, Helen remains completely silent on any sort of warning, or caution, about makeup. She endorses it without any reservations, and encourages women to apply it multiple times a day so that we can look pretty for our husbands (bottom of page 273). She completely ignores the reality of the beauty industry, which was just gaining steam in the 60s.

Most of what I’d say is in a video by the incredible Laci Green:

Helen falls right in line with what Laci critiques in this video: that the beauty industry has almost single-handedly created a completely unnatural definition of beauty. We spend an insane amount of time now making our lips redder, our eyes bigger– we learn about contouring so we can make our noses narrower and our cheekbones higher. And that… that is sad. It’s ended up getting to the point that when I did a google images search of “movie stars no makeup” what I got was an endless stream of Hollywood’s most glamorous looking as unattractive as possible. Or that I had a dudebro in an airport tell me I was obviously a lesbian because I idly commented that makeup wasn’t “worth the effort most days.” Or that whole studies have “revealed” that makeup is necessary in order for a woman to be respected. Or that 68% of men say that prefer women “without makeup” but 73% of men, when shown images, preferred women in makeup over no makeup at all. Or that, in college, three different men told me that I “obviously didn’t care” because I didn’t wear makeup.

When I asked them “care about what?” the response was “looking good” or “trying to get a guy’s attention.” Three men were offended enough by my lack-of-makeup-wearing to comment on it and tell me that it was bad that I didn’t care about getting a guy’s attention, and that this was somehow a mark on my character.

And Helen blows all of this off with an offhand “Your husband wants you to look pretty,” that he even “wants his wife to look pretty to everyone.”

We have to look pretty.

Not be strong, or capable, or competent, or efficient.

Just pretty.

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  • Of all of the completely nuts ideas this book espouses, the one that really has me scratching my head is the “childlike” attribute. Even in the sixties, weren’t we kinda beyond that thinking for at least several decades?

    • Just wait until we get there! It’s… Just wow.

    • Not really. It wasn’t until the early 70s that a married woman could get credit in her own name…and without her husband’s signatorial permission.

      • Not surprisingly, I hear right-wing Christians rail all the time about no-fault divorce, in which a woman could leave an unhappy marriage regardless of her husband’s consent or permission.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      Considering one of the main duties of Christian Womanhood is to service her hubby on-demand, wouldn’t making herself as “childlike” as possible imply hubby is a closet pedo?

      • Nea

        You’re not the only person to wonder that.

  • NuttShell

    I’d say Helen fit the incompentent description to a T. Incompentent writer…….

  • Rachel

    This really flies in the face of the “modesty” movement in conservative circles. Also seems to contradict interpretations of modesty passages that stress not flaunting wealth. But mostly, although I haven’t read this whole series (have read a couple of the posts), I wonder how she backs up the idea that gender roles are such an important part of being a follower of Christ. She’s sure not alone in that idea. I sort of assumed it was somewhere in the Bible most of my life. I’ve just started to realize that it’s not.

  • The whole juxtaposition of Andelin with Meg Thatcher is hilarious. Love or hate her politics, she was the complete opposite of the “fascinating” woman. “The lady is not for turning.” (If you haven’t seen that clip, look it up.”

  • Wow, I’ve always thought that something tailored looked more feminine. If I want something that looks really nice, I look for something tailored.

    • I think her objection to ‘something tailored’ actually betrays her ignorance of sewing and clothing construction, because, as you note, tailored dresses are MORE feminine.

      Which is not just shocking for a book written in the 60s, it completely betrays her point of view as being undeniably upper, UPPER middle class. In the 60s if a woman didn’t know how to sew (or at least *how* clothes are sewn), she was very very far removed from making her own clothes and household goods. IOW, rich.

      • notleia

        Maybe all you have to do is tell Helen that it had been “seamstressed,” not tailored, so it’s feminine and a-okay.

        • LOL. That’s a good pretend feminine verb ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Yeah, I found this weird for her to say. Unless she means tailored as styled for men? There is a definite difference in styling between ‘men’ and ‘women’ clothing. (As an aside, there is a company in New York, I believe, that offers masculine-styled suits to fit women, which I think is rather cool.)

  • I don’t know how you’re reading this and remaining sane; I tip my hat off to you.

    Also, ‘Radiant Health’ is a human quality? How unfortunate we don’t all have the ability to control every cell to do our bidding. She must have been really disappointed with ageing and all that comes with it.

    • Crushed and Broken

      Not to mention, any woman with a chronic or serious illness would fall oh so short of the mark here.
      As old as this book is, I came up against many of these insane standards growing up through the 1970’s and 1980’s. I was an extremely shy, socially awkward child who was also an introvert, and to this day (I’m in my forties ) the constant scolding about how I didn’t smile enough, that my face “puts people off”, that no one wanted to be friends with a somber girl like me still cripples me.

      • Nea

        I was about to make the same comment — a woman can do everything right by Helen’s rules, and still wipe out the moment she becomes ill. Apparently getting the guy to take care of you only counts as long as you don’t need much taking care of – the minute you really do need serious support, you’re no longer feminine.

        • Ugh. What a harmful and sickening philosophy.

      • Courtney

        My face puts people off too, I once had a guy I had never met tell me that he tried to introduce himself to me before and that he waved and I looked at him like he was gonna rape me. That’s not intimidating or anything.

  • Greg G

    I’ve only just started catching up with this series, so someone may have linked this already but:

    The Angel In The House


    “Picture the befuddled family man as his wife wafts dreamily through the furniture, her robes trailing flames and glory behind her, spinning endlessly around a fiery wheel that hovers just over the dining room table, chanting HOLY HOLY HOLY with a gaping mouth through all hours of the night, never eating or sleeping.”

  • So odd. If you read anything written before about 1920, a woman who wore makeup– any makeup at all– was considered a hussy– and a vain hussy at that. Women used to question the salvation of a woman who would go so far as to “paint her face” — like Jezebel did, you know. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • BTW – your link to Slacktivist isn’t working right.

  • notleia

    I have this urge to strap Helen to a chair Clockwork-Orange-style and show her my collection of clothes that make me look like an androgynous hobo or my tendency to the masculine when it comes to semi- (more like quarter-) formalness or business-wear-ishness. I even have a tweed blazer that once belonged to my great-grandmother (fits great). Yeah, great-grandmother, who remembered the Depression and was probably chronologically closer than Helen to the Victorian weirdness that shows up in this book.

  • I agree with Rachel–it’s really hypocrisy to demand make up and then decry a lack of modesty. Won’t make up be viewed as that ooey gooey chocolate cake?

  • Courtney

    Thought you might enjoy this spoken word video (Katie Makkai performing her poem “Pretty”): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6wJl37N9C0 It’s about this very same thing; the idea that women only need to be “pretty,” while no other qualities are of any value (or any use, for the matter!)

    I started wearing make-up around 7th/8th grade because I felt like I was supposed to, and used it off and on through high school and college. Eventually, I only started wearing it for special occasions like job interviews or going out with friends, and now, at 27, I haven’t worn it at all in close to three years. I just don’t like how it feels on my face (especially not in the amounts you have to wear for it to actually make a difference). I think my skin is better off for it, too, so I guess that was an unexpected bonus. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Also, the only times I’ve ever owned skirts was when I needed them for church-related mission trips (though the two I bought last year are growing on me). According to Helen’s rules, I’m a total lost cause!

    • Courtney, I’m with you. I wear make up sporadically at best, and even then it’s only some lip colour and some blush. I think make-up also speaks to privilege, to a degree, because good stuff costs a lot and knowing how to wear it well (so it looks like you aren’t wearing any– irony)– well, it, just like with rules about what to wear when, is part of distinguishing the us-vs-them. Setting her apart status-wise. And I agree that she must be rich and privileged!

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    And Helen blows all of this off with an offhand โ€œYour husband wants you to look pretty,โ€ that he even โ€œwants his wife to look pretty to everyone.โ€

    We have to look pretty.

    Not be strong, or capable, or competent, or efficient.

    Just pretty.

    Like some kept concubine whose owner shows her around as a trophy?