Fascinating Womanhood Review: feminine manner


This chapter, more than most, makes me — well, this word is going to sound melodramatic, but it’s the only word that comes close– it makes me feel despair. I know I’ve said this a few times during the course of this review, but it’s worth re-iterating: Helen sounds incredibly extreme, and her ideas sound cartoonish and seem to be easily dismissed.

But Helen is only saying out loud what most of the people I knew actually believed– and still believe, in most cases.

Granted, I grew up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist church, and they’re on the “unmitigated horror” end of the Christian spectrum. However, the ideas I’m about to dissect are present all over mainstream evangelical culture. For example, all of the ideas in this chapter show up in Rebecca St. James’ “SHE Teen.” The “feminine manner” that Helen describes is all over every single Jannette Oke and Lori Wick book ever written.

So, digging in:

The feminine manner is attractive to a man because it is such a contrast to his masculine strength and firmness.

This is probably the central theme for any conversation about femininity in evangelical contexts: the goal is to be as much unlike a man as can possibly be managed. The boundaries between sexes must be firm and distant, and there can be no gender fluidity of any kind. Everyone must not only be cisgender, they must also conform to modern Western stereotypes or risk being labeled “ungodly.”

There are nine specific ways Helen says women can develop a feminine manner: with your hands, the way you walk, your voice, laugh, by “cooing and purring,” having “bewitching languor,” controlling your facial expressions, in your conversations, and in “refinement.”

First of all: this chapter is racist.

It’s racist, because every single trait she describes as “feminine” could be described in two ways: “not stereotypically masculine” and “not black”– by how white supremacists view black women and black culture. Although there’s no such thing as some hegemonic or monolithic “black culture,” there is a way white people view what they call “black culture,” and it’s typically demeaning. When Helen talks about all the unfeminine things can women do, she’s using words and ideas that racists use to belittle and Other black women.

We can’t “wave our hands in the air of use them firmly in expressing” ourselves. Which, that means I’m always going to be unfeminine. Always. I don’t think it’s possible for me to talk without using my hands. Also, this implies that we can’t express ourselves firmly, either– which tends to happen when you have firm views on something. However, having a definite, solid, informed opinion and being resolute– that’s unfeminine.

Don’t walk like men or fashion models. Especially not models. They’re “arrogant.” Also, we have to walk like we weigh “ninety-five pounds.” Which, since I’m around 150, can someone please explain to me how I’m supposed to walk around like I weigh 50 pounds less than I do? Apparently, you need to have been horribly skinny at one point in your adult life to do this. If I ever weighed ninety-five pounds I’d be dead. Granted, there are plenty of small women and 95 lbs. is no big deal for them. However, I’m not one of them.

For our voice, we can’t talk “too loud,” which she doesn’t define, and it also can’t be raspy. It has to be “clear,” and if it isn’t, we have to practice by recording ourselves and reading poetry with marbles stuffed in our mouths like chipmunks. Forget about women who have naturally husky, low, raspy, or masculine-sounding voices. They’re beyond hope.

This next one just infuriated me: we have to “coo” and “purr”:

Have you noticed when women talk to their babies . . . they tend to make gentle noises? This is called baby talk. It can be fascinating to a man, even when bestowed on an infant.

Baby talk.

I’m a little lost as to what “bewitching languor” is supposed to be. She says it’s a “calm, quiet air similar to that of a cat relaxing before a fireplace.” When you say bewitching languor to me this is what I imagine:

Sleeping Hermaphroditus by Bernini

 Considering Helen’s basically been on a rampage against sexiness, talking about “languor” just seems . . . odd.

In our facial expressions, we can never have “tight lips or drooping mouth” . . . or basically use our face to communicate any non-happy-happy-joy-joy expression. If our faces are anything less than eternally “gentle,” it’s because we don’t have a “sound philosophy of life based on moral values” and we’re just “harsh, critical, [and] impatient.” We can learn to control our character by exercising control over our face . . . and apparently, having a good character means never feeling or showing anything negative. Ever.

Women talk too much, too. And we talk about ourselves all of the time. We never talk about anything that isn’t our children, husband, or our house– nevermind the fact that besides church (where we see people to talk to!) we don’t ever interact with anything that isn’t our husband, children, or house in Helen’s universe.

And, my favorite, refinement, which “implies good social breeding.” Considering that phrase is intimately connected to being descended from either wealth or nobility, it’s unsurprising that the description Helen gives for “refinement” is basically “be rich and white.”

There are some parts in this section that I agree with: she encourages us to be courteous, respectful, considerate. All good things. However, in the context of this chapter, even these exhortations to be decent human beings are problematic. You’re courteous, respectful, and considerate because you’re refined. You have “good breeding.” Anyone who expresses frustration, or is critical, who “rubs their husband’s back” or does anything outside of a pearl-and-kitten-heels-wearing image of womanhood is unrefined, and we can judge them for it.

The last part of the chapter, though, includes several “letters” from women who have read Fascinating Womanhood and wanted Helen to know how much it changed their life. I don’t usually talk about the letters– the book is heartbreaking enough on its own, and I’m not even sure if the “letters” are legitimate. Stylistically, they don’t deviate that far from Helen’s voicing, tone, grammar, and vocabulary. The first letter though, hit me:

Before I found your book, I was extremely unhappy . . . I had been raised to be very aggressive, independent, and competent, and added to that was the fact that I am very tall and unfeminine loo
king . . . I feel anything that can change a person like I was into a soft, feminine woman needs to be taught to every woman, especially Women’s Libbers!”

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  • This is so disturbing, and makes me so sad for all the women AND men that are trapped in this thinking. There is so much work still to be done to preach the gospel of LOVE – but sometimes it feels as if we’re little David against the Goliath of fundamentalism… which would give me hope, except in real 21st century life David doesn’t always win.

  • “can’t “wave our hands in the air of use them firmly in expressing””

    Good grief, has she ever met any Italian women?

  • Gah! I have a stack of this type of book that was given me over the years by various counselors. One day (once I’m more stable) I’ll have to go through and see how much of it was like this.

  • Patrick Prescott

    Interesting book you’re deconstructing. John Gray of Mars/Venus fame had a book sold in Hallmark stores years ago as a promo, but he said something in this book he left out in his other M/V books. He said the problem with women today is in the work place they have to be imitation men, and don’t get the time or support to be feminine. I think I can see now why Fundies don’t like women working, it’s because they learn how to be objective instead of subjective and think like a man, which scares the Neanderthals.
    Reading what you described as the role model for being feminine what comes to mind is the difference between Melanie Wilkes and Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, more the book than the movie, but the movie will suffice. Readers forget the Wilkes survived on slavery and became poor without it. Scarlet and Rhett found ways to prosper without slaves.

    • karenh1234567890

      Actually, I think the reason that the fundamentalist generally do not like women working is that it exposes women to adults who will treat them like adults, not 10-year-olds. I have a relative who is fundamentalist. She went to work after being a stay-at-home mom for lots of years and found that she really liked being treated as an adult.

    • Courtney

      I’m sure you didn’t mean this to be offensive, but objective and subjective are not “male” and “female” traits respectively. Working women also do not learn to “think like a man,” as if that were an improvement, or even possible. When ANYONE (male or female) has his/her own job, they have access to a social life, finances, and knowledge/skills that are independent of their spouses or other family members.

      For fundamentalists in particular, it’s this independence that becomes problematic. At work, women will most likely interact with people who have different views and beliefs, which could serve to counteract the type of harmful thinking preached in this book. Essentially, work becomes an aspect of women’s lives that is outside the absolute control prescribed by many fundamentalists.

  • It’s really weird to me that she should describe waving your hands in the air while talking as “unfeminine.” It seems to me like a much more feminine thing to do than masculine. Mostly I just think she’s on some other planet.

  • jenl1625


    I think her idea is that if you gesture as you speak, you may come across as emphatic, confident, maybe even (gasp) strident. Repressing your natural inclination to move your hands for emphasis will probably help inhibit the way you speak as well…

  • Melissa

    I was really delighted that you used the Hermaphroditus image for languor, because of course that sculpture upends the stereotype (and is a potentially rude awakening for the voyeuristic gaze, depending on what the voyeur is expecting) the minute one wanders around to the front. Incidentally, Bernini only sculpted the mattress- it’s a Roman sculpture (possibly a copy of a Hellenistic original).

    I was not raised in a fundamentalist church but so much of this just reflects what I was taught as part of Southern culture….not even religious or evangelical. Extremely depressing.

    • I thought it was spectacular when I found this sculpture. It was particularly perfect for this post.

  • Liralen

    I doubt if Helen’s comments were based on race distinctions, but rather, class. It’s a rather subtle distinction, since the class distinctions subsume race, but I doubt if Helen would have approved of unrestrained behavior from a white woman, either. See My Fair Lady, for example. Also, black women probably weren’t even on Helen’s radar, since they were rarely portrayed in cinema or the music scene. Think Diahann Carrol, who probably fits Helen’s preferences, and Diana Ross, who despite her tremendous talent, was published under the Motown label since white recording studios weren’t interested in her.

    Languor suggests boredom/ennui which would indicate to a man that a woman might be receptive to something more interesting to do, at the very least conversation or a walk in the park. You can see the intentional sex appeal exhibited today in pouty, frowning models, now that drooping mouths are more acceptable. I doubt if Helen would have analyzed this to any great extent or perhaps was quite fine with sending mixed messages.

    I’m not trying to make any point here, other than acting as a 1960’s interpreter. It’s an interesting cautionary tale about our ability to accurately understand the Bible, when only 50 years or so have resulted in so much cultural change. On the other hand, I didn’t read her exact words, so I could be wrong.

    • Class is absolutely a part of it, too– but she wrote it post-Civil Rights, and I’m familiar enough with the culture/pop culture of the 50s-60s to know that black women were always portrayed in whatever media as having these qualities (unless, of course, they were the “mammy” character, and then there were occasional exceptions).

  • “The feminine manner is attractive to a man because it is such a contrast to his masculine strength and firmness.”

    I always think it’s interesting/infuriating that definitions of “godly masculinity” and “godly femininity” depend so much on the other sex. Godly femininity is being the opposite of a man…but what if your’e with a man who isn’t strong, either emotionally or physically? What if you’re with a man who isn’t firm, because he prefers to be gentle or is naturally indecisive or…? A woman can’t be submissive unless the man is prepared to make every decision. In this way of thinking, if a man prefers compromise and equality, the woman is deprived of the opportunity to be virtuous, because her virtue depends on her submissiveness.

    In other words, it seems like they are unable to identify virtue on its own terms–you can’t just be a good person, you have to be a good woman or a good man.