So, it’s been a little while since we’ve delved into Helen Andelin’s world. We’re about halfway through the book, and we’ve reached the point where we’re going to start seeing a lot more ridiculous statements. On one hand, it makes it easier for me to demonstrate the absurdity of her beliefs– at times, all I’d have to do is quote what she says and even the most die-hard Vision Forum devotee would roll their eyes– but on the other hand, that makes it seem that what Helen’s promoting is so outdated that no one accepts it anymore.
That is, unfortunately, not true.
Helen might say it much more directly than Mary Kassian or Dannah Gresh or Stasi Eldredge probably would, but all these conservative women are advocating for the same principles and in very much the same way that Helen does. They ignore the same types of people that Helen does, they dismiss the realities of many women’s lived experiences like Helen does, and it all results in a set of teachings that condemn at least 40% of the American population– and that’s just America! Forget about the global church– if you’re not at least an upper-middle-class white evangelical stay-at-home mother . . . well, you might not even be a Christian, so there. The principles and the message haven’t really changed that much. Whether it’s a Mormon woman writing in the 1960s, or an evangelical woman writing in 2005, we’re still hearing the same things.
First off, she tells us what happiness is, taking an approach of defining by negation. She has a hard time explaining what happiness is, so she talks mostly about what unhappiness is and what happiness isn’t. First of all, unhappiness is totally our fault. Unhappiness “arises from a failure within–weakness of character, sin . . . We are unhappy when we are doing something wrong.”
That is a statement I am familiar with. I grew up in fundamentalism, and the appeal of fundamentalism could probably be wrapped up in the promise “follow all our our rules and you’ll be happy!” Which made the converse true: “not following all of our rules makes you miserable!” Happiness became totally defined by whether or not we were following the rules, period. Even if we thought we were happy, if we weren’t following the rules, we were mistaken.
She then moves on to setting up a false dichotomy between happiness and pleasure. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an argument for conflating these two, but she makes the argument that good little rule-followers are happy, and people who don’t care about “eternal laws” can’t possibly be happy. They can find pleasure, and they are so ignorant they mistake that for happiness. It’s the same sort of statement that she made on the first page– “You may think you are happy, but in reality you are not.”
Then comes the bulk of the chapter: what you need to do in order to be happy. Since happiness is “earned,” there are specific things we can do to make ourselves happy. Some of these things are pretty solid ideas– she encourages charitable volunteering, which some researchers have connected to happiness. She also tells us to “accept ourselves” (although she limits that to “don’t rip yourself to pieces for burning dinner or breaking something” which doesn’t really fall into the typical understanding of self-acceptance), and to “appreciate simple pleasures.” I’m all for appreciating the simple things; however, even while telling us to be rose-smellers, she takes the time to demonize many women.
I’m one of those women that jewelers like to say have “exceptional taste.” I like the sound of a silver fork tapping the side of a crystal water goblet. I think London blue topaz stones are some of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen. The feel of angora, the luxury of silk . . . the enthralling moments of a Puccini opera threatening to burst through the ceiling of the Kennedy Center. . . those are all amazing, glorious things. That doesn’t mean I also don’t appreciate snuggling up in my polyester blanket in my sweatpants with a cup of tea I microwaved in the $1 glass mug I bought at Wal-Mart, but I think it’s totally fine if you appreciate both. That’s not permissible in Helen’s world, though. While there’s something to be said for the cost of “keeping up with the Joneses,” that’s not what Helen is saying here. Enjoying and appreciating nice things is the opposite of enjoying and appreciating “simple” things, and enjoying the luxuries renders you incapable of enjoying the “simple” things.
So, once again, even when the basic idea (“accept yourself!”) is a good one, she obliterates it in a wave of vitriol.
But most of what she argues will guarantees happiness is– do I even have to say it?– horrifying.
The first one, surprise surprise, is “fulfill your domestic role.” You have to do this “wholeheartedly,” or you’re a failure, and you’ll be miserable. If you break the “eternal laws” of not playing out patriarchal, Victorian gender roles, “you must suffer the consequences.” And since you’re a woman, if you don’t adhere to 150-year-old stereotypes, you are “failing in life.” And not only that, if you do not “succeed in all three duties– wife, mother, homemaker,” you are a failure.
This is one of those times when Helen is completely ignoring a whole spectrum of people. Today, almost 40% of women are the primary breadwinners in their households– and that doesn’t even count how many women aren’t “homemakers,” but work outside of the home either part-time or full-time. They’re all failures, according to Helen. And, many women never marry, so they’re failures, too. And even for women who are married, they might be infertile– or their husband might be. Failures, failures, failures, all of them.
That isn’t that far off from the message I’ve heard in dozens of evangelical churches all over the country. Not a wife? Well, what’s wrong with you? You’re too selfish, that must be it. You’re one of those bra-burning feminists who values a career more than what GOD wants for you. Not a mother? Or, you’ve been trying to have children for years and haven’t been able to? Have you prayed for God to reveal hidden sin in your life? And, sometimes, the message isn’t that direct, but every Mother’s Day you’re sitting there without a rose while all the mothers are exalted and praised while you’re completely ignored.
And, on top of all of that, she throws in this: “You must fist find happiness before your husband can love you. Men all over the country are turning from their wives to someone else because their wives are unhappy.” So, if you suffer from clinical depression (which “sinfulness leads to depression and mental illness”– also a dominant message in American evangelicalism), guess what, you’re husband is going to cheat on you unless you do exactly what Helen says.
If you don’t do what I say, your husband will cheat on you, unfortunately, is such a common threat. Debi Pearl’s book is laced with it, and I’ve heard, seen, and read Nancy Leigh DeMoss and Mary Kassian make similar threats. It’s troubling to me that this is the way evangelicalism seems to have unanimously decided is the best way to make sure women toe the line. Instead of saying “y’know what, if your husband cheats on you, he’s an ass,” women are taught that if our husbands cheat on us, we should immediately start looking for all the ways we’re responsible for it and he’s not.
This is why feminism is such a necessary conversation to introduce to American evangelicalism. Because feminism makes people responsible for their own actions. Feminism takes away the need to control women with threats. Feminism removes the ability for men not to face their own problems head-on. Feminism removes all the false guilt and shame that women bear for the sins of their husbands. Feminism means that we do not show favoritism.