Browsing Tag



Introduction to Fascinating Womanhood Review

reading woman

Today I am announcing the beginning of a new project that I mentioned a while back. I’m pretty excited about this, and I hope this journey we’re all about to embark on is entertaining, thoughtful, illuminating, and discussion-generating.

This means I’ll have two regularly running features for now– the Learning the Words guest post series (which is still ongoing and open for submissions), and now my series on Helen Andelin’s Fascinating Womahood.

The format of this series will be similar to Libby Anne’s on Debi Pearl’s Created to be his Help Meet— where I got my inspiration. I will be reading through the book again and posting my thoughts to portions of it. I might speak about a few pages or a whole chapter, depending on what I run into that requires a response. These reactions are going to vary from a serious and thoughtful deconstruction of the explicit and implicit messages of the book, as well as poking fun at some of its more ridiculous moments (of which there are many). There are going to be a few jaw-dropping WTF moments, too. She makes some rather spectacular statements throughout this book.


Fascinating Womanhood is similar to Created to be his Help Meet in many ways. It’s a marriage-advice book predicated on the complementarian model of submission and headship. Helen was a Mormon, but there’s nothing in the book itself that makes that apparent (I say that because in my interview with Christianity Today, I mentioned this book and a commenter came back with “Andelin was a Mormon, so obviously the book will be twisted”). Its target market is the same market as Debi’s book, especially since most of the book’s content focuses on helping struggling Christian marriages. She is more strongly anti-feminist than Debi, and her book is not as widely read. However, the ideas in the book are extremely common in pretty much any conservative evangelical environment, and the ideas that Helen presents are the natural outcome of unrestrained complementarian teaching. Helen’s book, unlike Debi’s, however, is entirely focused on teaching women how to make their men love them– and her argument is dangerous, for reasons you’ll see pretty quickly as we get into this series.

Here’s the description from the back of the book:

How to Make Your Marriage a Lifelong Love Affair

What makes a woman fascinating to her husband? What is happiness in marriage for a woman? These are just two of the questions Helen Andelin answers in the bestselling classic that has already brought new happiness and life to millions of marriages.

Fascinating Womanhood offers timeless wisdom, practical advice, and old-fashioned values to meet the needs and challenges of today’s fascinating woman. Inside you’ll learn:

What traits today’s men find irresistible in a woman
How to awaken a man’s deepest feelings of love
Eight rules for a successful relationship
How to rekindle your love life
How to bring out the best in your man—and reap the rewards
Plus special advice for the working woman—and much more!

Fascinating Womanhood offers guidance for a new generation of women—happy, fulfilled, adored and cherished—who want to rediscover the magic of their own feminine selves.

This bestselling classic has already brought new happiness and life to millions of marriages, and now Andelin offers timeless wisdom, practical advice, and old-fashioned values for today’s fascinating woman. Learn how to awaken a man’s deepest feelings of love, eight rules for a successful relationship, how to rekindle your love life, and more.

In many ways, this book is the seminal gender essentialist’s guidebook. If you want to see all the “feminine” stereotypes about women in one place, this book is the place to go.

The web page for this book and the accompanying ministry that grew out of it is worth its own post, and it is illuminating about the ideology behind this book, so it might be worth reading over, if you’re into self-flagellation and stuff.  From what I can tell, it went inactive in 2007, but there is a note on the home page that you can still take the online eight-week course as of Spring 2013. It continues to be a popular seller on Amazon, and in Christian book stores, with well over 2 million copies sold. I’m not sure what the community looks like today, but Time magazine did an interview with Helen in 1975, and she said that the program had over 11,000 “teachers” leading studies on the book around the country. It was a book I grew up familiar with– it was beloved and dog-eared by many of the women in my church, and it was a required textbook in at least one class of Marriage and Family at my fundamentalist college.

The Barnes & Noble reviews are almost exclusively glowing– all along the lines of “this book saved my marriage! we’re like a couple of newlyweds!”

There are 244 Amazon reviews, most of them 4 or 5 stars, with the same sort of praise, although many of the 5-star reviews include some sort of caveat about “needs the language updated” or that there were parts of the book worth ignoring, but that the overall message is worth listening to. Of the 78 1-star reviews, most of them include notes from husbands about being insulted and disgusted by the content, or concern that the message of the books creates co-dependent and abusive relationships.

The reviews on Goodreads are much more mixed, with reactions varying from “comedic” to “frightening and cruel” to “every woman must read this book!”

So, at the very least, we know it’s polarizing.

I’m going to try give my dead-level best to give it a fair shake, but I make no promises. I hope you’ll come along with me as I make my way through this book, and I hope you’ll be a part of the process of helping me– and each other– unpack these sorts of ideas. I’d also like to extend a special invitation to men– the primary and dominating focus of the book is “how to make yourself attractive to men,so I’d appreciate your brutal honesty and your candor. I’ve already had two men in my life read it– my husband, who was absolutely repulsed, and a friend, who thought it was great, nail-on-the-head advice.

My plan at the moment is to update every Monday, but I’m flexible, and there might be Someone on the IntraWebs who Said Something Stupid and Infuriating. We’ll see.

Social Issues

why fundamentalists hated Harry (hint: it wasn't the magic)

harry potter

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published when I was ten years old. I was not really aware of it– never really heard about it, really, until the first movie was released when I was fourteen. My first encounter with Harry Potter was in World Magazine, which my mother subscribed to for my “current events” papers I had to write for school. It’s a conservative Christian news source, and much like the textbooks we were using, ABeka, it markets itself based on its “Christian worldview.” I read an article by Roberta Ahmanson about the first book, where she said this:

Ms. Rowling has created a character who truly goes where fairy tales have never gone before: Harry, the character every child reader identifies with, the character every child internalizes, is a sorcerer.

Other World Magazine writers, especially Susan Olasky, wrote other reviews as the books and movies released. There was a common thread throughout these reviews, and nearly everyone agreed– Harry Potter books were dangerous, but not necessarily because of the witchcraft, although that was problematic. No, the real problem was that “moral ambiguity and alienation of youth are strong themes.”

Hmm. Moral ambiguity? Did you read the books? Oh, right– what you’re probably talking about is the scene where Harry Potter gets to ride a broom for the first time. Neville Longbottom breaks his arm, and while the professor takes him to the nurse, she tells the remaining students that if any of them try to ride while she’s gone, they’ll be kicked out “faster than you can say Quidditch.” Draco Malfoy grabs Neville’s remembral and flies off with it– Harry chases him down and gets the remembral back. When Professor McGonagall catches him, she rewards him by making him Gryffindor’s “seeker,” a position on the Quidditch team.

And that, my friend, is “moral ambiguity and alienation of youth.” Moral ambiguity because, when Harry defends his friend, another boy who was being bullied, and stands up to the rich and powerful oppressor– he is rewarded. Oh. My. Word. How horrible.

Fundamentalists are incapable of seeing it that way, though. In their head, Harry Potter disobeyed a direct order and he should have been punished. Harry showed initiative, and courage, and he did the morally right thing even though it might have gotten him in trouble– and that is “morally ambiguous.” Harry Potter is teaching our children that it’s ok if they disobey us! They’ll even get rewarded for it! This is terrible! It must be stopped! Several parents said this in a school board meeting when they claimed that the books have a “serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect, and sheer evil.” To many parents, the problem wasn’t the witchcraft– although an entire documentary was made about how the books made witchcraft “look innocent,” and there were tons of others crying out against it as some sort of gateway magic–no, the problem was that it encouraged independence, free thinking, initiative, courage, friendship, and doing what you know is right even when authority figures (like Dolores Umbridge) think you’re wrong– even when you’re a child. That was the real problem. Not our children wanting to become warlocks and wizards– the real terror was that our children might start thinking for themselves.

(side note: when Umbridge takes over Hogwarts and stars implementing all her “crazy” and “insane” rules . . . nearly all of those were actual rules at my fundamentalist college)

And that was when it started. Suddenly, every parent I knew was worried about the books their children were reading. Any book marketed for teenagers, even if it was from a Christian publishing house, was suspect. What is it teaching our youth? Is it teaching them that rebellion (which is as the sin of witcraft) is ok? Does someone break a rule and not get punished for it? Is immorality ever rewarded? Does the out-of-wedlock pregnant teen girl get a boyfriend in the end? Does a girl sneak out at night and never get caught? Does she ever back-talk her mother without being reprimanded?

By the time I got to college, many of my friends had given up reading. Some of us would only read non-fiction and considered fiction a “waste of time.” Fiction books, to teenagers growing up in heavy-handed fundamentalist environments, were a waste of time, because any book that made it through the filter was probably not worth reading. I managed alright– the pastor’s wife had given me an entire set of Reader’s Digest abridged classics because she wouldn’t let her children read them. We went to the library every week, and I could read all the Nancy Drew books my heart could desire– the old yellow ones, mind you. Not the new ones where Nancy jokes and laughs with her father. Those were disrespectful. I read the Boxcar Children books by the bucket load . . . but I wanted more.I managed to read the Jedi Apprentice series, the Chronicles of Narnia, and the Lord of the Rings by sneaking them out of the library, hiding them under the bathroom sink, and reading them a few pages at a time.

When I was in my late teens, the initial reaction was over for most of us. The parents I knew started relaxing . . . but it was too late for those of us who’d been children when Harry Potter came out. Most of us grew up reading nothing except missionary biographies and one-hundred-year-old devotional texts. I was lucky, because I was plucky enough– and loved reading enough– that I persisted even when my authority figures outright forbade me from reading them. I got in trouble a few times when I told fairy tales when I was babysitting. Most of us, however, have been robbed of our rich literary and cultural heritage. We were denied magic, myth, folklore, and faerie. We never got to read books with breadth and scope, that depicted an honest– and sometimes raw– understanding of human nature. Our books, and as a consequence our imagination, were sterilized and then locked in a box.

But, today, I am excited for when I have my own children, that they will get to read. That I will tell them fairy tales as their bed time stories. That I will encourage them to believe in a world that has magic. I am thrilled that my children will grow up in a world where Harry, Percy, Frodo,  and Lucy can be their friends.


escaping complementarianism through escapist literature (why I read romance novels)

romance novels

One of the things that I was extremely grateful for after my ex-fiancé broke our engagement was my student teaching at the Academy. I was working between 100 to 110 hours every week, so until about late October I had no time to really let what had happened get to me. I put off thinking about it until I had the time and space to break down.

So it wasn’t until about a month and a half after the fact that it really hit me– that he had broken off our relationship, and I wasn’t getting married. At this point, a few things started happening, and one of them was that I couldn’t sleep. I was routinely going two or three days without sleeping, and sometime in November I didn’t sleep at all for a solid week. I felt like I was slowly going crazy, and I knew I had to start getting regular sleep– somehow.

I turned to books. I’ve always turned to reading when something in my life was distressing, and this time was no different. I initially went to all the old stand-bys– Lori Wick, Janette Oke . . . but something that I very quickly realized was that the relationships between men and women in standard “Christian romance” novels reflected the same patterns that had existed in my relationship with John*. Books by these women, in particular, espoused a heavily complementarian view of relationships as a model for all relationships, and for reasons I didn’t really understand at the time, it creeped me out.

This was when I discovered romance novels.

I had been taught, from a very early age, that romance novels were utter rubbish. They were the dregs of literature– the basest thing a young woman could possibly put in her head. There have been many accusations made against the entire genre: they bring feminism to a screeching halt. Some believe that romance novels are inherently addictive, that women read these compulsively. One of the more common arguments I’ve heard is that romance novels are either equivalent to visual pornography, or are emotional porn for women (and, for fundamentalists who aspire to maintain emotional purity, this element is especially dangerous). A more unique argument is that romance novels are an example of women trying to fight against the curse— which is our ‘natural state’ apart from Christ. Occasionally, the women who were teaching me about the evils of the romance novel drew distinctions between Harlequin and Jane Austen, but not often. Some arguments pose that romance novels are defined by their “negative characteristics”; if they include erotica, if they are some form of “escapism”, if they encourage discontentment (especially dissatisfaction with your husband), or if they give the reader–and this is probably the most emphasized evil– an unrealistic expectation of love, romance, and marriage.

But I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of that. I needed to escape my life, at least for a few hours at a time. I couldn’t stand the reality I was living in, and I wanted a story to reassure me that love was still a good thing, that falling in love was an experience worth having. In my reality, what I had mistaken for “love” had betrayed me, violently. My “happy ending” was gone, but I wanted to believe that a happy ending still existed– somewhere, even if it was in a book. I bought Johanna Lindsey’s Once a Princess, and I loved every second of it. It was a thrilling chase story, but the plot was uncomplicated and straightforward. It didn’t involve a whole lot of me trying to anticipate the author– at one point, I described romance novels as “macaroni and cheese for the brain.” Sure, it may not have the challenge of Ulysses, but who wants “steak” all of the time?

Looking back, there’s an interesting conundrum surrounding the romance genre. On one hand, the very existence of the romance novel is a feminist realization. Romance novels declare women to be the author of their fate, that they get to choose love, that they have control over their bodies, and they can, shockingly, experience pleasure. The more erotic scenes feature attentive lovers who place the woman at the very center of their attention.* Romance novels, with nearly one voice, declare that a woman is right when she seeks equality, justice– that she deserves to be valued for herself.

Also, this video on the history of the romance novel as a feminist movement is amazing.

On the other hand, romance novels very frequently enforce some shallow gender stereotypes, so there’s that.

But, for me, romance novels helped me re-order my priorities as a woman. It helped me realize that being a strong, feisty, independent, stubborn-as-hell woman was a good thing that I should never surrender to anyone, for any reason. They helped me laugh again, and for a few hours, they could cheer me up. I could believe that love wasn’t always going to hurt me. It painted a picture of different version of male/female relationships, one where the woman had a voice, and was truly an equal partner.

What do you think of the romance novel genre? Does it undermine feminism? Do you think we should exercise more caution if we’re going to read romance novels? Or, has reading a romance novel been a positive experience for you?

*the link is to Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, which I think every single woman on the planet should read. One of her central arguments is that making the woman the primary focus of sex generally makes sex a better experience for everyone.