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Fascinating Womanhood Review: childlikeness

venetian girl

You may have noticed a while back on Helen’s chart that one of the “Human Qualities” that every “fascinating woman” should have is “childlikeness.” The first time I saw that particular item, I about gagged. I had no idea where Helen could be going with that– telling women that they need to be “childlike” just seems . . . well, creepy and gross.

However, in the last two years since I picked this book up again, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and one of the things I’ve found is that “childlikeness” is a trait American culture values in women. Women are infantalized in a million ways every day, and we idolize youthful women. But it’s more than just our physical appearance, or our age. Our culture values girlishness, childlikeness, and youthfulness in our personalities, our character, our behavior . . . There’s a reason why “virgin” has also traditionally meant “young girl.”

Helen starts out with a brief introduction, claiming that cultivating “childlikeness” will make your marriage fun, balance out the “angelic qualities” so you don’t become “cloysome,” and, somehow, childlikeness is supposed to make sure we don’t become a doormat. How being like a child helps you avoid being a person that can be easily overruled is beyond me, but let’s see where she goes with it.

Her first chapter on childlikeness covers how women are supposed to model how little girls get angry.

Childlike anger is the cute, pert, saucy anger of a little child . . . when such a child is teased, she doesn’t respond with some hideous sarcasm. Instead, she stamps he foot and shakes her curls and pouts. She gets adorably angry at herself because her efforts to respond are impotent . . .

A scene such as this invariably makes us smile with amusement . . . This is much the same feeling a woman inspires in a man when she expresses anger in a childlike way. Her ridiculous exaggeration of manner makes him suddenly want to laugh; makes him feel, in contrast, stronger, more sensible, and more of a man.

She uses the word saucy throughout this chapter, and, once again, I find myself identifying with what she’s describing. I’ve always been a little bit what my mother describes as “sassy.” And, I am one of those people that when I am pissed it always seems to communicate the way she describes.

In the first few weeks of being married, my partner did something that infuriated me. I actually started waving my arms around and stomped my foot before literally flouncing away to rage-clean my house. I don’t even remember what he’d done to make me so angry, but the fact that his reaction to me being angry was to laugh — you can imagine that didn’t help his case that much.

What I’ve found over the last year– not a very long time to be married, I admit– is that this “childlike” (ew) reaction isn’t helpful. It doesn’t accomplish anything. Helen makes the argument that women need to have “childlike anger” for the simple– and only– reason that it will prevent us from “building resentment.” We don’t express our anger like a child in order to communicate effectively– nope. We do it to “vent.” That’s it. Not to nurture a healthy marriage, not to have the root problem addressed. What has been helpful for my marriage? Looking my partner in the eye and saying I have a problem with that or I don’t like it when you do this.

But honesty is too much of a stretch for Helen:

Learn childlike mannerisms by studying the antics of little girls. Stomp your foot, lift your chin high, square your shoulders, pout, put both hands on your hips, open you eyes wide, mumble under your breath, or turn and walk briskly away, then pause and look back over your shoulder. Or, beat your firsts on your husband’s chest.

You may have to be an actress to succeed, if only a ham actress. But, remember, you’ll be launching an acting career that will save you pain, tension, frustration, a damaged relationship, and perhaps even a marriage. Is any acting career of greater importance? No, so turn on the drama.

She goes on to give us a bunch of different ways we can be childlike when we’re angry, including things like calling our husbands “hairy beasts” and using threats like “I’ll never speak to you again!” (which she refers to as an “exaggeration”).

She does, eventually, get to a section she labels “How to Overcome Anger,” which, perhaps unsurprisingly has nothing to do with open communication and treating a woman’s feelings as legitimate and worth solving. No, we just have to “learn to be forgiving, understanding, and patient.”

There isn’t a single part of this chapter where Helen encourages women to be honest, to work out the problems we have by having an actual conversation with our partners. No– we “act” like a child.


Fascinating Womanhood Review: radiant health


If you’re thinking this chapter is going to be chock full to the brim with fat-shaming, ableism, and classism– you’d be right!

First off, there’s a lot in this chapter that’s just common sense– especially since it focuses on eating a healthy diet and exercising. From my short life, it seems like most of what we hear from medical professionals is that eating your fruits and vegetables and exercising seems to be the bulk of their advice.

However, that’s not where Helen goes with it, since her definition of “eating right” is only attainable by rich people. When someone tells me that I can’t cook with canned or frozen food and must only buy organic, and then links this to whether or not my husband will love me, the only thing I can think is well, shit. I’m living on a solidly middle-class budget, and I can’t even afford to buy only fresh (and organic!) food. Later, she says we have to drink only “pure water” and says to buy bottled if we have to, which… this.

Then she moves into getting a good night’s rest, and this is where she gets ableist: some people have insomnia, including me. Getting a good night’s rest just isn’t possible for me most of the time. She also tells us to go to bed before 10p and to sleep on a “good, firm mattress.” I spent most of my life thinking I was a horribly lazy person because I was a night owl– for me, I get my best rest when I go to sleep around midnight and wake up around 9a. That’s just how I function the best. If I try to go to sleep earlier, I have nightmares, I wake up three or four times, and I get up in the morning feeling groggy and confused. It took me until I was 24 to figure out that I just didn’t need to force myself into a sleeping pattern that didn’t fit me. Same thing goes for “firm mattress.” I wake up in pain if I have to sleep on a firm mattress and sleeping on one for more than 3 days… nope. Just nope.

Here we hit “Exercise Regularly” and even more ableism. Because not everyone can exercise, and a lot of people have things like fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, even when they’re incredibly young. And yes, people like this hear “exercise!” all of the time, but it’s especially problematic given the context of Helen’s book: you must do exactly what she says or your husband won’t love you.

But, it was the “Control Weight” section that really got me:

If you have a chunky figure you cannot appear dainty, feminine, or girlish, even with the help of soft, flowing, feminine clothes. No matter what you do to disguise it, you cannot hide excess weight. When you get down to normal size, you will look many times more attractive in your clothes. You will appear younger and more feminine, and will acquire a new vitality to your face and features. Just from the standpoint of appearance, it is well worth it to lose excess weight.

Excuse me while I go beat my head into a wall.

At 5’8” and 150 pounds, and with a BMI of 23, that puts me on the upper end of “normal weight.” I’m skinny, slender, whatever. However, I could never in a million years be described as “dainty.” Words like “healthy” and “big boned” and “curvy” — all code words for fat— have been applied to me my entire life. I desperately wanted to hear willowy, delicate, dainty and that desire to be treated as thin hasn’t really gone away, even though I actually am thin. This is just crazy-making, because it really seems that even thin women like me will never be good enough– not even stick-thin fashion models are thin enough.

But, I think the worst part of this chapter is under the heading “Have a Healthy Mental Attitude.” It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about “positive” and “negative” emotions, even outside of religious contexts. The Power of Positive Thinking –itself a Christian book and even quoted by Helen– did very well outside of the Christian market, and so has The SecretHelen is talking about the same thing here, and she lists what she considers “destructive mental attitudes”: worry, fear, anxiety, pessimism, hate, resentment, impatience, envy, anger. Which, ok, I can buy into the notion that your mental health can affect your physical health, but I am a little tired of lists like these.

Hate? God hates plenty of things (primarily injustice, greed, oppression), so how exactly is this a “bad” thing to feel?
Anger? Pretty sure Jesus got angry, too, so . . . 
Impatience? Yup, I’m positive God is described as impatient

For me, personally, recognizing that there’s no reason to feel guilt over my anxiety, or that I can embrace anger and even hate has probably been some of the most liberating realizations I’ve had over the past few years. It’s not wrong to be angry. It’s not destructive. I don’t have to feel ashamed because of my anxiety. The problem isn’t having the emotion at all. There are things worth being angry over. There are some things that I should not have patience with. There are some things that need to be hated.

But, to Helen, if I’m not constantly smiling, radiant, cheerful, enthusiastic, and optimistic, then I’m not being feminine. I’m failing God and my husband and society when I don’t smile every single second of every single day.


Fascinating Womanhood Review: radiant happiness

ionian dance

Thankfully, this chapter was a little easier to get through, compared to last week’s. We’re back to Helen’s ordinary shenanigans, including her horrific twisting of literary characters in order to suit her purposes (it’s Natasha from War and Peace this time). One of the things that bothers me about the way Helen interacts with fictional characters is that it’s not much different than how she treats actual people– she reduces their complexity and nuance down to a single trait. All of our richness and depth as people is lost in favor of making sure women understand they’re not allowed to be complicated and human.

Her discussion on what it means to be “radiantly happy” is the same sort of always/never dichotomy she’s set up the entire book. You must be radiantly happy, you must not be serious or somber.

So what exactly is “radiant happiness”?

Radiant happiness is a voluntary quality such as when you suddenly decide to smile. It is cheerfulness, laughter, singing, joyfulness, smiles, bright eyes, sparkle, vivacity, enthusiasm, optimism, a sense of humor, a sunny disposition, and . . . the power to lift the spirits of others.

Ok, then. I don’t know about you, but this, to me, sounds like a personality trait, and it’s probably the most straightforward example of how Helen really wants women to change their personalities according to what she thinks men like.

But first, a confession: I fit this description . . . most of the time. I am one of the people who have this personality trait– this sort of “radiant happiness” comes easily to me, although I don’t think I’d ever describe it in terms of happiness. I’m vivacious, energetic, enthusiastic– I love laughing, and I sing a lot. And, since I’m one of the people with this trait, I know first-hand that a lot of people find it annoying. Over time, I’ve had to learn when to tone it down and when I get to let go. When I was a child, my mother described me as a “1,000-watt lightbulb among nightlights.” While this “radiant happiness” can be a boon, I’ll be the first to admit that it can get a little overwhelming. Other ways I’ve been described? “The Friendly Freight Train.” “The Friendly Bulldozer.”

So, when Helen spends the rest of the chapter talking about just how much men adore women with this quality, I know from personal experience that it just ain’t so. Sure. Sometimes my bubbliness is your particular cup of tea– and sometimes it’s not. I happen to be a good match for my partner, but I know plenty of people who wouldn’t be able to stand being in the same house with me after a week. There’s a reason why all of my best friends in college decided not to room together.

Helen’s insistence that all of the things that she’s described– most of which have been personality traits– are things that all men are guaranteed to lose their minds over leaves me exasperated. People are different. It seems like such a basic idea, but apparently not when it comes to relationship advice. Nope, then it’s all one-size-fits-all.

Also, Helen does not let you forget that everything you do, you must do it for teh menz. Women who “lack beauty… due to irregular features” all have “radiant happiness” because they have “worked diligently to make up for their defects by acquiring qualities that really count with men.” And “Women have always tried to be attractive to men.” One word, Helen: lesbian. Also, there are an amazing amount of straight women who could not give a bother about how attractive they are to men– myself included. I’ve been called a d*** more than once in my life and have had multiple men tell me that I must be gay because I don’t care about what men think about me.

Moving on, women who are “radiantly happy” are never “overly serious” and would never tell a “silly joke,” which could “detract from their feminine charm”– I suppose because it takes intelligence to by funny, and we can’t have that in our women.

The one thing I do agree with Helen on: one of the best lessons my mother ever taught me was to laugh at myself, and it’s served me well. I’m not going to go as far as Helen and say that all women everywhere must react to every little mistake or misfortune with laughter– that’s just ridiculous– but being able to dump spaghetti all over the kitchen and yourself (a situation Helen describes shortly after they’d gotten married) and then laugh can be a healthy reaction. It’s not the only healthy reaction, though.

Over the summer I had a few cavities filled– one of which was in between my front teeth. I got something stuck there Saturday night, and when I  flossed, I ripped my filling out. It wasn’t horribly painful, and I got it fixed in 20 twenty minutes on Monday, but on Saturday night for reasons beyond my comprehension I was upset. I started crying, and then I got really angry, and then I was crying again, and then I was stomping out of the apartment to go get a temporary filling from CVS. I don’t know why I didn’t just laugh this off like I normally can, but my tears, anger, and then grumpiness certainly didn’t make me less attractive to my partner– because my partner is an adult and he is more than capable of seeing me as a complicated human being.

But, to Helen, my reaction Saturday night would have beyond-the-pale awful. I should never have allowed myself to be upset over ripping a filling out and then having to go to the dentist on Monday to get it filled again. No, I should have stood myself in front of a mirror and practiced “smiling with my entire face” before I let my partner anywhere near me.  Because, to Helen, I don’t get to be a person. The only thing I could possibly worry about is whether or not some patriarchal chauvinistic misogynist thinks I’m attractive.


what book should I review next?

My extended review of Fascinating Womanhood is almost over– it should be done in about five weeks, unless something comes up. When I started this review project, I began it with the intention that this would be a regular feature on my blog– not just Fascinating Womanhood, but other Christian marriage-advice books or “biblical womanhood” books.

As this project is close to being finished, I’ve started doing research into what book I should do next, and frankly, it’s a little bit overwhelming. There are so many, and with very few exceptions the Christian-marriage-advice-book market is flooded with books that lean toward or outright embrace complementarianism, patriarchy, and traditional gender roles.

So, I’m open to suggestions in the comments, or you can pick one of the books in the poll above. Each of the books in the above poll came from some form of “best Christian marriage book” list– Amazon, goodreads,, etc. My reading through comments and reviews indicated that all of these books are popular in a variety of settings– that they’re assigned as “required reading” for pre-marital counseling sessions, that people read them individually, that they’re recommended by pastors for struggling marriages in a wide array of churches and denominations.

The poll will be open for a month.

Also, since this is the first time I’ve done something like this, let me know if you have any technical problems!


Fascinating Womanhood Review: feminine role vs. working wife


First of all, I want to address a comment that I keep getting on posts like this one: that Helen Andelin (or someone like her) doesn’t speak for modern, mainstream evangelicalism. That all of these women and men hold to rather extreme positions and the bulk of evangelicals today disagree with them. And, in one way, that is absolutely correct. They are extreme. They made their money and got to where they are today by being extreme.

However, and I’ve said this before and I will say it until I am blue in the face: For every single concept Helen has promoted in this book, there is a modern evangelical person making the same exact argument.

I’d like everyone, before we get into today’s post, to read “When a Woman Makes a lot of Money,” by Mary Kassian, published in June last year. Mary Kassian also published a book with Nancy Leigh DeMoss last year called True Woman 101: Divine Design, and you can find two posts I wrote critiquing an online interview they had with Focus on the Family here and here. Read through everything that they said, and tell me that what they say aren’t the same exact arguments Helen’s been making. They talk about how being “strong and independent” can only lead to “dysfunction” and ultimately depression and suicide. They say that not adhering to old-fashioned gender roles will make your children gay. They tell women in abusive marriages to “lay down their rights.” How is any of that substantively different from what Helen’s been saying?

And, they even say this:

Don’t make decisions based on practicality. You may have a job where you earn more money than your husband, and it may be practical for you to go out and earn the money and for him to stay home. But there’s something in terms of identity that you’re going against when you do that . . . Women have a unique and specific responsibility for the home in a way that men do not have.

Helen says this, almost word-for-word. And Kassian, in the article I linked to, said this:

Because when you boil it right down, you’re not going to be satisfied with a man who’s a beta boy. Deep down, every woman wants her man to be a man. And you’ll only inspire him to be a man when you act like a woman . . . when you choose to stand against culture and embrace, delight, and live according to God’s created design.

And you’ll only inspire him to be a man when you act like a woman.

That’s the only message in Helen’s book, really. She harps on it every single chapter:

When a man is in the presence of a tender, trustful, dependent woman, he immediately feels a sublime expansion of his power to protect and shelter this frail and delicate creature. In the presence of such weakness, he feels stronger, more competent, bigger, manlier than ever.

Yes, the language Helen is using is right out of the 60s. But it’s the same idea. And who are the people making this argument today? Focus on the Family. Moody Publishers. John Piper. Mark Driscoll. Some of the biggest, most influential people and organizations in evangelical culture are simply presenting the same argument in 2010 language. And if I sound frustrated, it’s because I’m terrified.


Anyway, on to the actual chapter for this week. It’s about everything you could have expected: she lays out all the reasons a woman that could possibly justify a woman working outside the home, and it’s when your family is destitute and starving, you are putting your husband through college, or if you have no children at home (although she warns that you must be available to your children and grandchildren at all times).

Then we get the reasons for why you should never work, and one of them is “to do something important.” If a woman wants to make noble contributions, to use her gifts, talents, abilities, skills, or intelligence to try to make the world a better place: nope. You have a “false notion.” As amazing as curing cancer might be, you must be in the “simple routine of your home,” because, if you aren’t, your children are going to hell. No, really. That’s what she says. Then she goes on to give a few pages of quotes from “career women” who regretted having careers.

She also, fascinatingly, brings up something some of you have mentioned: someone apparently pointed out the hypocritical contradiction of telling other women that they’re not allowed to be career women when she herself is a career woman. Her response is hysterical:

Call me what you like, business executive, career woman, or working wife, but I never looked at it this way. To me it has been a mission of charity . . . the personal sacrifice has been well worth it.

I never wanted to be a career woman, see? I wanted to be a stay-at-home wife! That’s what makes it ok! I didn’t want to do this. It was a sacrifice, a necessary evil!

Uh-huh. Keep telling yourself that.

Then she moves on to the age-old question: should daughters be allowed to go to college? Answer: no. Because it could make her independent (“by doing so she loses her need for manly care”), she could escape her marriage (“the ability to make money can be a dangerous thing for a woman”), and she’d lose out on the opportunity to read lots and lots of literature! (apparently, it “makes you more interesting” to men).

Also, if women go out to work, it could “rob your husband of his right” to be needed and masculine, and you could even lose your “womanliness” and your “charm.” (charm = attractiveness to men, as defined by Helen). Also, you’re destroying society when you work and wrecking untold damage on our national economy (something she says with absolutely nothing to support her).

So, there you have it, all you women who work: you’re hurting men, making yourself unattractive, and you’re also ruining the United States economy. Go you.

Feminism, Theology

myths I believed about women of the Bible

One of my blogging friends, Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism, has been going through Debi Pearl’s Created to Be His Help Meet a few pages at a time– she’s where I got my idea to break down Fascinating Womanhood. Libby Anne’s gotten to the part of the book where Debi uses Bathsheba as an example of everything a woman shouldn’t be, and blames Bathsheba almost totally for everything that happened– both to her and to David and his family. She’s the biblical face that sunk a thousand ships, as it were.

Reading over Debi’s description felt oh-so-familiar. It was exactly what I was taught about Bathsheba. A quick review of church history– its art, its commentaries, its sermons–  reveals that it’s how most Christians talked about her, too. Bathsheba, to many Christians, was a slutty whore. As I’ve grown into egalitarianism and feminism over the past four years, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with that interpretation. There’s no crystal-clear explanation in II Samuel 11 that Bathsheba didn’t consent, but that’s hardly surprising since Bronze Age cultures had no (or little) conception of female consent. Regardless, David was the warrior-king, the warlord, and how exactly was Bathsheba supposed to say “yes”? Consent matters very little when there’s no real possibility of saying no and having that no be respected.

But then, Libby Anne pointed something out that I had completely missed: that the text actually does make it completely and utterly clear that Bathsheba had absolutely no part in what happened to her and she was not to be held responsible. It says it, plain as day, when the passages specifies that she was “purifying herself from her uncleanness” in verse four.

Bathsheba wasn’t bathing on her roof.

Bathsheba was in the mikveh. In the communal pool, the one designated for ritualistic cleansing, the one constructed for privacy, and the one David would have KNOWN naked women went into at least once a month, as the Law commanded.

And not only that, any time David’s actions are discussed anywhere else in Scripture, it is always to place the full, unmitigated blame totally and squarely on David. Never, not even once, is Bathsheba mentioned. She did nothing– nothing— wrong. Considering how severely the Law treats women who “play the harlot in their father’s house” or commit adultery (ie: stoned to death), that any supposed wrong-doing on her part is never even mentioned is pretty strong evidence that David raped her.

Reading that this morning was… beyond mind-boggling. I read that passage my entire life, have heard countless sermons preached on it, and what I walked away with was that Bathsheba was a slut.

The same thing has happened to virtually every other women in the Bible.

Deborah? Just a punishment for men being cowardly and lazy. Huldah? Huh, who’s that? Oh, just some random woman that read the Torah. Forget about how she was a contemporary of four other male prophets. Obviously she’s just there to prove how ungodly Judah had become. Junia? Nope, not an apostle. Dude, she’s not even a woman. Mary Magdalene, the person the Resurrected Christ appeared to first? Also a whore– she was obviously a prostitute. Please ignore how there’s not even a single shred of evidence to support that.

What’s the only thing we know about Sarah? That she mocked God. What did Rebekah do? She manipulated and lied. Rachel? Was a whiny little brat that stole her father’s idols. Dinah? Also a slutty slut, nevermind that she was also raped. Eve? Weak and easily deceived, also responsible for the destruction of the human race because she was a fool. Satan knew that Adam was much too smart, much too good, to be deceived. The song of praise and honor meant for all women in Proverbs 31? It’s a list of commands now, you have to do all of it or you’re a worthless good-for-nothing wretch. What do we remember about Hannah? She was discontent with her husband and needed a baby to be happy.

Over, and over, and over again it seems that most Christian theologians over the past few thousand years have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy doing anything possible to discredit and destroy every single last positive example of womanhood in the Bible. It’s so deeply buried in Christian culture at this point that it seems incredibly rare for someone to even bother to show women in the same light that the Bible showed them: as human, yes, but also as glorious, courageous, magnificent, brave, intelligent, dedicated, loving Daughters of Abraham, Heirs of God.


Fascinating Womanhood Review: feminine nature


What happens when the average red-blooded man comes in contact with an obviously able, intellectual, and competent woman, manifestly independent of any help a man can give, and capable of meeting him or defeating him on his own ground? He simply doesn’t feel like a man any longer. In the presence of such strength and ability in a mere woman he feels like a futile, ineffectual imitation of a man. It is one of the most uncomfortable and humiliating sensations a man can experience, so that the woman who arouses it becomes repugnant to him.

When a man is in the presence of a tender, trustful, dependent woman, he immediately feels a sublime expansion of his power to protect and shelter this frail and delicate creature. In the presence of such weakness, he feels stronger, more competent, bigger, manlier than ever. This feeling of strength and power is one of the most enjoyable he can experience. The apparent need of the woman for care and protection, instead of arousing contempt for her lack of ability, appeals to the very noblest feelings within him.

I don’t usually quote this much from the book (mostly because that would get boring pretty fast, but also because I can only legally reproduce so much of it for a critical review), but I thought it was important for all of you to see this, in the full, horrible, stark reality of Helen’s world. In this world, the most important thing that must be maintained at all costs is that men feel powerful. And not only must they feel powerful, they must be powerful, except that is only possible when a woman is incompetent.

I wish I could say it doesn’t get any worse.

The next section of the chapter is one of Helen’s lists– all the “characteristics” of a feminine nature:

  • weakness– physically weak, incapable of solving physical problems.
  • submissiveness– defined earlier in the book as “never having needs.”
  • dependence– “because her whole purpose in life is home-oriented.”
  • tenderness– “crying [over books, dead animals], were it ever so stupid.”
  • fearfulness– “men will, in fact, sometimes take women into danger, just to see how fearful women are.”

The last one– fearfulness– pisses me off. My abuser would do this over and over again— deliberately put me into a situation that made me feel incredibly unsafe, or do something that was life-threatening and ridiculously stupid (like doing donuts in an iced-over parking lot, or nearly breaking my neck on a jet ski), and then get an incredible kick out of my reaction. He thought my legitimate fear was hysterical, and it made him feel big and bad by comparison. According to Helen, however, men— all men, not just abusers– do this. “He does it because you are so afraid, and he is so unafraid.”

Helen goes on to tell us how to “awaken” our feminine natures, and it’s as easy as 1-2-3. First, we get rid of any “strength, ability, competence, or fearlessness.” Then we stop doing anything around the house that could possibly fall inside a “masculine” job– and if we have to do it, we must do it incredibly badly (“do it in a feminine manner” and feminine = incompetent) or our husbands will “never come to our rescue.”

Then there’s this:

Don’t compete with men for advancement on a job, higher pay, or greater honors. Don’t compete with them for scholastic honors in men’s subjects. It may be all right to win over a man in English or social studies, but you’re in trouble if you compete with men in math, chemistry, or science. Don’t appear to know more than a man does in world events, the space program, science, or industry.

I just . . . can’t even handle this chapter.

Partly because I know more than my husband about the space program. It’s what happens when you’re obsessed with something like space exploration since your earliest memory, like me. Except, in Helen’s world, the fact that I have been a Trekkie and a NASA geek since I was four is wrong. Something that is so deeply a part of me– my love of space, and the stars, and of space launches and Mars missions– must be removed, because it threatens men.

I know this sounds crazy. I know this sounds like something from the 50s. Except it is exactly what I grew up with, and it is entrenched so deeply in our culture that when you remind a woman that she’s a woman she does worse in math and science evaluations. And it’s because women like Helen Andelin, and Debbie Pearl, and Mary Pride, and Phyllis Schlafly, and Mary Kassian, and Nancy Leigh DeMoss, and Grace Driscoll, and Danah Gresh have all been screaming about this since the 60s. Being strong, and capable, and competent, is anti-feminine and anti-God.

Feminism, Social Issues, Theology

hoping to help bring change at church, part four

church building

As I mentioned earlier in this series, my partner and I have solid relationships with many people involved with our church’s leadership– both pastors and staff members. I’m grateful for those relationships, and for the trust we have, and not just because it’s enabling us to approach them with some of our concerns, but because this is the first time in my life I’ve ever been taken seriously by church leadership. It’s probably at least connected to being fully an “adult”: I’m married and attending a church where no one’s ever met my parents . . . but I also believe it’s because this church is actually different than other churches I’ve attended.

When I first found out that women weren’t allowed to serve on the elder board here, I was surprised. Shocked, really. I’d heard women teach in the main service, I’d seen women consistently teach  adult-level classes, and I knew that they had several women on staff– one as a pastor. To hear that they could do everything except serve as elder puzzled me. After I’d attended for a few months, I was sitting in a “get to know our church!” meeting, and when a woman next to me asked what their stance was toward women, the response included the word “forbidden.”

That . . . bothered me. I wasn’t expecting to hear that. Not here.

So, my partner and I reached out to a man we’d been working with for over six months and who served on the elder board, asking what the church’s official position was. What we eventually heard back was that they believed in compromise: that women could serve in every leadership position except elder. It was a divisive, contentious issue, they said, and since they hold to “in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” they didn’t want to “take sides.” This seemed the best way to do that.


You all know me– you can imagine that went over about as well as a lead balloon.

After several more months, after carefully watching and observing as much as I could, after interacting with as many people as I could find and talk to, and after doing as much research as I could, I realized that this church, as amazing as it is, had a serious problem with their view of women, and it was everywhere. It was in how the pastor addressed women in his sermons, how I was treated, how leaders engaged with women during volunteer meetings. It was in all the books they recommend for married couples, it was in listening to the people who led the married Bible studies, in hearing what the topic recommendations were for the women’s studies, and in hearing men talk about the women in their church, occasionally their wives.

No one knew to uplift and recognize women because it wasn’t happening.

The church leaders had decided that having women involved was nice, but not necessary. And it was affecting everything.

Which was why my partner and I eventually reached out to the same elder again; this time, though, instead of simply asking for this church’s position, we would be explaining our own.


The same day that I heard that women were “forbidden” from serving as elders, something else also happened. Handsome literally poked and prodded me until I spoke with one of our pastors– the man currently in charge of the youth program. I’d been ranting and raving about the messages young women receive from church and American culture about sex and “purity.” Handsome is always of the opinion that if you could be doing something . . . well, then, you should be doing something. I’d mentioned, rather off the cuff, that I’d like to talk to the teenagers at our church about sex, consent, agency, autonomy, etc, and he thought it sounded like a fantastic idea.

So did the youth pastor, coincidentally.

That’s how I ended up filling out a survey and giving the church my information for a background check, and why I ended up sitting in a classroom awkwardly listening to a lesson on the 10 Commandments (note: it was actually an incredible lesson), blinking sleepily under fluorescent lights, and hearing the bantering back-and-forth of teenagers. The youth pastor suggested that I get to know the kids before I come blustering into their lives shouting about vaginas and penises. Seemed like a good idea. I’m going to keep going to their class, hopefully become a familiar face, and be talking with the pastor about my lesson.

It’s an exciting process, and I’m looking forward to being able to share some of my story and talk to them about something powerful enough to change their life.


Handsome and I invited the elder to our home so we could talk, and I was nervous as all get-out for the entire day. In the hour before he arrived I thought I was going to be sick half a dozen times. I reached out to twitter, and everyone was amazing and supportive. Just so you know, hearing eshet chayil gets me RIGHT IN THE FEELS.

Once we’d all settled in after I had a really hard time engaging in the small talk (apparently, small talk is impossible for me when I’m nervous), we actually managed to have a conversation. The elder explained more about how the board functioned– what they do, what they don’t do. When Handsome and I started opening up about our concerns, he listened, but he also engaged with us, occasionally clarifying for himself something we’d said, other times explaining more about the elder board in order to ease our concerns some. I was able to get through more of what I was thinking than I’d ever thought possible– I had carefully honed my argument down to the bare minimum, but I was really able to open up to this elder and express most of what’s in my heart.

What happened that night is something I’ve seen play out many times during my first year on the internet. I know that The IntraWebs can be a messy, confusing, infuriating place most of the time, but I’ve been in small corners that feel more like living rooms. I’ve seen people disagree– sometimes heatedly– and come out on the other side . . . better. Sometimes, all an interaction meant was that you could articulate an idea better since it had been put against opposition. Other times, we all came together to overcome a communication barrier. Sometimes we learned– and sometimes the learning was painful.

This conversation was like that. It was people, believers, sitting down together and trying to figure out what we can do. It was good. It left me feeling very hopeful, and it ended with a promise that we’d get to address the elder board.


hoping to help bring change at church, part three

church building

I’ve mentioned a few times that I have two goals for my church, but I’ve never laid out exactly what they are in this series. If you’ve been a reader for a while, you probably already know what they are, but I’d figure I’d spell it out.

  • I want my church to openly and honestly declare that they support women.
  • I want my church to approach the reality of abuse with abuse victims in mind.

Those two goals encompass a huge set of changes– and I’m only positive about a few of them in the short-term. This is going to be an extended process if it happens at all, and I’m trying to keep myself realistic. I can’t expect sweeping changes overnight, and the only thing that will ensure is that I burn myself out much faster than anything can happen.

I am working on articulating– to myself, and to others– what I would like these changes to be, specifically. What I do know, right now, is that it’s not really a set of policies I want to put in place. What I want to see happen is a fundamental shift in how this church treats women and abuse victims.

One of the problems is that this church, just like other denominations that claim to “be supportive of women,” doesn’t distinguish between women can lead and women should lead. It might seem subtle, but it’s not.

The difference comes down to recognizing the absolute necessity of having women involved in leadership, and not just saying “oh, if you want to.” This church is in a strange middle place of having women in leadership– on the staff, on volunteer teams, as teachers– but not allowing women to serve on the elder board. With one half of their mouth they claim that they “support women” and say they think that women “can be leaders,” but with the other half they say that they do not support women and that they can’t be leaders.

My partner and I have gotten a multi-pronged reason for why the church was set up this way, and the reasons have varied according to who we spoke to. One of the staff mentioned that it was because our founding church didn’t have women on the elder board, so when they appointed our elder board (the elder board is self-appointing and not elected, because the church doesn’t have a member role), they just didn’t appoint women and it’s stayed that way. Another suggested it was because that the elder board is itself split on this issue, so they haven’t been pro-active. One of the pastors explained that they believe in the “biblical approach” (read: complementarian), but that they’ve “allowed” women to serve in other positions, just not the elder board.

However, the official reason I’ve gotten from the elder board and the senior pastor was that they believe this position is a “compromise” regarding a contentious issue. Obviously, I disagree that this is a “compromise” at all, but that’s what I am going to be arguing for when I meet the elder board. Initially, I’m going to be asking that the elder board change their position and allow women to serve, but my real goal is for the elder board to be representative of the church– so somewhere around half of them being women. This comes from my desire to see this church not just “allow” a woman to lead, but to seek, encourage, and train women to be leaders— something that men have gotten in evangelical churches for years. They do this to a limited extent, but I want to see a shift happen. This church, as I’ve explained, went out of their way to be racially diverse– they thought that was important enough to actively pursue. I want that same attitude reflected in how they treat women: important enough to pursue.

For the second goal, I want to make it clear that this church hasn’t been antagonistic toward abuse victims. I’ve seen many churches over the years be openly dismissive of abuse victim’s needs, and I’ve heard horror stories about how “church should not be safe”– from multiple people in different denominations, different areas of the country. It can get so much worse than that, too– churches and church leaderships can engage in massive cover-ups that can go on for thirty years or more.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure about this church’s stance toward abuse victims. All I know is that, as an abuse victim sitting in a Sunday morning service, I’ve been hurt, and I’ve heard things that I know perpetuate and legitimize abuse for abusers and their victims. However, I think all of that is done because of innocence, and what this church needs is education. It’s an extremely difficult thing to face, standing in front of a congregation, knowing that 20% of the marriages you’re seeing are abusive, that 25% of the women and 10% of the men have been raped, that 40% of the people were abused as children, that half of those were also sexually abused. It’s not a reality that I’d want to face every week as a pastor.

But it has to be faced.

It has to be because the abuse is ongoing, because pastors preach to abusers and their victims every week. They are speaking into the hearts of wounded people– people who probably don’t even know that they’re being abused.

And churches, pastors, leaders, they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how what they say can be manipulated by an abuser to give them even more power. They don’t understand how abusers work– how they are actually attracted to church because they know we’ll give them a multitude of second chances, and extend grace and forgiveness and compassion.

These are the things I want to see change.


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!”