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Helen Andelin


Fascinating Womanhood Review: sex


This is the last week of my extended review of Helen Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood. Good riddance, I’m sure most of you are thinking– well, you’re not alone.

I’ve been procrastinating about writing this chapter because my feelings about it are  . . . complicated. You’ll see why once we get in to it, but I want to start out with this observation: very often, I’ve found that many people easily slip in the ideas that someone like me find necessary: agency, consent, autonomy. On the surface, Helen is about to say a lot of things that sound like we would agree with her.

She starts off, however, exactly where we would expect her to: the only permissible form of sex is between heterosexual married partners. Whether or not you agree with that, you should be concerned with how she extends that argument.

Uphold virginity as the most precious of virtues . . .

Keep your sexual life with your husband pure. A marriage liscense is not a liscense to do wrong. Don’t engage in a sexual practice which is impure . . . Don’t expose your mind to anything that encourages impure sex thoughts, such as sexy stage performances, movies, TV, magazines, or any type of pornographic material. Don’t listen to rock music or any music which encourages unwholesome feelings.

Even if you believe that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is a sin, hopefully you can see the difference between encouraging abstinence and mandating virginity. One is an action, an ongoing path you can step away from temporarily and then come back to. Virginity, on the other hand, is not an action. It’s not a choice. It’s a state of being, and once you are no longer a virgin (whatever that means), you can’t go back. It’s something you lose.

And here is where things get complicated, because Helen says this:

You need not feel you owe it to  your husband to have sex whenever he expects it and never refuse.

But that is buried in the middle of this:

No man appreciates sex which can be had readily. It is simply too cheap. Although you owe your husband a generous amount of sex, he doesn’t own your body. To give him sex every time he asks is to spoil him.

I got a bit of whiplash as I was reading through this chapter, because I wanted to nod along with sentiments like you don’t owe your husband sex whenever he wants it, you can say no— these things are so very rarely said, and they need to be said more often. Except, they need to be said without justification, without qualifiers. Not wanting to haves sex is a perfectly legitimate reason: it’s the only reason anyone needs. However, it’s not enough for Helen– we can only say no because it’s for his benefit.

She goes on to tell us not to have sex when “he tries to insist,” but it’s only because if we give in to him, he will “experience bad feelings.” He’ll feel guilty for his “lack of consideration.” Everything we do, say, think, is about him. She emphasizes her point by referring to Amnon and Tamar– how he raped her, and that made him feel guilty. That’s the important thing to remember about this story, according to Helen. Tamar “gave in too easily, and Amnon felt bad because he pushed her, so don’t give in to your husband.”

Ai yi yi.

When she tries to give practical advice, she starts talking about how to “turn ourselves on”– which we should do, of course, so that our husbands feel adequate. But then this appears:

Parents, in an effort to withstand rampant immorality, teach their children to keep themselves clean. This gives children the impression that sex must be unclean. There is not a clear differentiation between the wrongness of sex before marriage and the rightness of it after. Without intention, the thought is placed in their minds that there is something evil about sex . . .

Unless she regards sex as natural, wholesome, and an enjoyable experience for both her husband and herself, her desire will be limited.

See what I mean about complicated? Because I can agree that the current evangelical teachings about sex can frequently result in this attitude. I wish she could keep on this track, but it’s Helen, so of course this happens:

When a man and woman have a wholesome attitude about sex, when they truly love each other, and are sexually awakened, they don’t need instructions about how to have sex with each other. It comes about naturally.

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

Helen, however, takes a turn toward they hysterical, and I have to share this with you all because it’s just that funny.

On occasion, a man may like his wife to be aggressive in sex . . . but a woman can be too aggressive, to the point of turning him off . . . She may dress in a frilly nightie, spray herself with perfume, give him a sexy look, and squeeze his hand . . . and this can strike him as too aggressive.

The first time I read that, I burst out laughing. Seriously, Helen– putting on a “nightie” and squeezing his hand is aggressive?! Wow. Just . . .wow. Makes me giggle imagining what she’d say if she ever ran into a dominatrix. I have a hard time imagining someone who is less aggressive than what she just described. What do you do if come-hither glances and frilly lingerie aren’t options?
Helen has exemplified in this chapter something I’m coming to see happen more often in evangelical circles. People are attempting to correct for some of the messages my generation has grown up receiving. I’ve seen articles and heard sermons recently from those who seem to realize that there are problems– they just have no clue what the problems are. Because everything about their universe is still male-centric, still oriented on the needs, concerns of men, still focused on maintaining male power, they are blind to what makes their teachings about purity so unhealthy. When you order your world around women maintaining their worth and value through sex– which purity culture does, and Helen has done above– no matter how you try to word it, you will fail to make any substantive change. Helen closes her book with a few pages of summary, and she makes it clear that the point of Fascinating Womanhood has been to show women how to “make him feel like a man.” In the end, it’s one of the dominant messages we still receive today.


Fascinating Womanhood Review: more childlike ways


I thought it might be appropriate to use a picture of Wendy for today’s post since Helen dedicates four pages to quoting J.M. Barrie’s The Little Minister. I’ve only ever read Peter Pan, so I’m only really familiar with Wendy, but going by how Helen has virtually assassinated the other characters she’s used as “evidence” before, I think she’s exaggerating the girlishness in Babbie’s character (the romantic interest in The Little Minister).

And, while she spends four pages quoting Barrie, she spends only half a page talking about what we’re supposed to do when our husbands are angry with us. We’re to:

1) Exaggerate by words or manner
2) Distract his attention
3) Change the subject
4) Be submissive, in a childlike way
5) Be teasingly playful

How she goes on to describe how we’re supposed to do this is ridiculous. One suggestion is to put our hands on his cheeks, look him in the eye, and say “My prince, my handsome prince.” Dear lord– if I ever did that with my partner when he is upset with me? It would certainly not help. At all. But, according to Helen, this will guarantee that he “melts.” Gah. Handsome would not melt, I guarantee you. He’d probably look at me incredulously and then walk out of the apartment.

And, can you imagine being in a discussion with a grown adult and suddenly “changing the subject” because the person you’re speaking with happens to be upset with you? We should be able to have healthy, productive discussions that operate inside each other’s boundaries, and part of that means respecting you partner enough to hear them out. I’m honestly a little surprised that Helen is suggesting these tactics– they seem to upend everything else she’s been saying about how women are to interact with their husbands.


For the first time in a long while, Helen’s actually managed to say some things that I agree with. She says she’s going to teach women how “to ask for things the right way,” but as usual she starts out be describing “the wrong way.” Here’s where we actually agree– and for the first time I even don’t mind how she said it. She says that hints, suggestions, and demands aren’t effective, and I think she’s right in encouraging directness. She also spends some time saying it’s a bad idea to be the “self-sacrificing wife,” to never ask for things just to make yourself feel unselfish and noble, and I definitely agree with that. There is, however, one method where she goes off the rails again:

You may think of all the reasons why you are justified in asking for something. Then you take the matter to your husband to try to convince him, backing it up with your reasons. This method sometimes works, but it more often invites opposition . . . you appear as a decision-making equal, prompting him to say no, just to show his authority.

Any man who says “no” for no other reason than his wife has brought him a well-thought-out argument is not worth his salt. That Helen, once again, teaches that all men are like this is incredibly insulting. Malicious people are like this. Being a “man” doesn’t automatically make you petty and vindictive.

Also the ways we’re supposed to respond to the gifts we receive are just ridiculous. Yes, when my partner bought me a complete set of Collier’s Junior Classics after he’d heard me talk about how my childhood set had been lost, I sat there and cried because it made me that happy (same reaction happened when he got me a boxed set of Harry Potter in hardbound). Yes, I can get wildly excited and emotive. That doesn’t make my enthusiastic reactions the only right way to respond to a gift. My personality is not every woman’s personality, and that is perfectly fine. But, not to Helen it’s not. In order to be a fascinating woman, we have to eviscerate our own personalities and become this  . . . hideous thing.

The last part of the chapter, though, just made me laugh.

If you want to create some youthful styles of your own, especially housedresses, visit a little girl’s shop. There you will see buttons and bows, plaids, pleats, stripes, jumpers, daisies . . . all of their clothes are pretty.

Also be conscious of hairstyles . . . little girls wear ribbons, bows, barettes, and flowers in their hair. They wear cute little hats.

I just about died laughing at the mental image this conjured up. Seriously? Her best advice to “appear youthful” is to dress like a toddler from the Victorian era?

Also, I just googled “hairstyle ribbons” and “hairstyle flowers” and all the most of the results you get for grown women are bridal styles, which, admittedly, can be gorgeous, but it made me wonder . . . women probably are putting flowers and ribbons in their hair on their wedding day to invoke this image of youthfulness and girlhood . . . and, well, probably virginity, too. Our culture is obsessed with our women remaining permanently young, and I’m beginning to think that by “young” we don’t mean “early 20s” but “12.”


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.


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.


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.


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!”


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.


Fascinating Womanhood Review: the domestic goddess

french maid

Most of this chapter is, from my point of view, almost entirely normal. It’s the same sort of things that I’ve heard my entire life about what it means to be a “keeper at home.” She makes the same argument that I’ve heard from numerous pulpits, countless books, and endless radio programs and lectures. Some of it could even be considered good advice– her tips on how to get organized seem to be pretty standard fare on all those organization shows I’ve watched on TV.

The problem comes from the basic assumption of the chapter, which she explicitly states at the end: all women with “worthy character” want to be a domestic goddess, and being a domestic goddess always look exactly like this with absolutely no exceptions.

The “no exceptions” part is what frustrates me the most, because people are not all exactly the same, and expecting every single last woman on the planet to be what Helen describes as a domestic goddess is harmful. For many women– many women that I know and love and admire– following what Helen proscribes in this chapter is literally impossible for a variety of reasons. Not every woman can do everything this chapter says, but Helen doesn’t acknowledge that, and in fact argues that any woman who doesn’t do what she says has “a weakness of character”:

Poor homemaking is usually traced to self-centeredness . . .

Failure to follow [God’s example of orderliness] indicates lack of character . . .

Poor homemaking may be due to a lack of knowledge .  . . but when she makes no effort to learn, it indicates a lack of caring, and therefore a lack of character . . .

When a sense of responsibility is lacking there is a deficiency of character . . .

In addition, the woman who will not care for her family because she is lazy demonstrates a lack of love for them, a lack of concern for them, a lack of character.

That’s all on a single page. She’s just spent the entire chapter detailing what it looks like for a woman to “care for her family,” and saying that not doing it her way demonstrates a lack of love for her family is cruel. If my mother had to make from-scratch meals every single breakfast, lunch, and dinner (pages 259 and 260) . . . if she was never allowed to make mac n’ cheese and hotdogs and serve corn out of a can, her physical and mental well being would have been threatened, and she would have been carrying around a completely unnecessary burden of guilt and shame. If using “frozen dinners, cold cuts, packaged mixes, canned foods, macaroni” is a “complete failure in meal preparation” and somehow meant that my mother didn’t love her family? That’s just beyond ridiculous. And it’s not because she was lazy — it was because she was not healthy and was very busy. But there’s no room for that anywhere in this chapter– or this book.

Helen’s ideal woman is a white, wealthy, healthy, fit, reserved, timid, and childish person. Anything else– any other kind of person– doesn’t exist. They’re just people with a lack of character.

And that’s a message I’ve heard a lot in a bunch of different churches, from a variety of books and magazines in more mainstream Christian culture. Women are bludgeoned endlessly with Proverbs 31 (which she says we should read as part of our “assignment” for this chapter), and which is no longer the glorious poem husbands would sing to their wives, but is now a precise checklist for everything a Christian woman is supposed to be and failing to live up to the “standard” of a woman whose “price is far above rubies” is now one of the worst things a Christian woman can do.

And the vision of “biblical womanhood” and “godly motherhood” and “homemaker” that I’ve heard and read all my life is echoed in these pages. Mingled in with lessons on making sure your house is always spotless (but accepting that your husband is going to be messy and not cleaning up until later because he’ll divorce you), all meals are from scratch, your house is decorated (she specifically mentions tablecloths four times), and your children are well-dressed is this idea that being bored with any of that or needing fulfillment in something besides housework is wrong. The problem, Helen says, is your fault:

Many women fail to find happiness in homemaking because they only go the first mile. They only give the bare stint of requirement . . . Women who give just enough to get by never enjoy homemaking. You have to go the second mile to enjoy anything.

So, if you’re longing for something besides keeping your house clean and cooking food? Work harder. Starch those collars, make fresh bread everyday. Do more. Go farther. You’ll never be happy unless you’re constantly working your fingers to your bone– and if any of it is “drudgery”? Still your fault.

Many of our duties [changing diapers, scrubbing floors] are a source of real enjoyment. Caring for children, cooking delicious meals, and cleaning the house can be pleasant experiences . . . Actually little of our work is unpleasant . . .

If you think any of this is boring and you would like to spend a little less time on it to do things you do like to do, like reading books? That’s just something that “robs you of your time” and causes you to be “in a rush for the important things” like making sure your silver is sparkling and labeling plastic tubs for storage.

In short, if you’re not June Cleaver, you’re a failure.