Book Review: Helen Andelin and the Fascinating Womanhood Movement

CaptureUp until ten days ago, I’d never even heard of Fascinating Womanhood, a how-to-save-your-marriage manual-cum-lifestyle popularized by a Mormon housewife in the early 60s. Thanks to historian and author Julie Debra Neuffer, that situation has now been rectified. Neuffer’s new book, Helen Andelin and the Fascinating Womanhood Movement, gives an unprecedented look into the personal experiences and social/political climate that spurred Andelin’s pursuit of an antidote for divorce, the growth of her idea into an international enterprise, and the supposed enemies she made along the way (“…the feminists, the abortionists, the liberals, the BYU Family Relations Department, and the General Presidency of the Relief Society.”)

Concerned by rising malaise among housewives, Andelin considered it a calling from God to find the cure. Concurrently, Betty Friedan made the same observation and famously published her perceived solution in The Feminine Mystique, the book widely credited as the catalyst for second-wave feminism in America. After years of obsessing over the issue, Andelin, however, had come to a much different conclusion than Friedan: To experience happiness in marriage, women should be utterly submissive, defer to their husbands in all things, change their personalities, maintain trim figures, deny themselves of all optional activities, ball their fists and stomp their feet like petulant children when angry, wear ribbons in their hair, and act helpless and dumb. This, according to Andelin, was the only way to a happy, adultery-proof marriage. She even took it a step further – if you fail to take these measures, not only will your marriage fail, but your children will become delinquents, too!

Fascinating Womanhood explains that all women should strive to become the Ideal Woman, who possesses both angelic attributes (a “domestic goddess” with an “unblemished character,” among other things) and human qualities (“radiant health” and “childlikeness.”) This Ideal Woman is named Angela Human. I’d accuse Andelin of being a bit heavy handed and unoriginal in the name, except that she didn’t invent it. Much of Fascinating Womanhood, including Angela Human, was lifted word-for-word from pamphlets produced in the 1920s. Throughout her life, she explained away accusations of plagiarism by repeating her belief that God had put the pamphlets into her hands for the benefit of the world.

A devout Mormon, Andelin spent years trying to secure the endorsement of the church. Despite obtaining audience with several apostles and appealing to at least 4 different prophets by mail (and one – Joseph Fielding Smith – in person!), she never succeeded. The church, though embroiled in ERA opposition, distanced itself from her particular philosophy. Julie’s description of Andelin’s intense, physical anguish as a result of these failed opportunities – feeling that leadership was uninspired, lamenting the red tape that separated her from her spiritual leaders, struggling to remain in the church – was one of the few moments where I ached for her.

But then I reminded myself of the downright harmful ideas she promoted to millions of women all across the globe (3 million copies sold to date, people) and my sympathy waned. To name just a few of the quotes that made my eyeballs bug out of my head*:

“Happy wives are helpless wives.” (58)

“Women’s needs are the same the whole world over – to make men happy, to understand the masculine nature, and to be loved.” (31)

“Love, she said, ‘will never blossom forth until we surrender to a man.’” (33)

“A husband didn’t want to see a depressed wife, taught Andelin, so a wife who was depressed should not be surprised if her husband left her.” (35)

“God, believed Andelin, measured a woman’s worth not by her relationship with him but by her relationship with her husband.” (54 – I assume this is a conclusion she drew from the temple experience)

“[Bottle-feeding] makes it all too easy for a mother to leave her baby for long periods of time to pursue her own self-interests.” (64)

“When a man was cross, said Andelin, whose own husband was often cross with her, he was usually justified.” (36)

Just when I was beginning to worry about the effect the book might have had on women in abusive relationships and wondering whether Andelin ever addressed such situations, there was this: A “success story” from a woman who was physically and verbally abused so terribly that she attempted suicide then spent months recovering in the hospital and undergoing electroshock therapy. After being introduced to FW by a friend, she wrote to Andelin “We have not had an argument in months…And, I’ve been able to go off my medicine.” (38)

This is, of course, an extreme example. Other fans were delighted to report in their own success stories that they’d been gifted things like dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and a grocery allowance (one woman was even allowed to keep the change once!) as a result of becoming more Fascinating. My personal favorite was from a woman who happily declared that baking her own bread, as Andelin recommends, made her breasts grow larger.

There’s lots more compelling, yikes-inducing information in this book (I haven’t even touched on Andelin vs. feminists, accusations of hypocrisy, major business-decision blunders, and paranoia) and at under 200 pages it’s a quick yet illuminating read. Some might be left wishing for a bit more in-depth analysis, but that’s a testament to this gem of Mormon history in Julie Neuffer’s talented hands. I only have a smattering of minor complaints: I found the organization of the content into six non-chronological chapters a bit of a misfire. It resulted in bouncing all over the timeline, with several bits of information played on repeat throughout the book (at one point I said aloud “We get it! Women were teaching the courses without official certification!”), and certain pages felt crammed into an unrelated chapter just because there was no better place for them. Also, Harold B. Lee is described as the president of the church in the spring of 1971 (he became prophet in summer of 1972) and lastly, I was confused by Neuffer’s statement in the book’s conclusion that women today “are marrying younger and having more children.” Record scratch?

That’s me being hyper-critical, though. I definitely recommend the book. Above all else, it made me want to troll the original Fascinating Womanhood book on Amazon, recruit Gloria Steinem to do dramatic readings of the more ridiculous passages, and go express several opinions to my husband just because I can.

 

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*With the amount of nonsense emanating from some of Andelin’s quotes, it shouldn’t have hurt my feelings when she said that women who aren’t good homemakers are failures in life, but it sorta did :(

Comments

  1. I frequently had the students in my old Ethics classes read Fascinating Womanhood to give them (an extreme) idea of why second-wave feminism came about. Her contempt for both sexes shone free on every page and pointing out that seminars espousing her ideas continue to this day made for less grumbling from the Utah county folk I taught.

  2. What, no gif of your eyes bugging out of your head?

    Seriously, great review, though. Those pull-quotes are chilling.

  3. In the mid-’80s, when I joined the Church, you could still find an occasional copy of this “gem” floating around BYU. My fiancée introduced me to it, and no LDS woman I’ve ever met, then or now, regarded it as anything other than good for a laugh. One of Sister Iconoclast’s roommates at the Y simply refused to believe that Andelin was serious; she claimed the whole thing was a big spoof.

    The book was well and truly skewered in the “LDS version” of Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy (2003) as “The Pink Bible.” It used to have a website, but it’s no longer active.

  4. John, I was shocked by the longevity of the movement! Prior to reading the book I had assumed it was a blip on the radar that fizzled out within a couple of years. But here I was, reading about the 80s…the 90s? …Wait, a website?? What’s this mention of YouTube?!?

    Jason, it was hard, but I refrained.

  5. I’d forgotten that this was coming out. I’ve been looking forward to it and will have to get one. Thanks for your review.

  6. I work with one of Helen Andelin’s granddaughters, and she’s informed me (with weariness/amusement) that FW is currently being reworked, modernized, by some of her family members for republication. Brace for second impact!

    A few years ago there was a kickstarter campaign for a planned documentary about the book and the movement it launched, but I think it might have fizzled.

    One more anecdote for the pile: One of my female friends told me that her mother was converted to the FW ideals as a young wife and fully implemented them in her marriage. Years later, knowing that the book had been important to her mother’s thinking, my friend picked up the book to see what it was like. Her father saw her reading it and told her that the book had ruined his life. I guess at least some men know when they’re being manipulated by a woman-child and don’t like it. Some men like to have wives as companions rather than fawning pets.

  7. But there’s also Elouise Bell’s comment on a prior thread about Fascinating Womanhood, which notes its effectiveness at accomplishing certain things:

    “At the height of FASCINATING WOMANHOOD’S popularity, the teen-aged daughter of a BYU English faculty member couldn’t believe the ridiculous suggestions of FW were to be taken seriously. She decided to expose their silliness.

    “For two weeks, she used every trick in this very popular book on the young men in her high school classes, in Seminary, and at MIA.
    She looked forward with glee to writing an essay debunking Helen Andelin’s view of the relationship between the sexes.

    “Perhaps you’ve guessed the outcome. It all worked.
    The boys began to flock around Alice, heretofore not heavily booked for social events. I don’t believe she’s recovered from the shock and its ambivalent emotions even now, decades later. Nor do I know if she’s shown her grown daughter the book, or the excellent, sardonic essay she wrote about her experiment.”

    From this post: https://bycommonconsent.com/2008/05/14/score-your-sweetie/

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    The book has been influential in some FLDS circles. See here:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2008/05/25/flds-freaks-and-geeks/

  9. “God, believed Andelin, measured a woman’s worth not by her relationship with him but by her relationship with her husband.” (54 – I assume this is a conclusion she drew from the temple experience)

    What do we do with this? It’s similar to the idea that polygamy is practiced in temples. We just don’t talk about it and I think we need to start.

  10. Wait, I’m confused. So this is not part two of J. Stapley’s “2014 Christmas gift book guide”?

  11. Oh, Helen B Andelin! That takes me back.

    I was introduced to the Church in the late sixties by a family of FW devotees.

    It was all very strange, and, I must say, fascinating, in an appalling kind of way…. I remember that Andelin recommends wearing baby doll shoes, speaking in a baby voice, and stamping one’s foot to get one’s way. I cracked up just picturing myself doing any of that.

    I do still know an (unrelated) LDS woman who swears by FW and teaches it to her daughters. So it may be a shadow of its former self, but it’s not quite dead.

  12. Soon Helen got in the COB, but Kate can’t?

  13. Elsie Kleeman says:

    My roommates and I found a copy of FW in the Institute library while in college (this was about fifteen years ago). Sometimes we’d go up there and read it for laughs. I’d forgotten all about it. I wonder if it is still there? Thanks for the memories.

  14. liz johnson says:

    My neighbor at Heritage Halls kept a copy of this book on her nightstand, and often used the tactics (like purposefully installing things wrong, and then calling a man to fix her “mistake”) to try to score dates. It was… something.

    My mother-in-law was gifted this book by HER mother-in-law back in the 70’s. Apparently my mother-in-law wasn’t being Fascinating enough, and her mother-in-law was concerned that her son wasn’t being sufficiently patronized.

    Have you ever read “The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands?” The parallels to FW are eerie.

  15. If Fascinating Womanhood is too mature for any of the ladies in your life, there’s always The Fascinating Girl by the same author …

  16. speak of the devil, this is on my syllabus as our next lecture in my US Women’s History class. I was shocked at the positive reviews over at Goodreads:

    –“It is actually a very enlightening book on the differences between men and women, and how the feminist movement has made all of us women diminish the importance of not only being a wife and mother, but also a homemaker.”
    –“This is not a book for those deep into the feminist movement, but it is for those who are proud to be a woman.”
    –“This book will tell you how to be a perfect 50’s housewife. I love it. It makes me cry and vow to be a better wife every time I read even a chapter.”

  17. Kristine, the Amazon reviews aare equally disturbing.

  18. “When a man was cross, said Andelin, whose own husband was often cross with her, he was usually justified.”

    I wonder if he was cross with her because she balled her fists and stomped her feet like a petulant child when angry, wore ribbons in her hair, and acted helpless and dumb. ;)

  19. The Young Women recognition awards from the 1940’s into the 1960’s may have set the foundation for this.
    https://www.lds.org/callings/young-women/leader-resources/history/history-of-young-women-recognition?lang=eng
    In 1915, a typical requirement was “clear sagebrush off of one-half acre of land.” In the 1960’s a typical requirement was “Strive to get your full nine hours’ beauty sleep each night this month.” Honestly, look at the link–the requirements in the 1960’s were pretty horrifying.

  20. “Horrifying” is a horrifically horrible overreaction to anything on that list, Tim.

  21. Left Field says:

    Look for beauty, don’t slouch, and be polite isn’t quite the horror I was expecting.

  22. Are we assuming that our culture (either Mormon culture or broader American culture) has moved on from these ideas? The Goodreads and Amazon reviews are a good reality check.

  23. It’s really interesting to me that Church leaders rejected her overtures, and yet her book has had more influence on Mormon relationships btw men and women than pretty much anything the Church has officially taught. Marketing precedes the miracle!

  24. She strongly implied LDS endorsement in the book, even though it was intended for a general audience.

  25. I think from reading reviews, the point that some women get out of the book is the importance of giving their husbands positive attention. Nothing wrong with that, and most of us could probably benefit from regular reminders to treat our nearest and dearest kindly.

    But the framing is horrific, if it suggests that women act submissive and childish. I’m trying to think how to say this delicately, but a woman might find that the technique worked with a man who was given to finding children attractive, and really, I don’t want to know that about your husbands; just keep them away from my kids.

    Neuffer’s notes about plagiarism are interesting; I’ve seen something similar in the one Cleon Skousen book I’m familiar with, a child psychology book called “So You Want to Raise a Boy?” I’ve never cared enough to check if it was lifted word for word from the work of Dr Louise Ames and her colleagues, but it is a pretty thorough repetition of the ideas, just shortened and limited to boys, rather than all children.

    Have standards of originality and citation changed from when these books were first written?

  26. it's a series of tubes says:

    and yet her book has had more influence on Mormon relationships btw men and women than pretty much anything the Church has officially taught.

    Conclusory. Rework to cite demonstrable support, or remove.

    /s/ your editor

  27. Cute, iasot. Of course it’s conclusory. It’s a freakin’ blog comment.

    I think the passive-aggressive dynamic of many interactions between Mormon women, as well as the patronizing, pedestalizing rhetoric directed at women to convince them that their powerlessness in the Church organization is appropriate to their “naturally” nurturing and submissive personalities is straight-up fascinatingness.

  28. See also: millions of lame jokes about how Relief Societies really run the ward…

  29. It’s kind of interesting that Helen Andelin had a son who divorced his wife and from what I understand didn’t do much to support his family. Her former daughter in law was in my ward for awhile and she was an amazing woman.

  30. Kristine, regarding the influence of the book in relationship to official teachings: as a religion editor recently said to me, formal theology turns out not to be a very good predictor of religious practice… And Marie, I think it’s fine to critique Helen Andelin’s work, since it’s published and therefore public, but it seems like a cheap shot to go after her family–who doesn’t have something going wrong there? Especially when you don’t know the entire story but just the appearances? Why not drag in a lot of other famous church people too whose offspring (or the people themselves) don’t always live up to ideals? Or not so famous?

  31. the other Marie says:

    I must volunteer that there are at least two different Maries commenting here (and elsewhere on BCC). The first two Marie comments on this posting were by me, and the one made today is from someone else. I’m going to change my BCC user name to “the other Marie,” just to avoid confusion.

  32. liz johnson says:

    Also, Helen Andelin’s husband wrote “Man of Steel and Velvet.” Clearly he wasn’t going to let his delicate, feminine, helpless wife upstage him in the publishing industry. It wouldn’t be manly! Or steely! Or velvety!

  33. I remember a time way back when, when I was working in MIA in my ward, and the other two members of the presidency wanted to use this book to teach the girls. I was shocked (I had read the book and found it disgusting) and put my foot down. I could not understand why they thought it was good for women to totally strip away their own identities in order to manipulate their men. I’m sorry the book is making a comeback.

  34. I read this book some months before I joined the church, during a season when I was dissatisfied with the answer that feminism provided (I had previously been very active in our local chapter of NOW). An LDS guy I know wandered into my office, I pointed out the book on my desk, and said that he must be pleased to see me reading that. He said no, he thought it was manipulative, and spouses ought to be best friends, openly honest with each other.

    He later baptized me.

  35. “Man of Steel and Velvet,” one of the least popular issues of Superman in which our caped crusader fights crime side by side with Liberace.

  36. True family history time! I read something about Fascinating Womanhood awhile ago and asked my mom if she’d ever read/heard about it. She was in a hurry and said, “Remind me one day to tell you about that book and the affect it had on my life.” Obviously intrigued, I reminded her later, and it turns out that my (not Mormon) grandmother left my grandfather after trying the Fascinating Womanhood method or whatever and finding that my grandpa was still an emotionally reticent adult child of an alcoholic. My mother is definitely not a fan of the book. I’ll have to pick up a copy of this one to see how it affected other families. (My grandfather remarried, my grandmother never did, but they are still in love with each other. Families are weird.)

  37. Sharee I hope you balled your fists and used baby voice when you put that foot down :)

  38. I never thought of that, rah. Guess I’m not very fascinating . :-)

  39. When I was 12, my leaders & my mom felt I wasn’t “feminine” enough. One of my leaders gave me a book called “The Fascinating Girl.” I about gagged reading it, & since then, whenever someone tries to tell me I need to be more “feminine,” I reply with “Feminine means of or relating to femaleness. I am a female, therefore, whatever I am, by definition, is feminine.” And I refuse to change just to please other people.

  40. Sharee, it *was* used in my ward to teach the girls! I was a beehive at the time. My best friend and I made fun of quotes from that lesson till we both moved away for different universities. “I want to be a woman– YOUR woman!!” Good times :).