How to Be Seriously Frivolous (or, Feminism is For Grownups)


A few months ago, in the midst of a rant from me about how VILE Twilight is, a friend suggested that I read Fascinating Womanhood by Helen B. Andelin--he was pretty sure it would help to explain Twilight. He'd never read either, but he had Mormon daughters and a Mormon ex-wife, and he knew plenty of women who had read both.

In case you didn't know, Fascinating Womanhood is, like Twilight, a thoroughly Mormon book that never mentions Mormonism. Andelin, who taught marriage enrichment courses to Mormon Women in California during the 1950s while her husband was busy being a dentist, fasted and prayed about how Mormon women might achieve an ideal marriage--and the answer is contained in Fascinating Womanhood.

What the hell, I thought, when my friend suggested I read this. I'd read The Rules years ago. I'd grown up Mormon and been to plenty of Standards Nights. How much worse could this particular exploration and defense of caricaturized femininity really be?


Part of the difficulty in battling sexism and gender assumptions is that they are sometimes subtle, sometimes difficult to tease out. What makes FW so shocking is how blatant it all. Seriously: if I hadn't known, in all certainty, that it wasn't a joke, I would have thought it was satire. It was difficult to believe that anyone could take this crap seriously. But it is deadly in its seriousness--which is a tad ironic, since the overall thrust of the book is to teach women how to be frivolous.

That's right, ladies: being frivolous is serious business. Because the crux of gender differences and relationships between men and women boil down to one fact, repeated over and over throughout the book and presented in all caps, so you'll feel its pithy truth all more forcefully:


And it turns out that men love only silly, frivolous, infantile women, and women, if they work at it, can admire a man so stupid he doesn't realize or care when he's being manipulated.

The page opposite the table of contents presents a list of "What This Book Can Do For You":

It will teach you:

1. The kind of woman a man wants.
2. What men find fascinating in women.
3. How to understand men, their vulnerable points, characteristics, and peculiarities.
4. How to arouse his adoration and love.
5. How to cause a man to protect you, wait upon you, and even spoil you.
6. How to get what you want out of life, until man becomes both master and slave. (Great is the power women can have over men when they understand them. And the men love it.)
7. How to bring out the best in man.
8. How to be attractive, even adorable when you are angry.
9. The way to the supreme marriage.

Andelin starts off telling women how to deal with men before she gets into specific ways women should change themselves. One of the messages of the book is that YOU MUST NOT WANT TO CHANGE YOUR HUSBAND, and YOU MUST NOT TRY TO CHANGE YOUR HUSBAND, because it's your job to admire him, just as he is! Seriously:

I must warn you that the most important step to understanding your man and winning his heart is accepting him at face value. Your admiration of him will fail to be effective if you still hold in your heart critical attitudes, take away his freedom, or try to change him.
If you admire him in some ways but are critical of him in others-if you do not accept him at face value, it will be like serving him a piece of moldy pie and trying to disguise it by putting whipped cream on top. Your admiration will be detected as insincere and will be ineffective. (53)

This even though the book goes on and on about how to behave so that your husband will be magically transformed into the man you want, reminding readers that


There's a whole chapter on "A Man's Pride," because the worst thing that can happen to a man is for his pride to be hurt. Women must guard against hurting a man's pride at all costs, because men don't give a shit about integrity, or wisdom, or strength of character--no, all men care about is what other people think of them.

So. How to make a man proud? "YOU MUST MAKE HIM FEEL SUPERIOR AS THE LEADER" (84).

In other words, purposely botch household chores, so your man will feel capable, needed and amused when correcting your mistakes. Also, learn to be afraid of stuff, including 1) both real dangers (the primary one being sexual assault--her ideas about sex and how her approach to gender make sexual assault more of a danger rather than less, deserves a post of its own) and "unreal dangers" like "thunder, lightning and strange noises; " also 2) "Strenuous work" like "mowing the lawn, painting the house, lifting heavy objects" etc and 3) "Difficulties of Life" such as

financial entanglements, belligerent creditors, people who have become irritable, harsh, or offensive, troublesome salesman, [sic], and people who make unreasonable demands. The feminine woman is emotional, easily upset and less capable of defending herself than man. She needs his protection! (90)

Cultivating this feminine timidity and cowardice is vital to a strong marriage, for "WOMEN HAVE BECOME CAPABLE which makes MANLY PROTECTION UNNECESSARY.... If you will investigate you will find that neither the man nor the woman enjoys this situation. Man is robbed of his feeling of superiority and woman of her feminine charms" (92).

And then there's the way to approach expressing anger: be infantile and insincere!

The key to child-like anger is this: YOUR ANGER, YOUR SAUCINESS, OR SPUNK MUST BE MOSTLY PRETENSE. By pretense, I mean that your fiery display of emotions are mostly on the surface; they are shallow; you do not appear to be really angry; it is only a little act.... You can exaggerate both his treatment of you and your threats. For example, say "You are the most thoughtless man in town!" or "Well, so this is how you treat your poor little wife who works and slaves for you all day." Your threats also should be exaggerated as are those of little children who say, "I'll never speak to you again," or "I won't do anything for you anymore," or "I'll tell my mother on you." (148)

Andelin repeatedly stresses the importance of " of the most charming qualities in the entire philosophy of Fascinating Womanhood" (145). This "extreme girlishness" is "a quality of sauciness, spunk, innocence, trustfulness and tenderness all mixed into one. It is a changefulness of emotion, from joyfulness to innocent anger. It is the charming qualities of a little girl" (145). (Given that Andelin was 89 when she died in June 2009, I have to wonder if she tried to remain "child-like" even into her late 80s? I have a feeling that if she did, it wasn't pretty.)

I could go on. But I think I've established that this book isn't merely a relic of misogynist culture, it's flat-out misanthropic or genophobic--it displays a contempt and distrust for all humanity, an interest in maintaining humanity at its worst. For instance, Andelin stresses that "Woman must think of her man as a success--even though he isn't one at the moment. Anything less is a blow to his ego" (62). But this is true only for really immature people with crappy self-esteem. As Winifred Gallagher notes in Rapt:

Differences in self-esteem also influence how couples attend to and interpret their romantic partners. Sandra Murray finds that people who have a strong sense of their own worth trust that their mates also respect and admire them; they don't brood about being overly dependent or getting rejected. When their partners compliment their strengths, the positive attention is pleasant enough but doesn't change their feeling of commitment and security within the relationship one way or the other. In contrast, people who have low self-esteem assume that their mates share their own poor opinion, so being praised does ease anxiety about rejection. (96)

In short, Andelin has no interest in equality or emotional maturity or ethical awareness or intellectual development or anything but a charade of "master and slave" (check that list of what FW will do for you) so complete it governs every aspect of life.

The best thing I realized from reading this book: feminism, which does care about equality and emotional maturity and ethical awareness and intellectual development, is a means by which ALL OF US--male and female--grow up.

The movement Andelin started is alive and well. Self-published in 1963, Fascinating Womanhood is now in its sixth edition (I read the 2nd edition, from 1965), has grown from under 200 pages to over 400, and has sold over 2,000,000 copies. It has spawned a companion volume, The Fascinating Girl, as well as a set of classes and seminars in case you want additional guidance as you put into practice that advice to cultivate a fear of thunder.

(In case you think these texts are no longer relevant, here's a discussion of The Fascinating Girl on Segullah Blog. Also a very weird discussion of FW in FLDS culture from By Common Consent. The post itself isn't terrible, but check out the comments! In typical wacky, paranoid Mo fashion, the people on BCC are more concerned with discrediting the source of information that might besmirch the already filthy reputation of the Mormon church than with attending seriously to the issues raised in her statements--heavens, why take seriously a woman who, as soon as she was legally an adult, was forced to marry a man old enough to be her father, in a system so pernicious that the "real" Mormon church immediately excommunicates anyone associated with it? Given that her experiences have made her an outspoken critic of patriarchy, there must be something really wrong with the bitch.)


The thing that struck me was the emphasis on 'child-like'. Roleplay the schoolgirl in the bedroom, sure - with consenting adults cognizant that it's a fantasy -, but it smacks of pedophilia in addition to the institutionalized power shit when that sort of insistence on immaturity extends to the entire life. Preserving the facade of a female adolescence like *this* is wrong on so many levels. Considering that enforcing 'child-like' anything seems to me a recipe to become an unhappy, cruelly-manipulative woman, it establishes a marriage as something to be built on deceit and non-communication. I am thinking that's a poor idea for partners.

Considering that enforcing 'child-like' anything seems to me a recipe to become an unhappy, cruelly-manipulative woman, it establishes a marriage as something to be built on deceit and non-communication. I am thinking that's a poor idea for partners.

Exactly, Alii--well said. But the formula is presented as the only way to have a successful, loving marriage. Also, it argues that virtually any failed marriage is the wife's fault, because she must always adapt to her husband. How can that really offer a method for women to achieve happiness, fulfillment or meaningful personhood?

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on August 30, 2009 10:27 AM.

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