In the 1960s, as the feminist movement was on the rise, a separate women’s movement also gained traction by preaching a wholly different message.
The Fascinating Womanhood Movement, founded in 1961 by Helen Andelin, taught that women should submit to their husbands’ will, that women should not work outside the home, and that women should maintain a feminine appearance, among other tenets. Her first book sold more than 2 million copies.
Julie Neuffer, an American history professor at Eastern Washington University, has published “Helen Andelin and the Fascinating Womanhood Movement” (University of Utah Press, $19.95), about Andelin and her antifeminist movement. Neuffer will read from her book and answer questions on Thursday at Auntie’s Bookstore. She’ll also lead a discussion, “Contemporary Issues in Feminist Research,” at noon April 21 as part of Get Lit.
In a “5 Questions” email interview, Neuffer talks about her firsthand knowledge of Andelin’s work, the lessons to be learned from it, and the prickly nature of the word “obey.”
Q. How did you hear about the Fascinating Womanhood movement?
A. I didn’t hear about the FW movement until I was in graduate school. But, I had known about Andelin’s book, “Fascinating Womanhood,” since I was a teenager. I grew up during the 1960s and 70s. My mother was a religious woman and a political conservative, as were many other people in our small, conservative town. What was expected of me, and of every other girl that I knew, was to grow up, get married, and become a housewife. College and a career was never a consideration. One day, a friend gave my mother a copy of Andelin’s book. She was so taken with its message that she wrote to Andelin, volunteering to be an FW teacher. My mother became an extremely popular FW teacher, and taught classes throughout my teenage years. “Fascinating Womanhood,” and Andelin’s other advice book, written to instruct young girls on how to attract a good husband, were required reading in my home.
When I turned 18 and left home, I left FW behind me. In 2002, I was working my way through graduate school as a teaching assistant for a professor in an American popular culture class. During a lecture, he held up a 1965 edition of “Fascinating Womanhood,” and explained that if a woman wanted to be a good wife in the 1960s, here was a manual that told her how to do it. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t heard about FW for almost 30 years, and I had no idea that people outside of my hometown knew anything about it.
I had been looking for a suitable subject for my doctoral dissertation for some time, and when I saw the book, I realized that I had found it. No one had done any scholarly work on Andelin and her followers, and I was convinced that if she was still alive, I had a shot at interviewing her.
Q. What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research?
A. That Andelin’s book initiated a nationwide women’s movement. I knew Helen Andelin as a kind of local celebrity, but I had no idea that she was a national media sensation, that she sold millions of books, or that she had hundreds of thousands of followers. I was also very surprised when Andelin told me that she considered some of the leaders of the Mormon Church her enemies. She was a devout Mormon, and when she was ignored by the church authorities, who had no interest in adopting her doctrines for churchwide use, she felt so wronged that she considered leaving the church. She was also very open in discussing with me the intimacies of her sexual relationship with her husband – something that I wasn’t expecting from a prim 81-year-old.
Q. Was it coincidence that the Fascinating Womanhood movement arose just as feminism was on the rise? Or was one a response to the other?
A. Andelin didn’t know anything about Betty Friedan or the feminists when she wrote her book. “Fascinating Womanhood” was published the same year as Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” Both women were responding to the unhappiness and turmoil that many American women were experiencing during the turbulent years of the 1960s and ’70s. Both women had very different solutions to the problems of the era. At first, Andelin thought of the feminists as misguided women, who, once they heard the truth of her message, would come around to the right way of thinking. She called them her sisters. In time, however, she began to see them as her enemies and referred to them as sick and confused individuals who had failed at being women. Thus, she claimed, they were not qualified to speak for other women. Friedan was just as surprised to learn that there was a whole population of American women who didn’t care about equal rights and did not want to be liberated.
Q. One of Andelin’s tenets was that women should “obey” their husband. As modern marriage has become more about partnership and less about dominant and submissive roles, this has become such a loaded word. So loaded that many marriage vows today are edited to exclude it. What was it about that message that appealed to Andelin’s followers?
A. Andelin, and many modern-day writers who have recycled her message, advises women to let their husbands make the decisions, and then follow them … in other words, surrender. For example, Laura Doyle’s “The Surrendered Wife” (2001), Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s, “The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands” (2004), and current literature from the popular conservative organization, Focus on the Family, all invoke Andelin’s missive to put the husband first and follow his directions. Andelin believed in something she called the Divine Order of the Family, a patriarchal model based on Biblical teachings. She told women that it was their religious duty to obey. She argued, as do her successors, that when a woman submits, she actually gains more power. By living out her God-intended role a woman can have more influence over her husband than if she were to confront him and object, even if she knows she is right. A woman who obeys her husband, Andelin taught, relieved herself of worry and the heavy burden of responsibility. A woman’s true power was in influencing outcomes, not in laying down the law. Often, when I talk to women about Andelin and her message, I am asked if I would obey my own husband. I say sure. If our house is on fire and he tells me to run out the front door, I’d do it.
Q. Are there lessons that modern women might be able to take from Andelin’s work?
A. Yes. Andelin encouraged women to take responsibility for their own happiness. She also taught them not to be ashamed of their chosen vocation, but to take pride in their work. Women, she said, needed to find their own sense of meaning in their lives, think positively, and project a cheerful, hopeful attitude. I think this is good advice for just about anyone in any kind of situation.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter