Saturday, November 17, 2018
Helen Andelin’s book Fascinating Womanhood is founded on one basic premise: Men and women are fundamentally different. Its argument for traditional marriage is quite simple: Femininity catalyzes masculinity, and in a relationship, this is a woman's best way to win her man's devotion.
Yet Fascinating Womanhood is not simply a relationship advice book. It is also a book about society and humanity. Andelin argues strongly for gender roles – the “Pants” and the “Skirt” you might call them. She opposes feminist notions of gender equality and the idea that the sexes are wholly fungible. Her priority, above all else, is the strength of families and the well-being of children. To this end she passionately believes a society that devalues the Skirt is both immoral and doomed to fail.
Is she right in her basic premise of male and female psychological sex differences? There is still much debate, but increasingly the science is coming down heavily on her side. Numerous studies of evolution, psychology, and brain development strongly evidence what our ancestors and children have always known: Boys and girls are different. The idea that men and women naturally differ in their thinking and behavior was not controversial for most of human history. Perhaps then it is unsurprising that more free, wealthy, and progressive societies often exhibit greater gender differences.
Andelin runs with her gender thesis and starts by discussing the nature of men. She talks about hierarchies and competitiveness. She talks about the need for respect and meaningful work. She argues that most boys and men are good, hardworking individuals that want to start families with a woman they can cherish. There are some broad statements in this section that will not ring true for everyone however there is still a lot of good insight. The struggles of young boys in today’s education system (girls are outperforming them at all levels) bolster Andelin’s point about the unique psychological needs of men.
This is one of the book's strengths. More than most modern social science books Fascinating Womanhood shows tremendous compassion for men. In our current #MeToo era it has become fashionable to think the worst of men. The media gleefully characterizes them as misogynistic patriarchal oppressors who are to have their livelihoods destroyed over a bawdy joke or a bad date. Andelin’s voice is a breath of fresh air. She recognizes that most men, like most women, are well-intentioned, decent people.
The discussion of female nature is similarly measured if overly broad. Andelin very clearly defines femininity and feminine qualities and explains how men find them fascinating. She encourages wives to be a source of joy and comfort in their husband's lives. She endorses biblical gender roles with the man as the leader in the home. While she encourages wives to be submissive and obedient, she also stresses the importance of open communication and respectfully disagreeing with husbands when necessary. Most men I think would agree with the basic idea that femininity is attractive while disagreeing with some specific suggestions. Andelin's advice to "act childish" to diffuse arguments, for example, may not work for everyone.
Fascinating Womanhood is a surprisingly empowering book for women. Ms. Andelin does not believe women in flawed relationships are hapless victims. Instead she tells women to take ownership of their own behavior. She tells them to work to rebuild trust with their husbands. She tells women that through their own actions and the force of their own will, they can reform their marriages. Controversially, she suggests this even in cases of infidelity or abuse (though she acknowledges that divorce is acceptable in situations where one partner may be a danger to the other or the children).
It’s an interesting contrast with other politically right of center marriage advice. Among the Christian complementarian movement as well as among the “red pill manosphere,” the basic advice on marriage is this: If the wife is unhappy, it is the husband’s fault for not being sufficiently godly / alpha / manly whatever. The premise is that the wife’s behavior is wholly a function of her husband. Fascinating Womanhood begs to differ. While a husband and wife may not have entirely equal responsibility in all things, Andelin firmly believes that women can be responsible for the state of their marriages.
While placing a great deal of responsibility at the feet of women, Andelin is also compassionate and empathetic toward women and their unique natures. Fascinating Womanhood delights in relaying the joys of being a housewife and mother. The book talks about feminine dress, manner, housework, cooking, child-rearing, interior design, socializing, volunteer work, and all manner of traditionally feminine interests. It makes for a good sales pitch for people skeptical of the traditional lifestyle. The book also uses a lot of testimonials, literary allusions, and biblical references to bolster its points. It adds color and persuasiveness, particularly for serious Christians.
Selling the importance of the Skirt to a society that is all about the Pants is no easy feat. Contemporary western cultures tend to look down on women who stay home. Being at home to prioritize your family - your children and husband - apparently makes you a slave. True freedom can only be found in paying strangers to raise your kids and helping some corporation earn billions in profits instead of serving your loved ones. Andelin’s writing is at its strongest when she questions this value system.
One area where I think she went a little off the rails was with regard to sex. Andelin encourages women to have sex regularly with their husbands, but also tells them to say “no,” regularly lest their husbands become sex fiends. She spends several pages explaining how to properly reject a husband's sexual advances. Contradicting her exhaustive biblical arguments for being obedient and respecting the husband's decisions, Andelin even tells women to unilaterally destroy their husband's naughty magazines since pornography is “filth.”
Andelin’s attitude toward sex is not biblical. Both the husband and wife are supposed to freely give of themselves to their partner. In other words, neither the wife nor the husband should reject their partner's advances but for a very strong reason. (medical issue, house on fire, etc.) I also find it odd that Andelin encourages women to respond to even infidelity and physical abuse with submissiveness to win over a bad husband, but draws the line at hubby's Playboy stash.
This issue aside, Fascinating Womanhood is still an excellent manual on traditional marriage based on strict gender roles. It is a useful read both for unmarried women seeking such a relationship and married people looking to revive their romance. It is not, of course, for everyone. There are many people who genuinely prefer more egalitarian arrangements. I'd argue that even for such folks the book is worth a look as it will help them reflect on their own values and understand how much of the rest of the world lives. I also endorse the broader message of the book as it celebrates the art of homemaking and family nurturing.
Healthy civilizations value both the Pants and the Skirt. Andelin’s book is a love letter to the importance of the Skirt in human society. It is a reminder of the crucial non-material values of home and family. It is a reminder that human beings often do their most important work for society when they are not receiving a paycheck for it. Would that modern feminists remember this instead of clutching their pearls over the number of female CEO’s. Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood insists that men and women work best together when we recognize our differing natures and seek to complement each other’s strengths. She may well be onto something.