about Helen Andelin and her book, Fascinating Womanhood, when I was in grade school. In 1969 my mother was invited by a friend to attend a Fascinating Womanhood (FW) class at the local YMCA. She was so taken with Andelin’s teachings that she decided to become an FW teacher herself. Even though she was divorced and had 6 children,
Mom proved to be a popular teacher.
Soon, she became an area director and had a substantial following. Sometimes when she was getting ready for classes, my mother would assign me the job of stapling together class materials. She would practice being feminine around the house, and we were all quite impressed with the transformation she made once she read Mrs. Andelin’s book and began believing she was a truly fascinating person.
She seemed genuinely happy
to have found her place in life helping other women with their marriages. Many nights I sat by her on the couch listening to the long telephone conversations she had with women who were distraught over their unhappy marriages. She encouraged them not to give up, but to follow the principles of FW and keep trying. I read Fascinating Womanhood as a teenager, along with The Fascinating Girl, and all of the other books my mother used for teaching.
At some point
she had a falling out with Andelin and stopped teaching. I left home and had a family of my own. I rejected FW as being old-fashioned, sexist, and silly. In fact, I pretty much forgot about it altogether, though I was always drawn to the question of women’s experience in my academic studies.
Years later, I entered the PhD program at Washington State University. I planned to study American women’s religious history, but my director, a well-known women’s historian, had little interest in religion. I began casting about for a suitable topic that she would support.
At the time, I was working as a teaching assistant for a wonderful professor who taught American popular culture. One day, he held up a book in class – a marriage manual that he said was so popular during the 1960s and 70s that it had sold over 2 million copies. The book was Fascinating Womanhood. I was stunned. I had assumed that FW was a local phenomenon – a kind of fad that lived and died in and around the small town where I grew up.
I had never thought about it before
in the larger context of American cultural history and certainly not in relationship to the feminist movement.
It dawned on me that if millions of women had read this book and tens of thousands had taken the kinds of classes that my mother had taught thirty years earlier, and a very distinguished American historian was talking about it in a huge lecture hall, then Fascinating Womanhood was something much bigger and more enduring in the history of this country than I had ever imagined.
I went up to the professor after class and said,
“…you won’t believe this,
but my mom used to teach those classes back in the 70s. I was raised that way.” A few days later, he brought me an early edition of Fascinating Womanhood and said, “Maybe you can do something with this.”
I knew then that I had what every serious historian dreams of – the desire to write a good, solid history along with first-hand knowledge about an important subject that had been overlooked by everyone else. I crossed my fingers and hoped that Mrs. Andelin would agree to work with me.
It was with great reluctance
that Helen let me interview her. When I first called, she remembered my mother and wanted to know if I was a “friend” or and “enemy” of FW. I told her that I was neither. I was a historian and assured her I would tell her story without judgment.
Eventually, Mrs. Andelin invited me to her farm in Missouri where I spent 2 weeks. She not only housed and fed me, but also generously gave me access to all of her personal files, papers, and photographs.
We were able to record over twenty-one hours of taped conversations about her life, the FW movement and what she was doing at the time. She was a passionate woman with incredible stamina and an urgent sense of mission. The amount of information that I gathered was staggering. I interviewed her again in 2003 and in 2005.
One of my readers recently asked me
if FW was truly a movement rather than just Helen Andelin and her followers. The answer is yes. Any kind of social movement is larger than the single person who articulates it. Otherwise the original intentions of the leader wouldn’t endure beyond that person’s particular time in the limelight. Hundreds of women are still reading Andelin’s book and following her teachings.
What makes any message resonate beyond the excitement of the immediate moment is that it is communicated in the right place, at the right time, to people who will listen when they are ready to hear it. Otherwise,
it isn’t a message at all, but a fad
that will simply die out when it is no longer relevant. When Helen Andelin wrote Fascinating Womanhood in 1963, she had the right message at the right time. She provided an
alternative voice to feminism
and she was in the right place to do it. This was crucial to huge numbers of women, particularly in the West where Andelin started out. Many women in this part of the country saw themselves as having been discounted and left behind by the very vocal but relatively small group of eastern educated elite who led the feminist movement. Andelin made sense to these women, and they wanted to listen to her.
the University of Utah Press accepted my manuscript for Helen Andelin and the Fascinating Womanhood Movement. It took two years to get it into publication. Since that time, there has been great interest in my subject. I have spoken to women’s groups, at universities and scholarly conferences, in newspaper articles, and on the radio about Andelin and the movement she started.
I have had my detractors
Some of my colleagues and readers are mystified as to why I chose to write about a conservative women’s movement in which women willingly give their power to men. Overwhelmingly, though, I have found support in the academic community, and among popular audiences. I believe, and others agree, that you can’t understand the feminist movement unless you understand its opponents.
Next month I will be giving a lecture entitled, “The Changing Face of Feminism, 1960 to the Present,” at my alma mater, Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and I will be speaking about my book and doing a reading at The University Bookstore at the University of Washington in Seattle. Later in the month I will also appear on The Rose Colombo radio show, “The Justice Club,” on Freedomizer Radio. In November, I will be speaking about women publishing in the field of religion at the Annual Conference of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta.
As a woman who believes in equal rights, I can’t support Andelin’s philosophy. But I do believe that anyone who cares about women’s history should know her story, and the stories of her millions of followers. As a historian, it is not my job to pass judgement on historical events. It is just to tell the story.