Timeline writer Laura Smith recently published a piece about Helen Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood (1963), calling it “the marriage bible for ‘alt-right’ women.” Smith writes, “Today, the book has become a totemic text for women on the so-called ‘alt-right,’ a sort of ‘trad wife’ Bible. (Though one could argue the Bible is the ‘trad wife’ Bible).” Simply, “trad wife” is short for “traditional wife,” or a woman who takes on traditional gender roles in her marriage. It’s a term used, for instance, by alt-right activist Ayla Stewart, who blogs under the moniker “Wife with a Purpose.” She told Harper’s that she read Andelin’s book during her second marriage, after her transition from a liberal pagan to a conservative Mormon. But who is Helen Andelin?
Helen Andelin was born in Arizona, the youngest of seven siblings in a Latter-Day Saints household. She would meet her future husband, a dentist named Aubrey Andelin, at Brigham Young University. After some 20 years of marriage and eight children, Andelin found that her marriage’s glow had dimmed. In an attempt to rekindle their romance, she consulted a book titled The Secrets of Fascinating Womanhood that suggested subservience might be the key, and it apparently worked on her husband. Andelin then began writing her own guide to being the perfect wife and attaining what she called “celestial love.” The resulting book, Fascinating Womanhood, was published in 1963. According to Julie Debra Neuffer, author of Helen Andelin and the Fascinating Womanhood Movement, Andelin’s book would sell over three million copies and sparked the development of an organization geared towards teaching women its supposed wisdom. Though some considered Andelin’s work a direct response to Betty Friedan’s feminist work The Feminine Mystique, which came out the same year, Andelin had never read Friedan’s work.
Fascinating Womanhood glorified traditional gender roles as opposed to eschewing them. The man was to be the provider and the protector of the home, while the woman was to maintain not only the household but also a character so pure and chaste that her husband could put her on a proverbial pedestal. She was to be ever girlish and tender. To attract a man, she should exude a sense of childlike playfulness and appear delicate, in turn, beguiling him into desiring to protect her. Once she’d married, she should cater to her husband and win his love with her own wide-eyed admiration of his manliness. “Admire his manliness” is a direct quote from the book.
If he cheated on her, she should examine herself and figure out if she had done “anything to drive him away.” She should then alter her own behavior to win her unfaithful husband back. She should accept his criticism gracefully. “If a man is critical, and you are guilty, it is only right to admit it. Thank him for reminding you that you were in error. Man, as your ruler feels somewhat responsible to teach you,” the book states.
Andelin’s husband wrote a book, too, titled Man of Velvet and Steel (1972). It echoed his wife’s ideas. An excerpt: “Often a woman will offer to work to ease her husband’s load. He may be under such financial difficulties that she fears for his health. She may prefer not to work but us willing as a sacrifice to ease his burdens. This is very noble and unselfish, but unless it is absolutely necessary, her husband should decline her offer by saying, No, I will not allow you to work. Women love such firm refusal. There is nothing a domestic, feminine woman delights in more than not being allowed to work.”
In a 1970 article in The New York Times, Andelin was described as “a 50-year-old housewife from Santa Barbara, who looks considerably younger than her years.” At that time, the Times notes that she’d been married for 27 years. In the interview, she railed against day-care centers, saying they only encouraged women to pursue careers other than that of a homemaker.
“Women’s lib has degraded women’s importance in the home, making pots, pans and children menial tasks and urging women to find fulfillment in contributions outside the home,” Andelin opined to the paper.
Though Andelin passed away in 2009, the Fascinating Womanhood website has survived, maintained by her daughter, Dixie Andelin Forsyth. In Andelin’s Times interview, she expressed her belief that marriage should be “like a fairy tale.” That fairy tale image is well-maintained on the website, via ethereal photographs of beautiful women existing pleasantly in nature, donning flowing dresses and long tresses. It advertises several certified teachers who can guide other women to this supposed “celestial love.” Of course, for the woman who values autonomy or a meaningful career—or really anything other than heteronormative domestic bliss—there’s little to be found here aside from passing amusement.