Sometimes at family gatherings, my sisters-in-law and I like to read excerpts from the 1969 book The Fascinating Girl by Helen B. Andelin. The book, along with its predecessor, Fascinating Womanhood, was a push against the feminist movement of the 1960s. Where Fascinating Womanhood is aimed at helping married women keep their husbands happy, Fascinating Girl seeks to help unmarried girls attract a mate with their femininity and childlike sauciness. We are entertained by these readings because the advice given is so ridiculous and because the “case studies” to support the advice are most often fictional examples taken from novels by Dickens, Wilde, Hugo and Thackeray. We get a good laugh.
There’s also not-so-funny counsel to accept a man at face value: “When a girl is mistreated, it would be a serious mistake for her to set out to remake the man, to teach him that she expects to be treated better. All men need the freedom to be themselves and to act as their impulses dictate at the moment, whether their impulses happen to be right or wrong, wise or foolish. Let men act themselves. Our responsibilities as women is to learn how to react.” Every time I read that, it makes my skin crawl.
Throughout the book, Andelin keeps circling back to the idea that in order to attract a man, a woman should avoid appearing too smart or capable. Women shouldn’t compete with men for honors or advancement, especially in athletics, or the more masculine fields of study (for example, it’s ok to do well in social studies or English, but not in math or the sciences.) Not only will this be a total turn-off to guys, but also “…a woman can never really fit into the man’s world. She may succeed in having an adequate job, and even receive a measure of recognition for outstanding service, but she will always be a ‘second-rate man.’”
Occasionally, we may notice men who seem to admire women who are efficient and capable. Don’t let this confuse you. Although the man may have a genuine admiration for such a woman, it does not mean he finds her attractive. He undoubtedly admires her as he would another man with appreciation of her fine ability.
My husband and I consider ourselves to be fairly progressive. When we married, I was sure that household duties and care of our children would be evenly divided. I think my husband felt the same way. But then real life happened. We thought it only fair that Dad wake up for 4 a.m. feedings, but when the time came, he was working three part time jobs and falling asleep on the living room floor after staying up to finish a big project. Waking him just so we’d be even seemed silly. Most of the cooking and cleaning is done by me, not because he’s patriarchal and domineering, but because I have more time during the day and can get it done more easily than he can. And when he is home, I would rather spend time with him than send him away to complete a honey-do list.
That’s not to say we divide our duties according to traditional gender roles – more according to ability, availability, and interest. He deals with car maintenance and appliance repair, but he also makes the bed and decorates all the birthday cakes. I do most of the cooking and laundry, but I also deal with the finances and do our taxes. It’s what works for us.
We have also made an effort to teach our sons that they are expected to learn to cook and clean, starting at birth by showing them one of my favorite board books, and by buying them toy brooms, vacuums and cooking supplies.
Sometimes when I ask for help opening a jar or lifting something heavy, my husband likes to tease me for being so fascinating and I think he’s funny. But as I started compiling my list of things I’ve never bothered to try, I was surprised to realize that I AM fascinating – not to appear less capable and more attractive, but just because I’m kind of lazy.
Here’s my confession: I have never mowed the lawn. I think I tried once when I was a teenager, but I claimed that it hurt my delicate pianist hands and my mom didn’t make me finish. In our married life, it never even occurred to me to mow, any more than my husband would think to finish the stack of half-done quilts I have in the basement. Even when my husband was out of town for a month one summer and my kids were too young to mow, I didn’t do it. Now that I have three sons who are proficient mowers, I don’t even need to learn how (otherwise what’s the point of having only sons, amiright?)
I thought I would give it a try, though, partly as an effort to get out of my comfort zone, but also so I could have more sympathy for my boys when they complain about having to mow. After my preschooler insisted that of course I know how to mow because I’m a grown up, I decided it was time to shed my “Feminine Dependency” and “Childlikeness” (Chapters 13 and 16 in the book) and become a capable woman.
So I did it. I mowed our average-sized front yard and our bigger than average-sized back yard. I started the mower by myself. I didn’t leave any mohawks or break any sprinkler heads. I didn’t get overheated or sprayed by flying rocks or dog poop. I didn’t even get bored. In fact, I actually enjoyed myself. It was nice to have time to myself to think and to be outside. Plus, I totally counted it as my exercise for the day. I wouldn’t mind doing it again and I’m thinking I might even offer to trade the boys jobs and let them scrub toilets and wipe down baseboards while I mow the lawn.
I’m going to let my husband still be in charge of the weed whacker, though, so I can “take every opportunity to allow him to play the part of the man.”