Shortly after getting married, I bought dozens of books on how to be a good wife. Marriage was a mystery to me, and I wanted to make sure we got off to a good start. One book in particular, Helen Andelin's Fascinating Womanhood, a 1973 bestseller, jumped out at me. Not only was the author still alive, but she offered online, interactive classes, taught by her trainees.
Part of me was scared to sign up and skeptical that her approach would work for me. It seemed designed for women living like 1950s housewives, where the husband was the boss and a wife's job was to make him happy. Andelin advises women to be feminine, childlike, and subservient – all of which conflict, to increasing degrees, with my own values.
But I was attracted by the fact that so many other women swore by her method. I couldn't help but wonder if they knew something I didn't.
I sent in my $35 check and a few days later, I got an email from our class leader, Shirley. She asked us to introduce ourselves and told us that the FW approach had saved her own marriage.
Unlike me, the other dozen or so women were mostly stay-at-home wives. In my note to the class, I explained that I joined because I felt like I was often selfish and I wanted to learn how to be a better wife. Almost immediately, I received emails back from the other participants telling me they understood where I was coming from.
Shirley soon began sending us assignments: Eliminate one unfeminine item from your wardrobe. Add feminine touches to your home. When you feel yourself getting angry, pout, and stamp your foot like a young girl. Your husband will find it cute, she said. At first, I was appalled. Acting like a child in order to be attractive seemed insulting and condescending, not to mention dismissive of the reason behind the anger.
In my one-on-one phone call with Shirley that week (the talks were part of the class), I asked her what I should do when I felt overwhelmed by housework.
"Sometimes," she began, in the reassuring tone of a grandmother, "if you can think of housework as a blessing, and how blessed you are that you even have a house to dust, it can help." She also told me that my husband was very lucky to have me as his wife. After hanging up, I felt giddy. It was freeing to confess my fears about being a wife and to have an older, wiser woman reassure me.
I did, of course, have my differences with the FW way. When one woman wrote about her husband's infidelity, the class told her to practice being more feminine, and to pray to win him back. The other women seemed to agree that it was up to them to make their marriages work, while they were willing to accept almost any fault in their husbands. That approach seemed one-sided and sexist to me. Before encountering the class, I would have told any woman to leave a cheater immediately out of self-respect. I felt a bit like the black sheep of the group who wasn't willing to follow the rules.
Despite our differences, I found myself thinking about the other women on my way to work, or while I was making dinner. I even incorporated some of the lessons into my life: Instead of changing into sweatpants as soon as I got home, I tried to wear fitted pants and a nice top, and reported back to the class that it did make me feel better about myself. Instead of getting angry one night when I felt like I was doing all the dishes, I pouted a little, and as silly as it sounds, it quickly diffused the tension. By the time the class was over, I realized that as women just trying to improve our lives, I had more in common with the other FW participants than I ever would have guessed.