Julie Neuffer, research historian.

Research Historian

Several months ago Julie Neuffer, a research historian working on her doctorate at the Washington State University in Spokane approached me on the idea of doing her dissertation on the Fascinating Womanhood movement. I had never thought of it being a movement before and began to wonder just what that meant. In the early beginning of Fascinating Womanhood I knew her mother as one of my very best teachers.

She was more than a teacher, she was a writer, an organizer and a dynamic motivator, willing to handle any size job she felt important. When I met Julie I naturally expected the best and was not disappointed. She was extremely diligent in collecting material of all sorts from my records, in interviewing me and has given a great deal of her time and energy in putting it all together into a historical document. Since most of you are Fascinating Womanhood followers, I thought you would be interested in reading the following interview regarding her research project.

The Fascinating Womanhood Movement

Host: Please tell us about your background as a Research Historian, the University you are affiliated with and the line of research you have been working on.

Julie: I am a graduate student in the final stages of my doctoral program in American history at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. I did my undergraduate work at Pacific Lutheran University, earning a dual degree in American history and religion, and a Master’s degree in Religious Studies from Gonzaga University in Spokane. I have always been intrigued by the study of religion and history together. In my mind, one can’t fully understand religion without history, or history without religion. I have always been better at history than theology, so when it came to the decision about where to do my graduate work, I decided on a state university rather than divinity school. WSU has been very good to allow me to combine my interest in the study of religion with my program in American history.

Host: What prompted you to choose the Fascinating Womanhood Movement as the study for your doctorate? Actually, my mother taught FW back when I was in grade school. Sometimes when she was getting ready for classes she 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. I read FW many times as a kid, along with Fascinating Girl, and all of the other books my mother used for teaching.

At some point, she stopped teaching and I went away to college, and then on to have a family of my own. I kept reading. Over time, I rejected most of FW as being old-fashioned, sexist, and even 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, after I had begun my doctoral work the subject of Fascinating Womanhood came up in a lecture in one of my American history classes. My instructor, who later became my mentor, pointed out that millions of women had read FW and followed Andelin’s philosophy in response to Betty Friedan’s feminist critique in her ground breaking book, The Feminine Mystique.

I couldn’t believe I was hearing this in a college class. For whatever reasons, I had assumed FW was a local phenomenon – kind of a fad that had 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 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 70’s. 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 good, solid history along with first-hand knowledge about an incredible subject that had been overlooked by everyone else. I crossed my fingers and hoped that Mrs. Andelin would agree to work with me.

Host: Have you interviewed Mrs. Andelin personally on the subject of Fascinating Womanhood? How did you actually go about it? Did you find a lot of material to review? Did it supply answers to your questions?

Julie: Yes, I did interview Mrs. Andelin personally. In fact, I was able to spend two weeks with her at her family farm in Missouri. 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 is doing now. Mrs. Andelin is a passionate woman with incredible stamina and an urgent sense of mission. She is also extremely organized. We stayed up past midnight on many occasions recording our conversations. No matter how late we talked into the night, she was up at daybreak the next morning keeping right on track with her office work. I was also able to interview three of her eight children while I was in Missouri, which is remarkable.

The amount of information that I gathered was staggering. I was under intense pressure to extract the data from the documents quickly before the entire collection was donated to another research university. I worked non-stop while I was in Missouri, and then day and night for several months on papers that I had brought home with me. Nothing could have prepared me for the kind of anxiety I experienced at this point in the project. I worried incessantly about the time constraints, and became incredibly discouraged. I even got sick. I am grateful that I had a wonderful mentor who guided me through this phase of research. He taught me to step back and let history take its natural course. I have an assistant, now who has been a great help in transcribing the tapes and analyzing the demographic data that I gleaned from the records while I had access to them.

Mrs. Andelin continues to send me new material on a regular basis, and is extremely conscientious about keeping me updated with current correspondence amongst her devotees. It is a wonderful project. I have been incredibly lucky. We are still working hard.

Host: Do you find that Fascinating Womanhood is truly a movement, rather than just Helen Andelin and her followers? Perhaps you can explain a little about what “a movement” means.

Julie: 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. 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, by 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 women’s movement. Andelin made sense to these women, and they wanted to listen to her. She had something important to say and she was articulate. Most importantly, she combined original thinking with the nerve to step forward in order to make herself heard in the discussion about the place of women in this country.

Later, she had the grace to step back and modify her approach when the climate of the country changed. Women are still listening to her all over the world because, whether you agree with her or not, she continues to be relevant. This is different than being popular. And, herein lies her power. Helen Andelin doesn’t care what people think of her personally. Fascinating Womanhood is the message, and for Andelin, the message is larger than she is. In fact, it is the only thing that counts. In this sense, the FW movement isn’t about Helen Andelin at all. She didn’t write the book for herself, but for the millions of women she believes it speaks for. I call FW the “other” women’s movement. With or without Andelin, I think it will be around for a long, long while.

Host: Were you a skeptic when you first started the interview?

Julie: Do you mean did I doubt the seriousness or dedication of Helen Andelin? The answer is, no. Her success speaks for itself. All you have to do is pick up any current best-selling relationship manual and you can see the influence she has had. People don’t quote her directly, but they use her material all the time. She is a force to be reckoned with, and I continue to be honored that she graciously agreed to work with me.

If you are asking me whether or not I was concerned that I would personally disagree with Andelin’s message, no. I already knew what Fascinating Womanhood stood for, and I respected it as a significant historical event. I did feel uniquely qualified to write about it, though, and that was enough. My job is to write a fair and accurate history of the movement because it affected millions of women, not because it supports or does not support my own agenda. Women are intelligent. They can decide what they think without me putting in my two cents worth.

Host: What things about the movement impress you the most?

Julie: Its endurance. Helen Andelin wrote Fascinating Womanhood forty years ago. She still gets fan mail, book orders, and applications from women who want to teach classes every day. The message that Andelin articulated in 1964 still resonates with women all over the world. It is also remarkable that FW seems to cut across racial, cultural, geographic and social boundaries. In this sense, it seems to have universal qualities. Women want to improve their relationships with their husbands. They want to be good mothers. They want to feel better about themselves. FW speaks to these desires. It is a philosophy that encourages women to go back and try again when they feel like they have failed.

In many ways FW is a huge support group. The face of the movement has changed over the years. In the beginning, women learned about it mostly by word of mouth. Over time Andelin became a media sensation. She trained thousands of teachers and gave hundreds of interviews. The movement grew at an incredible rate, and Andelin increasingly relied on the help of her husband, and other business professionals to standardize the organization so that it would not lose its original character. It was a monumental job to keep the philosophy, literature, and teaching consistent during a period of such enormous growth.

At the height of her career, Andelin moved with her husband and children to a farm in rural Missouri, effectively removing herself from the grueling schedule of interviews, lectures and media attention that she had been subjecting herself to for years. She lowered her own profile and concentrated on the essentials of her message. This turned out to be a bold and surprisingly effective strategy. While many competing philosophies emerged and died out, Fascinating Womanhood quietly endured for another twenty years without fanfare. These days Helen herself is back at the helm of the FW organization, but remains out of the media spotlight. I think it works better that way. Andelin’s philosophies are strongest at the grassroots level where they remain undiluted, very personal, and can be articulated through a smaller, more close-knit community.

Host: Was Mrs. Andelin what you thought she would be, or different?

I met Mrs. Andelin for the first time when I was a teenager. She was in my hometown giving a lecture during the big push to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. I watched her walk off an airplane, and she reminded me very much of Jackie Kennedy. She was stylish, graceful, and had a magnetic quality about her that I recognized even as a kid. She was intense and kept to a strict schedule, and people were drawn to her.

When I saw her again thirty years later, she still had this persona. It was different, though. She was older, a bit softer, and I found her waiting patiently for me with one of her daughters at the airport gate. She is a lovely woman with great intensity and we began talking about the project the minute we got in the car for the ride home. Mrs. Andelin is one of the most driven individuals I have ever met. Her sense of urgency can be intimidating. She is also profoundly generous, and has a quick sense of humor. She was everything I thought she would be, but much more than I had ever imagined.

Host: I understand you are writing a book to the public about the Fascinating Womanhood Movment. It this in addition to your dissertation or the same book? Tell us about your plans for the book.

Julie: There has been a great deal of interest in my project. I have had my detractors, too. Some of my colleagues are mystified as to why I am writing about a conservative women’s movement. Overwhelmingly, though, I have found support in the academic community, which I am grateful for. I have been urged to submit my dissertation for publication by an academic press. While I am confident the study will find a much larger audience than my dissertation committee, I am hesitant to discuss any developments about wider publication of the work until I have finished the first order of business - satisfying the requirements for my Ph.D. I hope to have this accomplished by the end of May, 2007

A dissertation is written for an academic audience, and is generally not suitable for public consumption. However, a really good writer with an exceptional subject can sometimes get a book contract from the dissertation as it stands with relatively few revisions. This is what I am shooting for. The subject is compelling, and I have had an enthusiastic response to my writing so far. I’ll keep you posted.

Closing remarks: Last year Julie held the position as Visiting Senior Lecturer in American Religion at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. She has taught classes in religion and history at Gonzaga, and Washington State Universities. She recently returned from a month in Italy where she and another professor taught a course on Early Christianity in Rome. She is the mother of three children, and lives in Pullman, Washington.

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