By Chandra Bernat. Originally posted here. Please remember that while the contributors to this website are united in our belief that there are problems with the teachings of Vision Forum, we come from a variety of diverse perspectives.
I remember well when Mantle Ministries republished the Elsie Dinsmore books in the mid-1990’s. They were one of the resources to buy if you had daughters, along with the Far Above Rubies curriculum. Mothers and fathers alike bought the series in complete sets, forking out considerable cash in order to fill their young daughters minds with godliness and purity.
I still have my original copy. The back reads thus:
Enter the character-building, nineteenth-century, Christ-centered world of Martha Finley’s Elsie Dinsmore.
After reading this family story you will understand why it was once the nation’s best seller for over thirty years (selling over twenty-five million copies) and still has lasting value for today’s reader of Christ-like role models.
Upon opening up the front cover, the publisher note states:
“…Recognizing the avid interest in fictional writings among youth today, we have elected to republish the circa 1860 Elsie Dinsmore Series, by Martha Finley, because of the strong moral and Godly nature of the “Elsie” character. It is our opinion that the Finley books are in a class far above the majority of fictional literature presently available for young impressionable minds since the world of God, including His salvation message and Biblical principles, permeate the pages of the heroine’s daily experience. We can assure you that “Elsie’s” character has a way of capturing your heart, and challenging your life to live Godly in Christ Jesus.”
At the risk of sounding like a scratched 45, my mother was all over these books. She had recently gone through a literature purge, in which I was forbidden to read any more Nancy Drew Mysteries, Bobsy Twin Mysteries, Baby Sitter Club novels and even the American Girl stories, as the new characters emerging from the scene were “feminist and disobedient” (I was around the age of ten). Seeing as there was precious little for me read that was acceptable, these were a natural place for me to turn to for my reading material. I had to read, television watching was something that just wasn’t heard of in our home so there was literally nothing else to keep me occupied…unless I wrote or drew or practiced my sewing or flute.
I secretly hated them. I hated the mousy Elsie who couldn’t stand up for herself and found herself in tears upon every instance where her feelings were hurt. But I read them because I knew that this was the standard of behavior that my mother and father wanted from me and I thought that maybe I could learn something about how to behave in such a way that would make them accept me more and cruel with their words towards me less.
It didn’t work.
Instead, it left me frustrated and angry with myself because I couldn’t “get it right.” I was constantly being a source of disrespect for my parents, but I just couldn’t meet the standard that Elsie set before me. My personality was vivacious, capricious, extroverted and fun loving. And about the exact opposite of my new example. And my personality was not my parents definition of “feeling respected.”
There was one area in particular that had me in tears and that was reading about Elsie’s abusive father, Mr. Dinsmore. He was cruel, he was mean and he neglected the poor girl to the confines of her room and governess. He treated her terribly (and of course I am referring to the first book). Yet her response was always one of trepidation, fear, trembling and…sweetness. She was trampled on and abused, yet she never wavered in loving her father or giving him honor (which he clearly did not deserve).
My own relationship with my father was very similar, only I happened to let him know that the way he was treating me was not OK with me and that I not only hated him for it, I would also never trust him enough to let him into my life. When I got these books, I decided to apply a different method of relating to my father. I tried it for a short while, and when I didn’t see change in him, I abandoned this. I realized at that point that these books were for the dogs because they weren’t based on reality. Reality was the more Elsie-like I was towards my father, the more cruel he became. He suffered from severe lack of self-esteem, so whenever I tried to boost it using the “Elsie methods”, it only made him lash out on me more.
I decided I had more self-respect than to go through life allowing myself to be treated in that way…and it was at that point that I turned my focus on getting out of my father’s house.
I realize now why these books were so important for my parents in promoting this false image of what godly womanhood looks like. These books portrayed a young, naïve girl who trusted all who were in authority over her. She never, ever
questioned it, even when if it would have been in her best interest to do so. Elsie never, ever opened her mouth to defend herself, instead responding in a sugary-sweet southern drawl. Elsie felt that if there were criticism or correction that was spoken to her character or behavior, she most certainly deserved it because she was sinning in some way. This is exactly the type of girl that is easy to control and manipulate and it is exactly the kind of daughter that these Movement homeschoolers want. What they want is something like this.
While I think that there are aspects here of a humble life that could be modeled (like humbly accepting criticism when we have legitimately done something wrong), the emphasis that homeschooling parents place on their daughters using the “Elsie Culture” is all wrong. We are told to never, ever question authority. We are told that we are to accept what those in authority say to us as the truth and final word on the subject. We are told to trust in their authority blindly and unswervingly, just as Elsie did. We are told that we are to model Elsie’s example of purity and modesty. We are told that when someone- even our parents- says something out of line, it is our duty to accept what they are saying, take it to heart, and respond sweetly.
Christian girls who have grown up with these worldviews on what it means to be a godly woman, if they are fortunate enough to free themselves from their father’s home, come into this life with a realization that they don’t have the first clue about what that really means. The standards that were imposed on them by their parents were based on a fictional character and ideals that simply don’t match reality and patterns of relating to others in this world. We enter into this world wanting to trust authority…any authority we are told can be trusted (unless it is tied to a government institution and sometimes the medical community). But we get burned. We trust the wrong people, and sometimes those are our parents. They tell us that we shouldn’t go to college and that the highest calling is motherhood and wifehood. We trust this and then sometimes find out the hard way that to not have the ability to help provide for our families is not practical in today’s society. Yet we struggle inwardly as we wrestle with the all-consuming question, “is working outside the home biblical? Am I dishonoring my husband and being unsubmissive to him if I do?” If we make the call that going back to school (if that is even an option) in order to gain a career is something that we would like to do, we feel judged in particular by our mothers who felt that they sacrificed their lives and independence for family…and therefore so should their daughters. My own mother has been my worst critic because she was jealous of my decision to return to school when she should have been my biggest champion!
While I am certainly not diminishing the beauty of being someone’s life partner or the high calling of motherhood, I am saying that to raise daughters (or sons for that matter) that do not understand the world and the way that it works, that are naïve about people and relationships, and that are incapable of having independent thought apart from Mom and Dad’s ideology and worldview, is nothing short of cruel. When this type of brainwashing is
done thoroughly, these girls that are raised to believe in the Elsie Culture are incapable of leaving the home unless they have somehow retained a streak of independence, which often times is mistaken by Mom and Dad for rebelliousness. I have seen very intelligent girls who have been brainwashed into thinking they must go from one house into another because the world is a scary place for a single female and they continue to live in their father’s homes today. Several of these “girls” are four years or more my senior and their youth, beauty, and young adulthood years have been squandered for an ideology that teaches young women to be keepers at home, that are gentle in spirit, and naïve of heart.
The girls raised with the Elsie Culture in the Movement, are more common than not. There are some homeschooling families that recognize the fallacy of raising children with this type of extreme view on the family. They are not the norm within the Movement, but they are out there. The problem however is that the Movement was hijacked long ago by extreme radical religious groups such as Mantle Ministries and Vision Forum and have developed a following and a level of respect within the Movement. This feeds the religious radicalism within the Movement and discourages those that are mainstream (i.e. not concerned with the religious aspects of homeschooling) from becoming a part of the homeschooling community. Often times these mainstream homeschool families feel judged and shunned by the Movement homeschoolers and feel the need to retreat from the scene to preserve their self-respect. And this becomes a sad moment for these responsible home educators because they are not seen and they are not allowed a place of respect within the Movement- a place that could help to facilitate much needed change if they were allowed to speak at homeschool conferences and publish their writings. As it stands, these home educators are viewed as a threat to the “next generation of godly American citizens” and it’s a sad day for true home educators…and their children.
This is clearly not as it should be and it frankly doesn’t have to be that way. Change happens when people speak out!