It is 9:30 on a Thursday morning and more than 100 women are gathered in the sanctuary of an Alexandria church. A large pink sign has been placed in front of the pulpit: it is decorated with hearts, flowers and butterflies and says "Love is Patient . . . Kind . . . Happy with truth . . . Love Never Gives Up."
Most of the women are holding green workbooks - which are covered by the $20 fee for the 11-week course, called "Renewing Love." It is taught by a middle-aged housewife and religion counselor from Annandale who is introduced to the class as "our gift from God."
The 22-hour course teaches such subjects as "What Men Enjoy in Women," "Children are a Blessing," and "From Doormat to Dignity."
What are these women doing here? "There's a void inside and women are looking for something," said a 29-year-old Fairfax County housewife who attended the class.
Whether they seek it in classes in assertiveness training or "Fascinating Womanhood," it seems that many women, particularly in the suburbs, are indeed "looking for something." Now that the initial years of the women's movement have passed, another chapter is being written in which scores of women are trying to answer the question: "What is my role?"
"My mother and mother-in-law had no problems defining their role," said psychologist Donna Mollinelli, "but very few women today define themselves by the number of canned peaches they have in the cellar . . . Books and articles tell them to be aggressive, but that's contrary to what they were taught as children. It makes for a lot of confusion."
"There are a good many women who are quite happy as housewives," Mollinelli said. "Yet from someplace they're getting the message that it's not enough. We don't seem to put enough value on it, possibly because it's not a tangible, money earning thing. Change has been so rapid in defining woman's role - if they are "just" housewives they wonder if people think there's something wrong with them, and if they're trying to juggle both a job and a family then they worry they aren't fulfilling a woman's role, whatever that is."
Not unexpectedly most of the classes and groups in the suburbs attract women who are mothers and housewives trying to deal with a society that in many ways isolates and ignores them; a world in which having canned peaches on the shelf is not only unremarked upon but unneeded.
"Women are really panicking," said Eleanor Page, a widow from Virginia Beach who travels all over the country giving a lecture and "feminars" on the topic "I Love Being a Woman." "The divorce rate is rising, marriages are falling to pieces . . . They don't know what to do. They hear a lot of voices but the voices have no foundation."
Mrs. Page, whose view is that the "foundation" is to be found in "giving yourself to God," is so much in demand as a speaker that she is booked through next winter.
Whatever the philosophy, the proliferation of women's self-help groups shows the extent of the search:
"Renewing Love" is taught (via cassette tapes and the workbook) in 25 states and six foreign countries, spread largely by transient military wives and without advertising or much publicity.
A similar course developed by a Michigan woman, Alice Painter, "The Challenge of Being a Woman," started as a study group in her home but attracted 140 women to a class announced informally through the neighborhood. The next class drew 400 and since October over 4,000 books have been sold.
The Martha Movement, a group organized to promote the image of homemakers and provide help to them, has grown from a membership of 50 to 3,000 in every state and three foreign countries in the past year. It has embarked on campaigns to establish a network of homemaker support, to develop places in shopping centers where a homemaker could leave children or infirm parents while she shops, and to create a computerized information hot-line.
Books that instruct women on how to become submissive and attractive "perfect" wives, like Mirabel Morgan's "Total Woman," and Helen B. Andelin's "Fascinating Womanhood," have been best-sellers.
The consciousness raising group, almost an old-fashioned concept to many active feminists, shows no signs of disappearing. In Fairfax County, for example, the Northern Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women sponsors about 15 such groups on such subjects as domestic violence, divorce, credit, and drug and alcohol abuse.
When Jo Anderson asked the women in the "Renewing Love" class how many loved themselves, about half a dozen raised their hands. An equal number indicated they did not love themselves. The majority had no opinion one way or the other.
Mrs. Anderson's message, like that of Eleanor Page, Alice Painter and others, is that God has a "blueprint" for women that will answer all their questions and confusions if they accept it.
In a sort of folksy style embellished with personal anecdotes ("the thing I wanted to change most in my husband was his tardiness . . .") she tells them to stop trying to be their husband's "conscience" and concentrate on leading a Christian life. Significantly, she insists that a woman must value herself before she can really love her husband or children - a concept the feminists she disdains might find comforting.
Mrs. Anderson does not condemn a woman for working, but notes that a woman who works just for material surplus or "fulfillment" will "never find happiness." She is appalled at the idea of women doing manual labor, or of being competitive with men. Feminists she perceives as "unhappy women always demanding something," persons who can't "relax."
"If we fail as wives and mothers then we have failed at life," she said.
Nor does she have much regard for the husband who prefers to stay home and take care of the children while the wife works. "In a case like that there would definitely be problems in the home."
At the same time, she discourages the "Total Woman" philosophy of complete submission to making one's husband happy as being "manipulative." The best-selling "Total Woman" book encourages women to define themselves as wives, take responsibility for the failure of a marriage, and to consider spicing up faltering sex lives with such exotica as having intercourse under the dining room table.
Victims of wife-beating "usually have done something to egg the husband on," said Mrs. Anderson. However, once a woman realizes that being beaten is her fault, she is encouraged to threaten her husband with police action if he hits her again, and then follow through on her threat.
"If she doesn't do that, she's just sick, and I have no time for those kinds of women," Mrs. Anderson said.
One woman interviewed at the first class was taking the course for the second time. She spoke glowingly of its help to her. "My husband and I went together for 10 years before we got married," she said. "I don't think he really wanted to get married . . . I was getting older and I wanted a child. I think my husband doesn't really care if he's married or not . . .
"I heard of a woman who took this course whose husband used to beat her. But once when he raised his hand to her, she just stood there, filled with the love of God and her husband fell to his knees ad was converted."
This woman's husband will not go to church. He isn't really interested in much of anything but she's going to keep trying, learning patience and kindness with the help of Jo Anderson.