A Return To Modesty

Published January 7, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The word "modesty" has a schoolmarmish ring to it. It's anathema to most
women of the "third wave" generation. That's why we are likely to take one look at this title, snarl and move on to Elizabeth Wurtzel's more rage-filled "Bitch," Katie Roiphe's more simpatico "Last Night in Paradise" or Naomi Wolf's hip "Promiscuities." But, although the terminology in these latter books might suit us better superficially, their arguments, if they can be said to have arguments at all, will do nothing for us in the long run. We'll feel patted on the back for being bad girls, but the pain and loneliness we feel as young women won't have been assuaged in the least. Now, that's not to say that Wendy Shalit's book is the nostrum for what ails us either. It isn't. But it is the first book of its kind, the first argument by a third-waver to blaze down the center of the postfeminist battleground between left and right.

"First," writes Shalit, "I want to invite conservatives to take the claims of the feminists seriously," i.e. date rape, anorexia, low self-esteem. "As for feminists," she continues, "I want to invite them to consider whether the cause of all this unhappiness might be something other than the patriarchy ... I propose that the woes besetting the modern young woman ... are all expressions of a society which has lost its respect for female modesty."

What does Shalit mean by "modesty"? She certainly doesn't mean that women should walk around with everything but their eyes covered in black robes, or that they should be seen and not heard. She merely wants to suggest that modesty is a kind of innocence, both physical and emotional, that exists naturally in women more than men. Preserving it means that women shouldn't be ashamed of their romantic hopes, their desires to be courted and loved and not just banged and left. It means they should feel encouraged to keep their virginity as long as it suits them, without incurring the ridicule of their peers. It means they shouldn't feel bad about what embarrasses them or makes them squeamish, whether it's being forced to learn about "69" in fourth grade, as Shalit and her classmates were, or as adults, enduring the sight of their boyfriend's Playboy lying around the house. (In Shalit's case, and as she quickly learned, in many of her female classmates' cases, it meant not sharing a bathroom with men in her dorm at Williams College.)

In short, says Shalit, from date-rape to stalking to anorexia, "This culture [meaning post-sexual revolution culture] has not been kind to women," and changing that means recognizing that women, on the whole, are less crass than men, perhaps even more fragile emotionally, sexually and physically, and that women should be proud of this and thereby inspire more honorable behavior in men.

You may find Shalit's tone too cloying, in places, but that may be less because Shalit is too earnest or too sheltered to be taken seriously (she is, in fact, a first-rate intellectual who has done her homework) and more because we are too cynical. Some of Shalit's more jaded readers will feel tempted to hurl her book against the proverbial wall. They should resist the temptation.

In part, they'll be annoyed for good reasons. Shalit has too much faith in her young intellect. She is long on brainpower, but short on experience. Her argument is almost too tidy to make sense in the real world. As she tells us from the start, she is the daughter of an economist "of the Chicago-school variety." She is enamored of theorems that work, like math problems, on their own hermetic terms. As such, Shalit's people can seem more like integers than fraught human beings. She feeds her sad girls into the modesty machine, and poof, the cured product plops out the other end. Shalit is sometimes too sure that a return to female modesty and male honor will make the world new again. But at least Shalit is offering us a course of action that we can try, which is more than we can say for the bulk of her carping peers.

But if the modesty package as a whole turns out not to be quite the new deal Shalit hopes it will be, what of lasting value can we take from "A Return to Modesty"? First, there's the fundamental truth that men and women are not the same, but that equality of the sexes can be achieved without making women into men. Oddly enough, as Shalit points out, the most unfortunate legacy of the sexual revolution has been more misogyny. "A young woman today has basically two options open to her: to pretend she's a man, or to be feminine in a desperate, victim-like way."

Both alternatives are misogynist. Either way, women are still left playing by men's rules, and they are not built for it. As Shalit insists, "the game isn't equal ... because men always win the game of vulgarity," and physical aggression, and casual sex, and no-fault divorce, and so on. Second, by teaching this generation's young men to be honorable, and its young women to protect themselves, we're likely to have more immediate success in righting our socio-sexual ills. This is a distinctly conservative argument for personal responsibility: "If there could be such a thing as a 'philosophy of modesty,' I think it would be more an argument from internal inspiration than an argument from external authority." In the end, governments and laws have less power over people than people have over themselves. Wendy Shalit is an original thinker who will be goosing us with her ideas for a long time to come. If, in the end, her prescription for a better society is too rosy and catch-all, it offers, nonetheless, some of the best observations anyone has made in recent years about the plight of young women.

By Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a New York journalist.

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