A Return to Modesty
by Wendy Shalit

Wendy Shalit was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and received her B.A. in philosophy from Williams College. Her essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, City Journal, and other publications. Her book, A Return to Modesty, was published by The Free Press in 1999, and last year was reissued in paperback by Touchstone Books in an edition that includes questions for classroom use.  (Simon & Schuster: New York, 1999; 291 pages; $13)

Review by Patrick Hurd

The lack of one generation’s ability to keep pace with the next generation became known as the "generation gap" in the 1960’s and lent itself to that ever popular teenage whine, "You just don’t understand!" The increasing pace of the 21st century in America has contributed to faster shifts in cultural trends making it more and more difficult for parents to keep pace with the trends influencing their children.

More frequently than parents are willing to admit, the teenage complaint is accurate. The pace at which fads come and go in our society make it very difficult for parents to have a wise response or to even know if they should have a response. While television and radio may be of some help in keeping parents abreast of the latest craze enticing the heart and soul of their children, these mediums of popular culture serve more to exasperate the problem than to inform and do nothing to explain the pressures placed on our young people to conform to the latest trend.

A Return To Modesty is, in part, a young lady’s account of the pressure of conformity she experienced upon entering college and generally upon all young women and their sexual identity. While Miss Shalit was a student at Williams College, she wrote a column for Commentary called "A Ladies Room of One's Own," about the indignity of having to live in a dorm with coed bathrooms. When the piece was later published in Reader's Digest, Miss Shalit says she received hundreds of letters from young women sharing the same embarrassment, but who had been too intimidated to express it. Miss Shalit combined the flood of responses she received and her observations of ladies on campus with ample documentation from outside sources and studies to formulate her highly controversial book.

My recommendation of A Return To Modesty to you is based on three notable characteristics of her book:

1. Miss Shalit, who is from a Jewish background and was not a professing Christian at the time of authoring the book, nevertheless argues her position from a Christian worldview. The Christian community should be quick to acknowledge work done on the foundation of a Christian worldview, especially when done by a non-Christian. To do so glorifies God.

2. For children who have not been socialized in or received sex education from the public school system, A Return To Modesty can be used to fill a gap in their training and education or to re-educate those who have. It can be useful in preparing them (especially the girls) for the "default" and unspoken sexual presuppositions shared by the rest of society.

freaking.jpg (8970 bytes)3. A Return to Modesty has helped me as a parent to become better aware not only on the debate of sexual roles on a national level, but also the recent trends within the teenage and single dating scene, such as "hooking up and "freaking" (picture).

The basic argument of A Return To Modesty is that the feminist movement, in an effort to raise the standard of womanhood, began a process of erasing differences between men and women that has progressed to the point that any and all distinguishing characteristics between the sexes (physically, emotionally, psychologically, and societally) are open for challenge. According to Miss Shalit, while there may have been benefits to women as a whole, the backlash of negative repercussions to women as individuals and to womanhood in general has far outweighed the gains made, namely increasing violence against women and increasing psychological disorders.

"I was born in 1975, and from anorexia to date-rape, from our utter inability to feel safe on the streets to stories about stalking and stalkers, from teenage girls finding themselves miserably pregnant to women in the late 30s and early 40s finding procreation miserably difficult, this culture has not been kind to women. And it has not been kind to women at the very moment that it has directed an immense amount of social and political energy to ‘curing’ their problems." (page 8)

Miss Shalit asserts that the feminists are to blame for using the same ideology to battle against the rise of abuses against women that actually caused the problem. Thus, they continue to throw fuel on the fire. But the feminists are not the only ones guilty of promoting crimes against women. Conservatives are to blame for ignoring the outcries of the feminists about the rising abuse of women, claiming that the feminists are exaggerating and politicizing the problem for their own gain and, therefore, conservatives do nothing but publicly minimize the situation. Her complaint, therefore, is that there really is a problem in our society but that the feminists’ solution is all wrong and the conservative’s ignorance is worse than wrong.

"First, I want to invite conservatives to take the claims of the feminists seriously. That is, all of their claims, from the date-rape figures to anorexia to the shyness of teenage girls, even the number of women who say they feel ‘objectified’ by the male gaze. I want them to stop saying that this or that study was flawed; or that young women are exaggerating; or that it has been proven that at this or that university such-and-such a charge was made up. Because ultimately, it seems to me, it doesn’t really matter if one study is flawed or if one charge is false. When it comes down to it, the same vague yet unmistakable problem is still with us." (page 9)

The main thrust of A Return To Modesty is that the most important distinguishing characteristic differentiating between women and men is modesty, that the feminist have effectively won the battle eradicating modesty as a womanly virtue in America, and that the successful eradication can be directly correlated with the rise of crimes and abuses against women today.

"I propose that the woes besetting the modern young woman – sexual harassment, stalking, rape, even ‘whirlpooling’ (when a group of guys surround a girl who is swimming and then sexually assault her) – are all expressions of a society which has lost its respect for female modesty." (page 10)

To support her thesis, Miss Shalit uses the Christian worldview to establish modesty as "a reflex, arising naturally to help a woman protect her hopes and guide their fulfillment – specifically, this hope for one man." (page 94) In other words, modesty is not a product of societal dogma but, rather, an inherent virtue of both men and women, as natural as breathing, but more forceful in women. Though Miss Shalit doesn’t say it explicitly, one comes to the conclusion that she promotes the belief that modesty is implanted within us by our Creator rather than developed through external pressures or behavioral modification.

Modesty, which may be provisionally defined as an almost instinctive fear prompting to concealment and usually centering around the sexual processes, while common to both sexes is more peculiarly feminine, so that it may almost be regarded as the chief secondary sexual character of women on the psychical side. -- HAVELOCK ELLIS, 1899

While a created order may be subtly implied throughout her book, she adamantly and unapologetically defends her position insisting on the differing nature and roles between men and women. Her first encounter of the notion that there are no differences between the genders was in class at Williams College. When she spoke out in favor of male/female differences she was declared an "essentialist" by her classmates (one who believes there is a difference between men and women) and quickly discounted as someone who had anything to offer to the discussion.

Indeed, much of A Return To Modesty is dedicated to identifying the male/female differences as they relate to the advancement of a woman’s safe and contributory place in society. "Modesty acknowledged this special vulnerability [of the differences between the sexes], and protected it. It made women equal to men as women. Encouraged to act immodestly, a woman exposes her vulnerability and she then becomes, in fact, the weaker sex. A woman can argue that she is exactly the same as a man, she may deny having any special vulnerability, and act accordingly, but I cannot help noticing that she usually ends up exhibiting her feminine nature anyway, only this time in victimhood, not in strength." (page 108)

"Not only do we think there are differences between the sexes, but we think these differences can have a beautiful meaning – a meaning that isn’t some irrelevant fact about us but one that can inform and guide our lives. That’s why we’re swooning over nineteenth-century dramas and clothing. We want our dignity back, our ‘feminine mystique’ back, and, along with it, the notion of male honor." (page 140)

"Today we want to pretend there are no differences between the sexes, and so when they first emerge we give our little boys Ritalin to reduce their drive, and our little girls Prozac to reduce their sensitivity. We try to cure them of what is distinctive instead of cherishing these differences and directing them towards each other in a meaningful way." (page 153)

Her Christian worldview includes observations of the repercussions of the feminist movement on men and manhood also. "Too many egalitarians equate male gentleness or protectiveness with subordination, while too many conservatives equate it with effeminacy. Both sides are wrong. A man should be gentle around a woman. That’s part of what it means to be a man. We need to flip everything around again and associate manhood with knowing how to behave, not misbehave, around women." (page 147) Thus she asserts that one aspect of manhood is acting honorably toward women and that by erasing the male-female distinctions we have raised a generation of boys that has been mis-trained and, thus, short-changed in their manhood.

Closely associated with female modesty and male honor is the idea of human dignity for both genders. Miss Shalit asserts that men are less boorish when expected to recognize and act modestly toward women thus exalting their stature as man rather than mere beast. Likewise, the woman is acknowledged as a real person deserving of human dignity and respect rather than as a piece of property to be exploited at the will of any man who comes along.

"You may think you see me, the modestly dressed woman announces, but you do not see the real me. The real me is only for my beloved to see. Therefore, whatever you may say or think about me doesn’t really matter. The woman who complains about sexual harassment or ‘elevator eyes’ is not a frail, weak woman, nor is she the invention of a few radical feminists. She is, rather, a woman exposed and expressing a very real fear: that the one who is judging her is not the one who loves her, not the one who knows the ‘real’ her. Hence, he is presuming. A respect for modesty would prevent men from leering, from presuming to judge women whom they have not earned the trust of." (page 137)

There are three additional ways in which Miss Shalit articulates the Christian worldview to support her case. First, she argues that the failure of the feminist movement is its inability to anticipate the fallout from its faulty ideology on different levels of society. She identifies some of these effects thus promoting the biblical view of integration in the created order rather than isolation. Her proposed solution supports the same integration ideology as well as promoting the biblical model of blessings for conformity to the created order and curses for rebelling against the created order.

Second, Miss Shalit’s proposed solution shows concern for the particulars (individual women) and the whole (womanhood) whereas she identifies that the feminist movement is concerned solely for the whole with little or no regard for the particulars and their suffering.

Third, Miss Shalit employs a linear view when explaining the course of history that has brought us to where we are today, rather than a circular or evolutionary view that focuses on the swing of the pendulum or reoccurring cycles. Accordingly, she does not propose that today’s sexual atmosphere is a passing fad, one that we only need to learn to deal with until it is gone. Rather, she proposes that the consequence of causes were put into place by prior generations and, thus, the solution is to begin implementing the right causes today for the sake of future generations.

A Return To Modesty is a call for the return to youthful innocence, naivete, romanticism, idealism, and hope. It is a call for human dignity according to the created order. It is a call for men to be manish rather than machine and women to encourage men to treat them with respect and dignity. It is a call for us all to realize our strengths through submitting to our weaknesses.

"First, by not having sex before marriage, you are insisting on your right to take these things seriously, when many around you do not seem to. By reserving a part of you for someone else, you are insisting on your right to keep something sacred; you are welcoming the prospect of someone else making an enduring private claim to you, and you to him. But more significantly, not having sex before marriage is a way of insisting that the most interesting part of your life will take place after marriage, and if it’s more interesting, maybe then it will last. And, if the hope of modesty continues, if it lasts, maybe then you can finally be safe. Instead of living in dread, feeling slightly hunted, afraid someone will call us to account and abandon us, maybe then we can rest. At a time when everyone else seems to be giving up hope, a return to modesty represents a new start. Modesty creates a realm that is secure from an increasingly competitive and violent public one." (page 212)

What do you think about this issue?  Give us your FEEDBACK.

To review Miss Shalit's article, Modesty Revisited, click HERE to go to Hillsdale College.

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Patrick L. Hurd
Weatherford, Texas
PHurdWford@AOL.com

EST. 01/01/01