05 March 2006

Return to Sophomore Year

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Feminism & Me, Part IV. A review of A Return to Modesty: Discovering The Lost Virtue, by Wendy Shalit, published 1999 by Free Press, New York.

Bear with me, please, as I begin with a few personal statements that will help in an assessment of Wendy Shalit’s book.

  1. In high school, a male friend and I together swore off dating, after we each suffered from unrequited crushes. Most of my close friends – then, as now – were women; I didn’t date these women (contrary to parental perceptions). My wife, for whom I have very strong romantic feelings – I love and respect her deeply – is also, unquestionably, my best friend.

  1. I went to Hampshire College, home of the “Clothing Optional” dormitory hall, the co-ed bathroom, and the co-ed naked sauna. Despite the general lack of nudity in the co-ed bathrooms, I always wore a bathrobe. I spend three or four semesters living in an on-campus apartment with my girlfriend and her best friend. I never went to the sauna.

  2. In one course, my first or second year at Hampshire, a classmate gave a presentation on the influence of Socrates on Dostoevsky, and kept pronouncing Socrates’ name as if it were “Sō-Krayts,” as in the movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. She was not aiming for irony.

  3. In another college course, on World War II history, taken as the first Gulf War began, many of my classmates had a tough time not talking about the current war and not trying to draw parallels between WWII and the then-current war – even though it was not terribly pertinent to learning about WWII.

  4. My grandmother, born in 1906, was a beautiful, strong woman. She used to tell me about her childhood and young-adulthood in Germany, and the many suitors she had as a young woman; she never told me whether she had sex with any of them or not. When she met my grandfather, he was a young man, already divorced and with a daughter. Grandma told me that before they were married, they went away to Vienna for a weekend; she never told me whether they had sex that weekend. My grandmother used to say, apropos male-female relationships: “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” Among the many family photo albums is one of my grandfather’s, from before my grandparents were married; it shows him at a spa, hanging out with a bunch of women; his “girlfriends” my grandmother called them, matter-of-factly. My grandparents were married for more than 50 years.

  5. My grandmother visited me once at Hampshire, and found a bra in my room, but covered it back up; she knew whose it was. She didn’t tell me this story until five or six years after it happened, and she laughed as she told me, teasing me about it.

  6. My wife and I did not live together before we got married. In fact, we didn’t live together until about 5 months after we got married.

  7. I have friends from college with whom I would happily hop in a hot tub, naked; I have friends from college with whom I would never consider such an activity; and there are a few post-college friends in each category. I don’t think you could pay my wife enough to get in a hot tub, naked, with any group of people.

  8. I used to subscribe to Esquire magazine, Rolling Stone magazine, and The New York Review of Books. I never considered the information in Esquire or Rolling Stone to be equivalent in value to the information in The New York Review of Books.


Wendy Shalit makes a compelling case for the failures of feminism for contemporary generations of women and girls, both in terms of the loss of childhood innocence, and the bizarre way in which the drive for “equality” ended up denying obvious differences between men and women. Several years before Ariel Levy came along to put the term “Female Chauvinist Pig” to it, Shalit describes similar behaviors, and offers this quote (among many others) from a New York magazine article: “To be a cool girl you kind of have to stab girlkind in the back.” (P. 226) So much for solidarity! Similarly, as Shalit points out, there is an absurdity in Glamour magazine “celebrating the woman who is ‘sweating’ and ‘swaggering’” – acts which may be perfectly human, but aren’t necessarily qualities one thinks of as glamorous. (P. 107) Yes, she writes, women “have been trained to accept that to be equal to men, they must be the same in every respect; and they, and the men, are worse off for it.” (P. 11) I am inclined to agree.

Shalit also goes to some lengths to address the fallacies inherent in both the liberal and conservative approaches to women’s issues. Early on, she asks “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,” and “to stop saying boys will be boys.” She then turns to the feminists and wants “them to consider whether the cause of all this unhappiness might be something other than the patriarchy.” (P. 9) A Return to Modesty has some valuable, clear-eyed, first-person analysis of the state of (some) women and girls, and a review of the way their issues and claims are (mis)treated for political ends on both sides of the political spectrum. Shalit’s strongest passages are when she confronts both sides simultaneously, to hew out a new path through the overgrown hedgerow dividing feminist from anti-feminist. Similarly, I agree with her that we live in an often brutal society, one that engages children and young adults in the language, ideas, and acts of adult sexuality earlier and more forcefully than they might otherwise discover it for themselves. This helps sustain a confusion of identity and goals among girls and young women (as Levy articulates quite effectively), and for Shalit seems directly connected to the various psychiatric problems witnessed, such as depression, anorexia, or self-mutilation.


But is Wendy Shalit’s solution – “modesty” in its various forms – really the answer to these social ills? The problems with A Return to Modesty are much larger, deeper, and more disturbing than any of the benefits of Shalit’s analysis – and so too her conclusion, that a reintroduction of the ideal of modesty would solve the problems of women-in-contemporary-society. I began with nine statements about myself, because they are representative of the problems throughout Shalit’s book; it is not, per se, the references to the personal, as a means of attacking the philosophical, that I find so troubling. Indeed, Shalit addresses this point in her acknowledgments, and I tend to agree with her that philosophizing entirely in the abstract – as if there is no connection between the ideas espoused and one’s own life – is a flawed approach. (P. 280) Rather, it is the substance of her references that are so meaningless and, therefore, so troubling, and which leave her argument in tatters, compounded by a failure to grasp the complexity of human nature (sexually and otherwise). Herewith, an enumeration of the nine not-so-modest problems of A Return to Modesty:

1. Shalit published this book two years after she graduated from Williams College, and the precociousness of that act would be less obvious if Shalit’s frames of reference were not all so sophomoric. That is, indeed, precisely the right word – because her most consistent frames of reference are her experiences at Williams, beginning with an ostracizing moment in a Sophomore year philosophy class. (P. 87) Over and over and over this terrain she goes: exploring the contradictions of female students protesting against date rape in “The Clothesline Project” (P. 9) on the one hand and passing out “Shameless Hussy” stickers for “Women’s Pride Week” (P. 107) on the other; looking at the various ways in which her professors responded to her push for modesty, or the response from other students to her article about Williams’ co-ed bathrooms. (PP. 233-34)

The whole idea of taking college students seriously as fully-fledged adults – as though they have completely thought-through, well-reasoned opinions on every subject – is absurd. College is about growth, development, engagement with a diverse range of ideas and people – that’s why upper-middle-class parents like the Shalits (or the Freudenheims) send their children to schools like Williams (or Hampshire, or Harvard). Wendy Shalit is herself an example of this: as she notes, her own philosophy began to take shape during college, as she confronted new ideas. I am not suggesting that Shalit should be dismissive of their thoughts or feelings, such as when female students respond positively to her critique of the school’s co-ed bathrooms; but these positions must be taken with a grain of salt, with an understanding of how little real experience an 18-year-old or 21-year-old has with the world of ideas, other than the ones on which they were raised. All this is particularly ironic for someone who writes, as Shalit does, about a too-early loss of innocence, and how young people may not be as equipped to make adult-type decisions (e.g., about sex) as they think they are.

2. Shalit quotes many examples of etiquette books through time, from Richard Allestree and Richard Braithwait in the 17th century (PP 96-99) to Emily Post in the 1920s (P. 154), about the importance of modest behavior for women and its corresponding role in ensuring respectful behavior from men. Funny, though, that other than Emily Post in the 20th century, all of these references to the importance of female modesty come from books written ... by men! This could be because women were not allowed to write such books – or, generally, any other books, as the hidden (female) identities of George Sand and George Eliot both attest.

I have no problem with trying to argue the personal benefits of modest behavior; attempting to attach it to some historical sense of How Things Are Supposed To Be, however, is a much more challenging prospect. By way of analogy, there are a great many historical references to the value, importance, and moral rectitude of slavery, and probably just as many attesting to the same for polygamy. So, can it really be true that on the basis of such male-driven drivel from centuries ago, women today should modify their behavior? Shalit expends much energy on trying to show the power of contemporary society and the relative powerlessness of today’s girls and women to resist its demands. Surely this was no less true when men were writing etiquette books four centuries ago. And it may not have been a modest act in keeping with the times, but the world would be a poorer place indeed without Eliot’s magnificent Middlemarch.

3. In a similar vein, Shalit writes about the present versus historic treatment of women as though leering men, rapists, and other violators are all 20th century innovations – created, of course, by the lack of modesty (and, therefore, respect) for women. (E.G., page 140, first full paragraph.) But this raises more questions than she is prepared to answer: Where are the sources showing that rape is only a contemporary problem? Isn’t one of the achievements of feminism that women are now more able to speak out about the abuse they have suffered, and not be ostracized for it? Isn’t there evidence suggesting that rape, incest, and other horrors were historically inflicted on women in environments in which they had no protection should they choose to speak out, and therefore incidences were – and likely still are – underreported. The punishment for rape may have been severe several centuries ago, but did that really stop it from happening? Shalit implies that it would be desirable to return to an environment in which such things are less frequently discussed, which might reduce our awareness of rape – but probably not the degree to which it happens.

4. Lest we give history a rest just yet: Shalit pushes hard on the whole idea that children today are overly sexualized at an early age and, as I have written, I tend to agree. What goes unmentioned, though, is the historic treatment of young girls as sex objects – young brides and concubines, all from societies rippling with modesty and volumes of etiquette manuals. Perhaps all of this was justified by their shorter lifespans, which made marrying a girl off at 13 or 16 a social and economic necessity – never mind that most of these marriages were arranged by people other than the women involved. Shalit never addresses this, however, even to dismiss it as part of the context of a particular historic period. It undermines further her premise of the contemporary mistreatment of women, versus an earlier age of effervescent respect and appreciation stemming from modesty.

5. Moreover, modesty is not always protection from males. If one wants a contemporary example, from a society that is (theoretically) respectful and demanding of female modesty, look no further than Mukhtaran Bibi, the Pakistani woman who was gang-raped on the orders of her tribal council (all men, one presumes).

6. A Return to Modesty includes a seven page bibliography at the end, with many, many scholarly books listed. However, the dominant thematic sources are the never-ending quotes from contemporary magazines: Cosmo, Marie Claire, Glamour, Mademoiselle, and so on. From these, Shalit has culled references to articles about how to get and keep a man, how to make love to a man, how to make love to a man in order to keep him, how to stay thin, how to be strong, how to make your man respect your strengths, how to ... well, you get the point. As a man, though, these magazines exist in a netherworld I consider entertainment – just like the Esquire and Rolling Stone magazines I used to read. Sure, there were “serious” articles in them, but never anything that managed to make me feel that I had to change my hairstyle or treat my girlfriend better, or that I was less of a man because I wasn’t on the cover wearing a tube sock over my penis like some rock star. Maybe I just missed the scholarly men’s magazines, the male equivalent of that intellectual blunderbuss Glamour.

7. Late in the book, Shalit mentions that bathing suits styles are changing: more women are covering up their backsides more completely, thongs are out, etc. (P. 236) But – hello! – is a contemporary one-piece bathing suit so much more modest than a contemporary bikini? The dominant theme of both is skin and curves; a one-piece may show less skin, and reveal fewer curves, but that hardly seems the basis for a medal for modesty.

8. Inconsistency is consistently one of Shalit’s biggest problems; it is not entirely clear what she really wants. On the one hand, she puts down the choices many contemporary women make, claims that they are harmful or false, and that in a society with more modesty, women would not have to make these decisions in the first place. At the same time, Shalit never quite defines how far she wants her modesty project to go, which makes the discussion about bathing suits all the more absurd and untethered. She is not for free choice because, frankly, under the regime she proposes some options women might want would essentially be taken away; at the same time, she does not quite seem ready to give up all that feminism has conferred upon women – not least the opportunity to write and publish a book about modesty, however immodest the idea.

9. Finally, I found Shalit’s book strangely lacking in nuance, in an understanding of how complicated people can be – men and women. That is why I began this review as I did: to highlight what I think are some of contradictions in my own life and family, where modesty is concerned. I don’t know whether Shalit would have considered my grandmother modest or not – but I know my grandmother probably wouldn’t have cared, would likely have called Shalit a “shit-ass,” and suggested in no uncertain terms that, modesty or not, past experiences or not, she had a long marriage to a loving and devoted man that was, as life usually is, not without its complications and challenges. Similarly, while I never went to the co-ed, naked sauna at Hampshire, I have no issue with skinny-dipping – with the right people; that’s modesty for me.


Throughout the book, I wanted to find Wendy Shalit, ask her out for coffee, and tell her it will all be OK – so scared of the world she seems to be, despite her assertions of personal strength! Is that horribly paternalistic of me? I’m sorry; Shalit said some very nice things about paternalism and the patriarchy, so perhaps she won’t mind.

I cannot escape the sense that Shalit has constructed this whole modesty defense system to help her justify how she engages with other people (male or female), how much or how little of herself she’s willing to give to the world, and to rationalize what truly should not need rationalizing: that she wants an emotional commitment from a partner before a sexual one. You have to admire someone who would go so far as to write an entire treatise in order to justify her feelings on that last point; it just seems so obvious that if that’s how she feels, then that’s what she should seek. But why is it that every time someone like Shalit decides they’re uncomfortable with how they personally relate to some societal construct, the answer is always to wish that there was an increased degree of moral rectitude in that very society? Isn’t the author’s desire for emotionally-safe sex more about her and her husband or partner than anyone else? “Every old sock finds an old shoe,” and all that?

If nothing else, let’s agree on this: women have been treated badly, and this is both a contemporary and an historic problem. There has not been a Golden Age for women’s rights, safety, and health; there have been many trade-offs, “modesty” among them. But we certainly won’t achieve a Golden Age if we adopt an approach that is more about closing our eyes than opening them, more about repressing individual choice than finding better, more honest ways of accommodating such choices. We live in a tough society, but we always have. At least with so much flexibility to make of it what one wants, a woman like Shalit can be modest if she chooses – and someone else can flaunt it if she’s got it, the same way women (and men) have done since time immemorial.


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