Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Return to Modesty -thoughts on Wendy Shalit's feminism

 I just finished the book A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit.

It was fascinating. It was first recommended highly by my college lit proff, who was a passionate and controversial figure on our campus and was simultaneously a strong conservative and a head-strong feminist. Now I know why she loved the book - it fits her perfectly.

I think in some ways the title of the book is misleading, because it makes you think that it will discuss modesty in terms of dress. That is just one point in the broader scheme, which is women and standards, or boundaries, or reserve... sometimes referred to as modesty. It is very much what I believe, but it was a fascinating read because it was argued from an entirely different philosophical perspective than how it was taught to me. Boundaries and standards were taught to me from a religious perspective, which is of course something I still agree with. Here, though, Shalit argues the same points from a very secular humanist/feminist perspective. She is coming from a secular Jewish family with a strong secular philosophy educational background. All of this set her up into a rather liberal feminist world.

Shalit's argument is essentially for the value and freedom of women. Her underlying point is that when the 60's woman's lib movement fought for the freedom of women, they fought the wrong way and essentially made it WORSE for us in the end. She says that today women are less valued, more trapped, more depressed than ever. She argues that the way to regain the value of women is through reclaiming an appropriate feminine reserve. Reserve in our dating relationships, reserve in our sexuality, reserve in our dress, reserve in our speech, reserve in our marriages....

Here are some quotes that struck me:

What is the connection between secrets and modesty?... Having sex with anyone and telling your secrets to everyone have a lot in common. It is no accident that sexual promiscuity is associated with our tell-all let-it-all-hang-out talk show culture. Everything is public because there is no longer any private realm. Our dignity is in our secrets. If nothing is secret, nothing is sacred.
I love this. I believe in the mystery and magical draw that modesty brings to a woman's body. When some things are secret, they are treated as sacred (as long as we treat them as sacred rather than simply being frumpy), and thus become extremely attractive to men. What we talk about much less is how this works the same way with secrets. If everyone knows everything about me and I wear everything on my sleeve, is there anything that is sacred for those that love me most? This is a question to wrestle with in the age of blogs, twitter, and facebook status updates.

In a way, then, this peculiar human armor of modesty protects us against the illusion that we could ever be truly known by strangers... 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.
Shalit argues that the women's lib movement fought for equality for women but ended up fighting for women to be LIKE men rather than uniquely, wonderfully women. And so, coarseness and easy sexuality is now considered the way men and women should be, and a sensitive woman has "hang-ups". The calls for a return to an appreciation for feminity, and also for a return to appreciating a gentleman. However:
Some women in the 90's... are advocating that women now "demand chivalry of men." But, unfortunately, as we are learning, demanding chivalry doesn't seem to work. Coty's "Longing" perfume advertises with the slogan, "Make a Man Remember." But you can't make a man remember. You can certainly want him to, but you can't make him. Part of what made modesty beautiful was that it was not scheming, but good in itself..... I cannot make the man sitting across from me treat me with courtesy or court me. The men are ultimately the ones who will have to decide what it means to be a man. ....

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... Ultimately, it seems that only men can teach other men how to behave around women, but those men have to be inspired by women in the first place, inspired enough to think the women are worth being courteous to. perhaps this is the reason sexual harassment legislation has been, in large part, a failure: it essentially involves women telling men how to behave. Women can't tell men how to behave - they either inspire, or fail to inspire. 
Shalit emphasizes the importance of recognizing the basic differences between the sexes. This is interesting, and I partly agree with her, but I also dislike many of the typical stereotypes of what a woman is like and what a man is like. Some men are more emotional than some women. You know? However, I do love when men are brought up to cherish women and women are brought up to be alluring in a quiet way.
The need is not for a nonsexist upbringing, but for precisely a good dose of sexist upbringing: how to relate as a man to a woman. 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. We can never succeed in curing men and women of being men and women, however, and so these differences emerge anyways - only when they do, they emerge in their crudest, most untutored form, such as swearing, stalking, and raping. And then we are shocked, and conclude that men must be evil. But how can men open doors for us again, when we slam them on their fingers? Any return to male courtesy must begin with a change in women.
I loved loved a section in which she wrote about our over-sexualized culture. Thing is, when sex is made public or common, it looses its intrigue, just as hanging out at a nude beach soon makes the nude body seem entirely unsexualized. And so, our society tries to add in increasing eroticism and crazy sexuality in order to add interest and regain the power that sex innately had before it was aired so publicly. When I was single and dating I was often accused of being innocent, and indeed I was. The accusation angered me though - I was innocent by choice and I wanted the magic of innocence. The boredom characteristic in the sexuality and relationships around me held no appeal to me. Shalit tells a story of expressing her shock at her college wrestling team including both men and women. They scorned her reservations, and she wrote this:

That's when it hit me: Maybe my mind really was dirtier than theirs. By some ironic collection of turns of fate - whether it was my escaping from sex education or my sexual inexperience - everything was much more fraught for me than it was to their jaded eyes. They had had all the sex education and all the experience, and yet in a weird way they were much more innocent than I. For all their experience, they were, in some fundamental way, prudes, because they were blind to the power of sex. They were "mature," which is to say, emotionally detached, but that meant they were essentially clinical about things that to me would seem extremely intriguing and occupy my mind for hours... Maybe we're not having fun because everything is permitted. Maybe without modesty, we forget what is erotic. 

Indeed - I drew out the stages of increasing intimacy for a long time when I dated Isaac, because each new thing was so FUN. From the first touch of fingers to our wedding night, three years of discovery and also increasing emotional love slowly unfolded rather magically. Boundaries were difficult at times, but it also inherently gave value to each new stage, and made it mysterious and precious. Those to whom boundaries are unfamiliar express amazement, and think it must all be so awkward. No, not awkward. It's like walking into a wonderland for the first time, together, with someone you've developed deep commitment and love with. It's quite incomparable, and it gives the openness of marital intimacy such power, because it is unique.

When Shalit wrote this book, she was quite young and was pushing back against the permissiveness of the culture. She fights for the value of marriage, of marital sexuality, of boundaries, of feminity. It's a beautifully argued book. You can, at times, see her struggling with the fact that when you advocate these things in a permissive culture, you end up quite alone at times, and it can be quite difficult to find a man willing to live up to these standards. Is it actually possible to carry out what she advocates? That is an interesting question, because I know very few people who effectively live out these standards in the secular dating world, even if they do hate divorce and sleeping around and the brokenness of our current patterns. It's too difficult to go  against the flow on your own.

The only place I've seen these standards internalized and lived out is in communities of faith. In the Church, in Judaism, in Islam .... in these communities I have seen proudly reserved women be beautiful and strong and in doing so, give themselves such inherent value that they attract strong men who are equally committed to such principles. Even then it's rare, but that's where I've seen such philosophy be effective. I'm curious to know how Shalit's ideas have served her through her 20's and 30's.

I'm not a happily married woman or a spinster who now wants to spoil your fun. I'm writing because I see so much unhappiness around me, so many women settling for less, because I don't' want to settle for less and because I don't think you should have to, either. I don't want to have sex because "I guess" I want it. I want to wait for something more exciting than that, and modesty helps me understand why.

What would happen, I wonder, if women, instead of seeing their romantic hopes as "hang-ups" to get rid of, instead of being ashamed of themselves for being women, would start to be proud of their hesitation, their hopes, and their dignity? What would happen if they stopped listening to those who say womanhood is a drag, and began to see themselves as individuals with the power to turn society around?


Rachel H. Evans said...

Wow, Kacie. What a great, thoughtful review. This is one of those books I've been *meaning* to get to for years. Now I'm eager to pick it up!

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a very interesting book and you did a great review.

My last year on StuCo we did a big push for the respect the woman and her body, by men as well as by herself. It was so needed. Even, if not ESPECIALLY on a Christian campus. It was great to see the positive response from both sexes.

I will have to see if I can fit this into my reading during my break from class.


Jase and Rach said...

I like Shalit a lot. I read A Return to Modesty in highschool and it definitely gave me a lot of food for thought... maybe I should pick it up again.


Kacie said...

I'm impressed you read this in high school, Rach! Was it assigned or did you just find it?

Julie Maria said...


Can you do me a great favor telling me please in which page are those quotes:

~What is the connection between secrets and modesty?... Having sex with anyone and telling your secrets to everyone have a lot in common.~

And this one:

~Any return to male courtesy must begin with a change in women. ~

I am writting a book in Brazil and I don't have this book but I would love to quote this.

Thanks a lot


Kacie said...

Hey Julie, sorry! I gave the book away.

Julie Maria said...

oh, ok!


essMa... said...