EDITOR’S NOTE: This review by Florence King appeared in the January 25, 1999, issue of National Review. (You can access NR’s archives anytime here.)
No different drummer can keep up with Wendy Shalit. When they drop in their tracks from exhaustion she just gets another one and marches on. She’s been her own woman since becoming a sex-ed dropout in fourth grade, and on through her cantankerous four years at Williams College, where she raised a lone voice against coed bathrooms and compounded her political incorrectness by publishing a polemic against the practice in Commentary that left her conformist classmates reeling in shock.
Since then her name has become the byline that connoisseurs of well-written unconventional wisdom look for, turning up in City Journal, where she is a contributing editor, as well as the Wall Street Journal
and National Review
— but not Cosmopolitan
, for reasons which will shortly become clear.
Now just 23, she has published her first book. A Return to Modesty is about women, and so uncompromising in voice and stance that one is tempted to think of its author as Simone de Shalit or Wendy Wollstonecraft, but make no mistake: she imitates nothing and no one, and her roast of the sacred cow of female sexual freedom is going to stampede our nation of sheep and hand liberals their heads on a platter.
She blames the death of modesty on feminists, who claimed that modesty was “invented” by men to enslave and subordinate women. Show the least sign of modesty, feminists warned, and men will no longer take you seriously. Worse, modesty suppressed female desire. The media latched onto this and a cultural icon was born: the woman without hang-ups who traded being good for being good in bed, and abandoned her search for Mr. Right for what Cosmo called “undifferentiated lust” with lots of Mr. Right Nows.
We went from a nation that believed a virtuous woman’s price is far above rubies to one that believes a virtuous woman is as sounding brass. Meanwhile, the New Woman went from prize to prey. Without the social conventions of modesty, her prerogative to say no was overridden by men’s prerogative to expect sex.
Today’s young women are profoundly unhappy, Shalit maintains, so desperate for a revival of modesty that they practice today’s ersatz versions of it — sexual-harassment suits, date-rape-awareness vigils, and “No Means No” protest marches to remind men that women don’t feel undifferentiated lust.
Another substitute is eating disorders. Since women make up 90 percent of anorexics and bulimics, starving and throwing up are ways to establish a clear difference between the sexes in a culture that insists there aren’t any.
Shalit thinks we have arrived at the critical point noted by Rousseau in his warning against women trying to be like men: “The more women want to resemble them, the less women will govern them, and then men will truly be the masters.”
The disappearance of modesty has increased misogyny and violence against women. When men were taught that “A woman is more particular” about whom she sleeps with, they could be philosophical about sexual rejection. But now, encouraged by ringing endorsements of undifferentiated lust to think that women are just like them, they are much more likely to be impatient and uncomprehending when a woman says no to sex. “Modesty gave men a frame of reference for a woman’s ‘no’-without it, the modern man always takes no as a personal rebuke. . . . Failure to sleep with someone is now an act of hostility.”
Modesty also improves the quality of life in general. When men believed they had to make themselves worthy of a woman, admonitions such as “Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine” carried real weight, because “what women will and will not permit does have a profound way of influencing an entire society.”
Women can’t tell men how to behave — they either inspire or fail to inspire. Today we inspire them by slamming doors on their fingers, pushing them away when they help us with our coats, and then, when they learn their lesson and begin to treat us with equal-opportunity boorishness, we change our minds and seek to enforce by fiat the respect which was once grounded in custom.
Is modesty natural? Shalit contends that it is and offers four proofs.
1) The universal propensity of pubescent girls to be embarrassed by everything under the sun, as witnessed by their constant moans of “I could die! I could just die!”
2) The universal windy-day gesture: Women might wear slit skirts because it’s the fashion, but let the slightest breeze come along and they automatically hold the slit closed to cover what it was designed to reveal.
3) The “Not That Way” freeze and sudden retreat: the involuntary prudishness that comes over a woman when an obtuse man, thinking to compliment her, says something like, “You’d make a great porn star.”
4) The body-noises divide: Men, the blithe spirits, take them in stride, but to women they are mortifying. (A Mademoiselle advice columnist writes that a great many of the letters she gets are some version of “What do I do when my boyfriend starts burping?”)
If modesty is natural, then, can it be a virtue? Here Shalit displays her gift for making intellectual points in conversational language by starting-and winning-an argument with Immanuel Kant. The German philosopher believed that since modesty flows from woman’s natural circumstances, and is not the result of a rational struggle, it can’t qualify as moral. Shalit agrees that the fashion slave who wears a slit skirt and instinctively clutches it against the wind is morally neutral, but what of the woman who refuses to wear slit skirts in the first place? “In Kantian terms, then, a woman who struggles with her culture and opts for modesty would, in fact, seem to be acting virtuously.”
Shalit confides that her friends have warned her that when this book comes out she will be mercilessly attacked and mocked by the forces of sexual equality. What will no doubt enrage them the most is her call for a return to the “cartel of virtue” — that time-honored female instinct wherein women made a silent pact to behave themselves in the interests of group and society to ensure that men would have to marry. In other words, cut off the free milk and make him buy the cow.
To help gird her for the coming combat with apoplectic feminists, let me offer that I well remember the heyday of the cartel of virtue in the 1950s. It can be brutal, especially the way it encourages virtuous women to gang up on their erring sisters, but it is far less brutal than turning all women into erring sisters as happens under our present system of sexual mayhem. In any case, the cartel of virtue is the only known way to get women to stick together, so tell the feminists to think of it as sisterhood.
Shalit sees signs that modesty is making a comeback. Antioch College’s much-derided guidelines on asking permission to kiss and touch are not very different from The English Gentlewoman (1631) and the many Victorian chapbooks about men who “take liberties.”
There is movement on the “Quietly Confessed” front — Shalit’s name for the paragraph in “balanced” news stories about coed dorms, in which a lone girl who objects to the arrangement is quoted under the attributive, “she quietly confessed.” After Shalit’s Commentary article was reprinted in Reader’s Digest she was inundated with supportive letters from such girls.
Sexual differences are beginning to be acknowledged in reports of new hormone discoveries (e.g., oxytocin, released by the female during sex and thought to make women cling emotionally to the men they sleep with).
Women have begun to swap stories about the rare man who gave up his seat on a bus or tipped his hat — or as Shalit puts it, in what may be the best line in the book: “Within a certain circle of women, incidents of chivalry are now traded like sightings of aliens or solar eclipses.”
The growing interest in rigid social strictures manifested by the Jane Austen craze tells her that young women are pining for interference as their mothers once pined for liberation, even to the extent of wanting to be nagged and called on the carpet.
Of herself she admits, “I’m always pining for someone to young-lady me,” but she doesn’t need it, at least from a reviewer’s standpoint. Her ability to think things through in her own way and come to her own conclusions makes every page of this book wise, fresh, and funny, sparkling with her special brand of astringent charm. If she can write like this at 23, her future output can only be contemplated with pure joy.
<title>A Return to Modesty, by Wendy Shalit</title>
<info>(Free Press, 291 pp., $ 24)</info>