book cover imageA Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue
by Wendy Shalit.
The Free Press, 1999.
Cloth, 291 pp., $24.

book cover imageWhat Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman
by Danielle Crittenden.
Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Cloth, 202 pp., $23.

A recent spate of books by successful young women has attempted to take an objective look at the fruits of the sexual revolution and “women’s liberation.” Among these are A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit and What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us by Danielle Crittenden, which share a few basic premises, though their agendas diverge radically.

The starting point for both authors is the assumption that the young woman of today has been sold a false bill of goods, that the sexual revolution overthrew a system of mores and behavioral standards that in fact protected women from the vagaries of courtship and allowed them a modicum of control in a male-dominated society. For many observers, a quick survey of the social landscape in this new age of freedom offers abundant evidence that something is indeed awry: soaring divorce rates, increased illegitimacy, growing percentages of women and children abandoned by men and living below the poverty level. And so the question becomes, what accounts for these societal shifts in behavior? Crittenden and Shalit turn a critical eye on the feminist movement itself, which, in their view, promised the moon and delivered green cheese.

Of the two books, Wendy Shalit’s Return to Modesty has garnered the lion’s share of attention, with the author appearing in Time, George Will’s Newsweek column, and on the “Today” show. Shalit’s thesis has been germinating since the 24-year-old was an undergraduate at Williams College, where she and her peers were subjected to co-ed bathrooms. As a student, she wrote about Williams’ gender-neutralizing approach for Commentary and Reader’s Digest. The college experience led Shalit to reflect deeply on privacy, and the need for modesty. The result is a nearly 300-page book, drawing on sources as diverse as Kierkegaard and Cosmopolitan magazine to make the case for modesty as a natural reflex.

Shalit writes in defense of the poor-cousin virtue “modesty,” a virtue once extolled, but now publicly viewed asquaint or strictly the bastion of the repressed, of those guilty of “not being comfortable with their bodies.” However, Shalit insists that, privately, human nature hasn’t changed at all; the only thing that has changed is society’s notion of sexuality, and hence femininity, in this post-Freudian age. To emphasize her point, Shalit asks her reader to indulge in a thought experiment:

Women, when no one else is around, do you secretly long for a whole series of men; to arbitrarily marry one of them and then maybe have affairs, maybe not … or do you long for one enduring love? That’s a loaded question, but still, if you could be guaranteed that no one would laugh at you, would it be the latter? If your answer is yes, why do you allow your culture to shatter your hopes? Why is it that you feel so dictated to when you were supposed to be, above all, independent?

Those “laughing” at the modest today—the sexually modest, those with modest hopes for enduring marriage—include most feminists, the popular culture at large, and women’s magazines which, as Shalit shows, vacillate schizophrenically between urging women to act more like men in the sexual arena and soothing the battle-scarred among their readers who actually employ the advice.

Midway through her book, after tracing some of the historical and philosophical bases for modesty, Shalit defines modesty as “a reflex, arising naturally to help a woman protect her hopes and guide their fulfillment—specifically, this hope for one man.… [M]ost women would prefer one man who will stick by them, for better or worse, to a series of men who abandon them. Of course, along with this hope comes a certain vulnerability, because every time a man fails to stick by us, our hopesare, in a sense, dashed.” The feminist movement’s response to this seems to have been equal opportunity hope-dashing. Tired of the double standard, women began adopting some of the less noble masculine traits for themselves, certain that this would empower them. The result was a truncated femininity that cut sex off from love, family, and the community, and its effects were not what feminists had expected. Shalit argues that women surrendered their sexual power in this manner without even realizing it. She calls for a “return to modesty” simply because modesty is powerful: it elevates both men and women, preserves their dignity, safeguards the family, and gives men especially an incentive to be good fathers and husbands—because they are the “one man” for their wives.

Shalit’s thesis has struck a popular nerve in part because of its idealism and in part because of its novelty. As she herself puts it, “With feminism, it often seems as if nothing will get better until we overturn all of society The beauty of sexual modesty is that by an individual’s behavior, things can get a little better now.” Shalit relies on the individual reader to change her or his life (or not)—as an author, she maps out no plan, prescribes no formula, coins no catch phrases, and makes no empty promises. That is certainly a new trend in feminism.

Danielle Crittenden, on the other hand, seems to be seeking the prescription, the plan, that her younger but wiser counterpoint Wendy Shalit avoids distilling. Her book, What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us, purports to be the work of a conservative, but actually seems more like a social engineering template from some distant Central Planners division. Like Shalit, Crittenden is concerned about young modern women. However, where Shalit’s prescription is ultimately employed at the individual level, with the exercise of individual free will, Crittenden believes nothing less than a restructuring of the social order can solve our modern problems.

One of the most radical suggestions Crittenden makes is for a reversal in the standard order of most women’s lives; instead of college, career, marriage, and family, she proposes college, marriage, and family, then career. Her reasoning is based on several assumptions: that younger marriages are likelier to endure, that younger women make better mothers on account of being closer to their childhoods and having higher energy levels than older mothers, that companies would be more likely to employ and promote women whom they knew had already had their families.

Crittenden opines, “By marrying earlier, a woman would probably make a better marriage. There is actually little evidence to support the wisdom of our time that waiting until one is older and wiser to marry leads to happier marriages.… Two people who have spent their youth with each other have a better chance of growing older together.” This is subjective speculation. While she claims there is “little evidence” in favor of later marriage, at the same time she offers none to support her own conjecture.

One troubling oversight in Crittenden’s analysis is that childrearing does not end once children are in school full-time. The idea that mothers of school age children could maintain full-time careers with the same kind of devotion that childless women can is unconvincing. Any woman who is a mother knows that children’s needs are varied, unpredictable, immediate, and essential. Childhood illness, for example, doesn’t differentiate between workdays and the weekend.

Children’s needs may change with age, but they do not disappear, and as the mother of two small children herself, Crittenden must know this from her own experience. The difference is that, as many reviewers have pointed out, by virtue of class, Crittenden’s experience is radically different from the overwhelming majority of American women. A freelance writer with good credentials, connections, and income, she is much freer to pursue her career goals and simultaneously be a devoted mother than the woman stocking the shelves at a Walmart. Indeed, she herself notes, “Women who can be described as having interesting, fulfilling jobs represent a tiny majority of the workforce. There are about 100,000 female lawyers in America. More than 600,000 women work as receptionists, more than 1 million work as waitresses. This fact begs the question: why wouldn’t a woman want to break up the monotony of such a career by wedging her child-rearing years in between? What is the crime in derailing, perhaps permanently, something that can be resumed without much trouble, less a “career” than a “job”?

Both Shalit and Crittenden use anecdotal evidence to shore up their arguments, with a liberal dose of women’s magazines and advice columns thrown in. Shalit discusses a near-miss with a camp counselor who stroked her long hair, for example, while Crittenden pitches in with the overcoming-the-odds story of her single mother. Can women write about this subject without assuming a confessional, semi-autobiographical tone? Or is it the nature of such “modest proposals” that they are leant credence by their very subjectivity—that in order to appeal to their audience (women) they must revert to slumber-party-mode in order to be heard? Not only Shalit and Crittenden are guilty of this; in fact, they are following in the grand feminist tradition of The Feminine Mystique, Femininity, The Beauty Myth, ad infinitum. Upon final analysis, most of the manifestoes of feminism are ultimately confessional and anecdotal, often assiduous in their avoidance of hard statistics and demographics. But if subjectivity often rules the day, then better the responsibility rest with the subject as well, as Wendy Shalit suggests. 

A former junior fellow at the Kirk Center, Kara Björklund served at the time of writing as Director of Major Gifts at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.