Something to Chew On: thoughts on women, men and such
I’ve been meaning to read Wendy Shalit since one of my college friends suggested that I might like her books. Since then, I’ve been meaning to read Wendy Shalit since a philosophy professor that I really respect recommended her books. Early this year, at the library, I finally checked out a Wendy Shalit book: A Return To Modesty.
The experience that I had with this book reminds me of the experience that I had with Are Women Human, by Dorothy Sayers. It challenged me, but also brought some things into focus and cohesion that I had never thought to connect.
I thought that I was going to be reading the same (rather stale, in my opinion) argument for modest dress that I’ve been hearing since I was old enough to have my first “sex talk” at church. There are three main messages that I actually remember from the hours I spent in youth group: “sex is bad” and “women should cover themselves to avoid tempting men.” The other was: “make a list of the qualifications you want in a man, and take nothing less.” How compelling.
Wendy Shalit does not get to physical modesty until page 75 (the book is only 200-odd pages and the remainder is not focused on that topic). It seems that Shalit is interested in something more than covering the body, either for the protection of the male species, or that of the female. Instead, she takes us out so that we can get a good view of the landscape. We see the horrible consequences of immodesty. By immodesty, she is not speaking about short skirts, but rather the societal abandonment of respect for the unique qualities of women. Drat, I was just thinking that equality sounded like a good idea! Instead of championing either the cause of the feminist or the conservative, Wendy argues that they are both wrong. Women are not lesser beings to be subjugated by patriarchs (the feminists here applaud), however, they are unique in the human race, with differences that go beyond mere biology (here, the conservatives cheer). Wendy suggests that patriarchs (and indeed, matriarchs) should be caring for and protecting their daughters. This might mean limiting their freedoms from time to time (something that used to be called parenting).
Modesty, to Shalit, isn’t about wearing a full-veil, but about wearing an attitude, about being a sex that is worthy of respect because they are women.
I was floored by an example that she gave about the rules of conduct for men meeting women on the street in the late 1800’s. The man was not permitted to speak to the woman, unless she first acknowledged him. In a world where it is likely that a man will attempt to start some sort of unwanted conversation with me (and the women I know) whenever I go out, this concept seems a world away.
The concepts in this book were myriad and challenging. From the court cases regarding the sexist nature of “ladies night,” to the stories of constant unwanted sexual attention in all contexts, to the classroom discussions where students and professors refused to admit that there were biological differences between men and women, I found much to think over. If you read this book, I think that you will too, no matter your sex, current opinion or age. As I told a friend, recommending it to her: “You will either love it or hate it, and either way, it will give us something to talk about.”
There is one more idea from this book that I want to touch on: innocence. One of the points of this book was that modesty in women leaves room for innocence. When a young girl is not worried about her sexuality (though this doesn’t mean she doesn’t wonder about her attractiveness to the opposite sex) she has time to be a person, to develop interests, to have friends and have a life. It isn’t all about being independent, as we children of Generation Me are so often told, in fact, this book taught me that independence can actually be detrimental, that is better to have people in your life who will ask you: “what are you doing?” people who will care about you. These innocent women, are, to put it another way: not jaded. They have dreams and hopes, they desire love. Did you think that we were past all that?
As a young woman, recently graduated from college, I have the opportunity to talk candidly with a lot of young women. These women are independent, attractive, driven, focused, many of them have jobs in their field, or jobs that compensate them well, others have plans for such jobs and are working toward them, or plans for other lofty goals such as trips around the world or humanitarian service. When I talk to them about what they want, there is the initial answer they give: they talk about “the plan.” This is what we say to strangers so that we don’t sound desperate or old fashioned, or, heaven forbid, idealistic. Then, when we’ve become less formal, I hear almost the same story from all of them (some of these admissions have literally shocked me, given the person delivering them). They talk about wanting to get married, to have the chance to support a man in what he is doing, to care for him. They have their dreams, and this is one of them, they are simply waiting for the right guy, one who will take a look at them and pay them the courtesy of respecting their modesty as women, who will treat them well (and this doesn’t mean just not physically abusing them, but, perhaps, being completely above-board with his behavior to them, perhaps, acting as if it is an honor to be loved by them, before expecting them to give up their honor, perhaps, realizing that when they say “lifetime commitment,” that’s what they mean.) This is my generation? These are the independent millennial women who don’t need a man? That’s true, of course, on the one hand and not the other (dependency is as inherent as heredity can make it) but it seems just as true that they want a man. Read Wendy’s book and you’ll see that she is not limited to my social sphere (which is by and large, professing Christian), it seems that women across the spectrum are embracing traditional values and traditional ideas about women. Imagine that.
There is something important about ideas, but I think that ideas are only important if we act because of them. I hope that you’ll read this book, because it made me think, but more than that, it has changed the way I act. I have spent years in church, hearing about why modesty is important, but the message never compelled me. In some ways, I am “equal opportunity.” I never heard a message about the important job that men had: to defend the honor of women however they could. There is nothing compelling about being told to cover up who you are (which is what most modesty conversations sound like to young girls). “Modest is hottest” in college didn’t really help matters either. Why did I have to wait until so much later, after most of the peer pressure to wear things that I wasn’t comfortable with had faded, before I discovered how fun it could be to create a look, to consider fashion as art, to feel beautiful. How tragic to rob our girls of what they so desperately need, at a time when they need it most. Perhaps most of all, along with making me angry at our society and inspiring some choices and attitudes in my life, this book made me concerned about being a parent one day. So much can go wrong, and you simply can’t control it all. Isn’t that life, Amen.
I watched an old movie tonight that I greatly enjoy, if only because it is light and fun. It’s one of the Gidget movies and one of the central plots is that of a girl who is said to be a “fallen woman.” People have spread rumors about her and her parents confront her about them. Everyone immediately thinks the best of her, even though they (including all the boys vying for her attention) are worried about her. As I watched, I couldn’t help thinking about Wendy Shalit and A Return to Modesty. In this movie, Gidget was 17, in a movie about a 17-year-old today, with any romantic plot, there would be no shock about the possibility of sex, there would be sex with no possibility of shock. Oh duh, they’re in love, that’s why it’s rated PG-13.
I don’t agree with everything in the book (is that possible?) and you won’t either, but read it. Either way, I’d love to talk with you about it.