“A Return to Modesty,” Marriage, and Motherhood
A recently published “American Freshman” survey, conducted by UCLA and the American Council on Education, polled 275,811 students on 469 college and university campuses. Data indicate that today’s students are less likely to drink beer, indulge in promiscuous sex, or advocate abortion than students only a few years ago. A record low (39.6 percent) of the freshmen agreed with the notion that “If two people really like each other, it’s all right for them to have sex even if they’ve known each other for a very short time.” In 1987, by contrast, 51.9 percent of the students polled endorsed that statement! The times, perhaps, they are a changing!
Sometimes called the “millenials,” today’s youngsters (born since 1980) may be launching a cultural revolution which will reverse the one their elders orchestrated in the 1960’s. If so, Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue (New York: The Free Press, 1999) may very well be one of the movement’s main manifestos! Indeed, she says, in the book’s concluding sentence: “After all, I don’t see why our parents should get to have a monopoly on sexual revolutions” (p. 244). To lead the revolution, she calls for a militia of what she calls “modestyniks“–her “word for a modern single young woman raised in a secular home, who had hitherto seemed perfectly normal but who, inexplicably and without any prior notice, starts wearing very long skirts and issuing spontaneous announcements that she is now shomer negiah, which means that she isn’t going to have physical contact with men before marriage, and that she is now dressing according to the standards of Jewish modesty” (p. 2).
Shalit, the daughter of a prominent economist at the University of Chicago, was reared in a nominally Jewish home, headed by a highly paternalistic (and deeply respected) father, where conversations tended to deal with Coase’s theorem rather than Madonna’s tunes. Immersed in a highly secularized urban environment, attending schools whose sex education classes and general culture condoned casual sex, she had little external support for some spontaneous feelings she now labels feminine modesty. Yet she sensed this as early as the fourth grade, when (with her parents’ support) she opted out of the sex education classes, choosing instead to spend time in the library. It is a decision she never regretted! Now she urges such programs be trashed, for they do little more than dissolve the natural, eminently healthy modesty which should separate the sexes.
Then she attended Williams College, ever up-to-date with its co-ed dorms and bathrooms, where she felt even more offended by what her elders’ “sexual revolution” had dumped on her generation! Casual sex was, in many ways, institutionally encouraged. During Women’s Pride Week, for example, the college’s feminist association distributed “SHAMELESS HUSSY” stickers which female students were to wear on their clothing–combat medals one supposes–making it clear they were ready to promiscuously “do it.” Then a billboard advertising “Peer Health” urged the women to drop by and “see our new oral-sex how-to-guides” (p. 107). Sex was, so they were told, no big deal.
But then, a few weeks later, the women themselves orchestrated “The Clothesline Project.” And it seemed as though sex is, after all, a rather big deal! Women stamped messages on T-shirts, declaring “‘don’t touch me again‘ and ‘I hate you,'” or “‘Why does this keep happening to me?’ and ‘When will this end'” (p. 108). Then there were the many women struggling with eating disorders, numbing out on Prozac, engaging in various forms of self-mutilation! All the casual sex–all the “hook-ups,” the one-night nearly anonymous encounters–exacted an anguished toll. As one of her correspondents asserted: “‘casual sex is the world’s biggest oxymoron!'” (p. 235).
To understand why all this was happening, Shalit seriously studied thinkers ancient and modern, especially concerned to grasp why modern feminists have supported a movement which has so deeply damaged her generation. Why would Camille Paglia advocate “‘more pornography, better pornography. Pornography everywhere!'” (p. 52)? Why would Katie Roiphe, after interviewing Beverly LaHaye’s press secretary–a Christian woman who refused to engage in pre-marital sex–admit that the woman has “a certain glow” which rather “resembles happiness,” but declare herself “infuriated” (p. 6) by such an unfashionable commitment to chastity? Why would Simone de Beauvoir praise the Marquis de Sade as a “great moralist” (p. 167)? How could Kathryn Harrison, in a widely-touted recent literary work, The Kiss, write about having sex with her father as if there were nothing wrong with such perversion? Why would Naomie Wolfe declare, in Promiscuities, that ‘”there are no good girls, we are all bad girls” who should “explore the shadow slut who walks alongside us'” (p. 8).
What Shalit’s decided is this: the carnage of the sexual revolution should show right-thinking people that our culture has lost something precious which needs restoration. To save our kids, to save our society, we must find better guides than we’ve followed for 30 years. Shalit herself began to wonder, when she compared the radiant joy of Orthodox Jewish women with the isolation and anger of her allegedly “liberated” peers, “if Judaism is so smart about women and men, what else is it right about?” (p. 220). Perhaps the answers to our problems can be found in the spiritual riches of our Jewish and Christian traditions, which all agree that “modestly is inextricably entwined with holiness” (p. 218). Perhaps the Bible, even the 10 Commandments, are up-to-date after all!
A Return to Modesty is a remarkable achievement for a 23-year-old woman! It is readable, provocative, persuasive! (Her notes and bibliography demonstrate her diligence and scholarly aptitude). Whether or not it marks the beginnings of a cultural revolution only time will tell, but it makes a good case for chastity which applies to all cultures at all times. She wrote the book “to restore this lost moral vocabulary of sex” (p. 12), and certainly helps readers move toward that end.
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A similar concern–to somehow restore the lost “grammar of courtship and love” (p. 41)–undergirds the work of Danielle Crittenden, a widely-published journalist (including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal) who has just published What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman (New York: Simon & Schuster, c. 1999). Like Shalit, she urges young women to remain sexually pure, saving themselves for marriage. But she would extend the revolution! Rather than sleeping around as schoolgirls and marrying after launching a career, she urges young women to marry early and have children when they are biologically best suited for motherhood. Husbands and children, not careers and political clout, truly matter! Careers may very well follow, in due time, certainly. But make sure to make the main thing the main thing. “This might seem like very ancient advice,” she notes in her closing paragraph. “That’s what makes it all the more revolutionary today. Sometimes the job of a mother is simply to repeat the old truths again and again and again, and pray that they stick” (p. 191).
A quotation from Horace, placed at the beginning of the book, suggests its thesis: “You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, yet she will still hurry back” (p. 11). Crittenden argues that women, above all else, long to be wives and mothers–it’s the deepest natural longing they have. Yet, strangely enough, that natural desire has been disparaged and shunted aside by many of the architects and artisans of contemporary culture. Consequently, as she interviewed young women, Crittenden found that “Virtually every young woman I interviewed put her job aspirations ahead of any hopes for marriage or children (even if she claimed to want those things eventually). Each one of them worried that too serious an attachment to a man or, worse, to children might compromise her sense of who she was” (p. 18).
Such women reveal how successfully their “mothers”–preeminently those intellectuals who have shaped their ideas–have taught them. “For nearly two generations women have been taught to deceive themselves about what it is they want. In the name of independence and equality, we’ve been told by our elders to deny our natural feelings–not to care too deeply about the men we sleep with when we’re young, to suppress our longing for commitment, to delay our desire to have children, to not trust or depend upon the men to whom we finally pledge our hearts. When we do have children, we are encouraged to sacrifice them to our jobs. And if we find ourselves unhappy and dissatisfied, we’ve been taught to blame not the wisdom of these teachings but others–the men who have hurt us, the society that discriminates against us, the politicians who have not responded to every one of our personal needs. It is, however, the modern wisdom itself that is faulty” (pp. 182-183).
But modernity’s alleged “wisdom” has been disproved in the very place it should have shone most brightly, if true: in the ordinary lives of ordinary women. Embracing the perspectives of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Frieden, as purveyed by their zealous disciples in schoolrooms and women’s magazines and television, immersed in the currents of the sexual revolution, young women in America find themselves increasingly unhappy! Competing with men in the marketplace, they find themselves more deeply alienated from (and exploited by) them in the singles’ bars and apartments. Fearing, above all, “dependency” on a man, they slice asunder the ligaments of any deeply-meaningful conjugal union. Misled by “liberationist” propagandists, they fail to find the authentic liberation–the freedom to actual attain one’s end–good marriage affords. Refusing to truly be women, they fail to find their deepest selves. Parading their “equality” they find themselves left lonely when the bands disperse and flags fold.
Betty Friedan allegedly asked Crittenden, responding to her book: “You say men and women are different?” Different? Yes indeed, Crittenden insists! Truth to tell, “By denying these differences, we prolong the period when we are sexually vulnerable; we waste the opportunity in our passionate young to find lasting love and everything that goes with it–home, children, stability, and the pleasure of sex as an expression of profound, romantic, and monogamous love. We have traded all this away for an illusion of sexual power and, in doing so, have abandoned the customs that used to protect and civilize both sexes, that constrained men and women but also obliged them to live up to their best natures. We might now be more free. But we enjoy less happiness, less fulfillment, less dignity, and, of all things, less romance” (p. 57).
Much of this unhappiness Crittenden discerns resides in good moms who hate to work rather than rear children. Lots of women are, often necessarily, working. But, since 1985, an increasing number long to stay home when their children are young. The treatises which have fueled the feminist movement were not written by moms! “When feminists elevated the status of work women did outside the home over what they did inside it, it was hard for mothers to answer back–as it is still hard for them to answer back. The joy mothers take in their children, the satisfaction they feel raising them into useful and decent citizens, are intangibles that cannot be neatly lumped into statistics; nor with their proceeds purchase a sports utility vehicle or some other trapping of worldly success” (p. 137). How strange it is, she says, that modern America values “the work a woman does writing legal briefs more than the hours she might have devoted to helping her child feel her importance in the world” (p. 141). The world can do without more lawyers. What it needs is better–and more highly valued–moms!
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One successful lawyer who joyously abandoned her career to marry and rear five children, F, Carolyn Graglia, has published Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1998). Like Crittenden, she insists that marriage and family mean far more to women than anything else. With Allen Bloom, she believes that “‘a man and a woman have a work to do together that is far different from that found in the marketplace, and of a far greater importance'” (p. 87). Thus, as Midge Decter so wisely wrote, a woman really needs a man “‘who will agree to keep her safe while she brings forth her gifts and who by accepting these gifts will not only provide the measure of their value, and so of hers, but will help her to her own sense of having contributed fully to the human estate'” (p. 151).
Railing against this very traditional and admittedly “patriarchal” view–one deeply embedded in the historical experience of our race, if not absolutely mandated by our physiology and psyche– post-WWII feminists launched a war. They’ve vowed to take no captives, to slash and burn until total victory is attained. Appraising the battlefield, Graglia grants her feminist foes the dignity of being taken very seriously–indeed, she is deadly serious about the issues currently being be contested. Nor can one question the sincerity of the movement’s leaders. Yet, as Benjamin Disraeli once noted, “‘what is earnest is not always true; on the contrary error is often more earnest than truth'” (p. 270). To expose the errors and highlight the dangers of this ideology, Graglia dons her armor and tilts her lance.
As the quotations already cited indicate, Graglia enlists a host of witnesses to bolster her presentation. She goes to the sources–explaining and exploding the positions espoused by Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Frieden, et al. As a lawyer, her case crackles with evidence–both statistical and expert testimonial–garnered from prodigious research and honed with analytical skill. Like Ayn Rand she believes “‘There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil'” (p. 132). She brings her obviously formidable intellect into a passionate battle with the forces which have wrecked such havoc on the traditional family, the home. The issue is so momentous, the moral conflict so pronounced, that Graglia argues: “Reality requires that we must be what feminists denounce as sexist. This highly charged word that they have made synonymous with racist means only that we must recognize the very real differences that do exist between men and women–differences, unlike that of skin color, of vast significance” (p. 197).
Such differences stand gloriously displayed in healthy homes. Men bring home the goods and provide important assistance, but women make the nests. Home is where mothers make all the difference in the world. Yet, within three decades, home, said Time, “‘has been left an impoverished place, little more than a dormitory, a spot for a shower and a change of clothes. And as mothers have increasingly departed for the office or factory, children’s isolation from the adult world has accelerated dramatically.’ Time’s rhetorical inquiry, ‘How will these marginalized kids turn out?,’ exposes the irony that mothers’ entry into the workplace to escape the marginalized existence of housewives has resulted in what even feminist apologists see as the marginalization of children” (p. 77).
To defend hearth and home, Graglia, like Joan of Arc, comes forth, pen sharpened and ready for combat. She writes as a self-styled modern Brunnhilde, a warrior maiden in Wagner’s epic opera, The Ring of the Nibelung, whose love for Siegfried awakened her femininity and transformed her life. In part, Graglia has awakened her duty to defend the innocents in this war–good women, housewives, who are markedly defenseless. “Feminism’s war against the housewife has pitted the best educated, most sophisticated, most aggressive, and most masculinized portion of the female population against women who generally possess less education and less worldly experience, who are more likely to be docile than aggressive, feminine than masculine” (p. 96). It’s not been a fair fight.
And that, Graglia argues, has led to disaster. In her judgment, the sexual revolution has proved utterly disastrous for women. “The women’s movement could have been orchestrated by the editors of Playboy: readily available sex for men without marriage; if married, a working wife to unburden the male from responsibility for supporting the household; readily available abortion to eliminate unwanted children; and devaluation of maternal commitment to child-nurturing so that mothers would remain in the workplace, ensuring that women would never become dependent upon their husbands” (pp. 34-35). So it’s time for some Brunnhildes! Unfortunately, Graglia believes, “If women want to destroy the remnants of patriarchy and become virtually fungible with men, I believe that–unless a significant number of our effete, attenuated, androgynous males undergo a rapid metamorphosis–women can do so” (p. 328). Yet what women can destroy they can also restore. And if this battle’s to be won, if gender feminism is to be de-fanged, women like Graglia must take up arms and defend their homes. But whether she’s a Joan of Arc or a Don Quixote, I don’t know!
For various reasons, few men have dared stand up and defend housewives or critique feminists. Those who do–especially in academia, government, and the media–have often been crucified, for feminists in bureaucratic systems understand how to wage the battles of innuendo and aspersion, of rumor and retaliation.
The will-to-power undergirds modern feminism. Indeed, Graglia holds that there is a perversely “totalitarian impulse” basic to much of modern feminism. One of the strengths of this book is its placing feminism within the context of collectivism, the utopian aspirations of social engineers. To re-shape society, to institute a socialist utopia of some sort, motivates the architects of the movement. In Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex, readers are urged to work for “what the Soviet Revolution promised; women raised and trained exactly like men were to work under the same conditions and for the same wages‘” (p. 274). Feminism is to accomplish what Lenin and Stalin failed to do–make a model society. So we find Hillary Rodham Clinton, convinced that her co-horts were “‘destined (and equipped) to teach the world the error of its ways,'” urging the faithful “‘to remold society by redefining what it means to be a human being in the 20th century'” (p. 266).