Conservatism Without History

A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, by Wendy Shalit, New York: The Free Press, 304 pages, $24.00

It's been a very strange decade for the women's movement. It began with feminists lionizing the fictional Murphy Brown for having a baby without a husband. Now the equally fictional Ally McBeal has inspired Time to ask "Is Feminism Dead?" because she likes men, thinks sex is both fun and a big deal, and really wants to be married before she's a mother. When the '90s were young, Katie Roiphe made it big pointing out that radical feminists had largely concocted the date rape crisis. More recently, she wrote that sleeping with the boss is a winning strategy for can-do women. Naomi Wolfe has championed promiscuity but retreated somewhat on abortion; Camille Paglia has made a cottage industry out of celebrating kinky sex, pornography, and, most of all, herself.

And then, of course, there is the president's contribution. 1991 seems like an alien planet now, with feminists flaying an unmarried Clarence Thomas for asking an employee for a date. Eight years later, it's no big deal for the married commander-in-chief to have sex with an intern. Indeed, according to some feminist writers such as Jane Smiley writing in The New Yorker, Clinton's behavior simply reflected a human "desire to make a connection with another person." On Meet the Press, then-Sen. Carol Mosely Braun (D-Ill.), a woman swept into office by the backlash against Clarence Thomas, defended the president's behavior by observing, "Thirty years ago women weren't even allowed to be White House interns."

The only conclusion one can draw from all this is that the market for feminist commentary is as open as the definition of feminism itself.

Enter Wendy Shalit, author of A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Shalit has a lot in common with the decade's other feminist and anti-feminist newcomers. She's young. She's smart. And she believes in perhaps the only axiom to be passed down intact from the previous generation: "The personal is political."

Therein lies the twist. Rather than claim, like some of her peers, that her catalog of one-night stands, unrequited lust, dysfunctional relationships, and sexual misadventures gives her the authority to dictate morality to others, Shalit asserts the opposite. Her moral stature derives from the fact that she doesn't put out.

A very recent graduate of Williams College, Shalit made her breakthrough with an article in Commentary about her horror at her dorm's introduction of coed bathrooms. From there, she garnered a reputation as a neoconservative wunderkind, with a billet at the City Journal in New York City. A Return To Modesty, her first book, represents the first major attempt to provide an intellectual framework for "True Love Waits" and the rest of the pro-virginity movement. Shalit offers a sustained defense of chastity, extolling the virtues of 19th- (if not seventh-) century social and sexual norms. Sex before marriage is an abomination, she declares. Even heavy petting is distasteful.

Recently, The New York Observer asked her if all this sounded a bit "neo-Victorian." She responded, "No, just Victorian." And why does Shalit want to return to the Victorian era? Because, she told the Observer, "I want to make things better."

That may be cute and provocative, but intellectually it is an absolute surrender to nostalgia. If Shalit had argued for the "neo," she might have had me. But I can no more live in Victorian England than I can join Star Fleet Academy.

To be fair, if one holds Shalit's view of the world, things certainly couldn't get any worse, and 1850s England would be a welcome cultural harbor. Shalit may be the only writer around who believes both the sky-is-falling feminists and the we're-all-going-to-hell social conservatives. The left and the right have diagnosed different symptoms of the same social affliction, she argues. It's the remedies they've prescribed that are inadequate: "Girls who can't say no, anorexic girls, girls who are mutilating their bodies, girls who are stalked or raped, many who never see their fathers--and from the Left, the advice we get is, `Whatever you do, don't be romantic,' and from the Right, `Whatever you do, don't become a feminist.'"

It's left to Shalit to offer the magic elixir, the cure for what ails everyone: modesty. "It is no accident that harassment, stalking, and rape all increased when we decided to let everything hang out," she writes. "A society that has declared war on embarrassment is one that is hostile to women."

One could easily quibble here. One might dispute the way Shalit characterizes each faction's advice to young women, or point out that the data on stalking and self-mutilation are of a recent and unreliable vintage. But quibbles do not get to the heart of the problem with this book: For a conservative, Shalit has remarkably little appreciation for history. She may pine for an age of long skirts, quaint courtship rituals, modesty pieces, and Talmudic injunctions against touching, along with every other cultural barrier that ever has been erected between the sexes. But for all her love of the rituals of the past, she pays no homage to the historical contexts that created them.

For example: Shalit writes nostalgically about calling cards and their demise. She points out, correctly, that for most of Western history, people didn't want unmarried men and women to be alone together, even during courtship. Calling cards expedited the courting process without rocking the boat too much. A gentleman in pursuit of a young lady would drop off a card at her home to request a personal visit. If the woman declined the invitation, both she and her suitor would be saved face-to-face embarrassment.

Shalit loves this idea, and she doesn't seem to think there's any reason why we can't have it back. It has not occurred to her, apparently, that people used calling cards before we had this neat invention called the "telephone."

Calling cards were a small part of an ongoing social compromise with the rising middle class's increasing willingness to accept romantic choice. Arranged marriages were giving way to the insight that people should be able to select their spouse, or at least have some say in the decision. So elaborate dating rituals emerged, offering ways to pay tribute to tradition while still affording greater liberty in choosing a partner. We still use many of these rituals today, and some of the old traditions are gaining new strength. But Shalit seems unconcerned with all of this. Indeed, she likes arranged marriages too.

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