Civil Liberties

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.

And she likes Richard Brathwait's The English Gentleman and The English Gentlewoman, dated 1630 and 1631 respectively. (According to Brathwait, "bashfull modesty" was a woman's ticket to salvation: "Modesty must be your guide, vertuous thoughts your guard, so shall heaven be your goale.") From Shalit's rendering, you might think Brathwait's interesting treatises are travel brochures for a cultural Shangri-la, a utopia to which we can easily return by clicking our heels or reading her book. The reality, of course, is that in the 1630s birth control was almost non-existent and reproduction mysterious. Women were often chattel; marriages were often arranged.

Shalit seems to think that if she can only explain why the olden days were better than today–if only we could understand the things she does–we could transform society overnight. But ideas neither last in a vacuum nor spring forth ex nihilo. Of course some values have eroded in the last century. But the cause of those changes cannot solely be found in the intellectual realm. The automobile probably did more to destabilize traditional values than Nietzsche did. One can argue with Nietzsche. But who, besides Al Gore, will argue with the car?

Shalit ignores the essential insight of modern conservatives, from Burke to Disraeli: Ancient wisdom is a vital guide for reform, not a replacement for it. Human nature, to borrow Glenn Loury's phrase, has no history. But institutions must have a history; if they do not change with the times, they die. If modern society suddenly adopted calling cards and modesty pieces, it would not enjoy an instant moral restoration. It would be hobbled with kitsch.

This might have been prevented if Shalit had researched her book more diligently. William F. Buckley has argued that the neoconservatives' great contribution to the American right was sociology: Where older conservatives had contented themselves with philosophical arguments, the neocons deployed data. But the younger generation of neocons seems to have given up on rigor. Shalit cites perhaps a thousand women's magazines and maybe five actual studies. Letters to Marie Clare may be interesting as anecdotes or as culture chaff, but intellectually they have the nutritional value of a styrofoam cup. She would have been better off exploring, say, sociobiology, a field rich in data that have a great deal to say about modesty.

She also might have been more wary of inconsistencies. In her introduction, she writes sweetly about the idea of fathers giving away their daughters at weddings: "What is really so terrible about `belonging' to someone who loves you?" Thirty-five pages later she attacks a notorious 1976 British House of Lords case, Regina v. Morgan, as a symptom of the decline of modesty. There is a contradiction here, and she misses it.

Regina is a staple feminist anecdote. One evening a man got drunk with three of his buddies. He told them that his wife was really kinky and that she would love it if they each had their way with her. Intrigued, the men went back to his house, where they proceeded to take turns raping his wife. The Lords ruled that the men weren't really guilty of rape because they believed there was implied consent.

Shalit, rightly horrified, believes that old-fashioned notions of modesty would have prevented this episode. (Maybe, maybe not: I'm not convinced that such atrocities did not occur a century ago.) Nevertheless, she sees no tension between extolling a system that says a father can own and then give away a daughter and denouncing the view that once the husband takes possession of the woman he can do as he pleases with her. Paternal ownership and matrimonial ownership are of the same piece–historically, intellectually, theologically. In the Third World nations where these institutions still exist–China, India, Central Asia–fathers regularly sell their daughters. If the daughters are lucky, they're sold to a husband.

A Return to Modesty is engagingly written at times, and Shalit's style will doubtless be most effective where it will do the most good: among young women who fear they are alone in questioning Naomi Wolfe's paean to the "shadow slut." Some of Shalit's critics have derided her for being a prude, but that criticism is unfair. If she had partied like a hooker during fleet week, she would have been accused of hypocrisy and dismissed out of hand.

And, yes, Shalit is very bright. But her book is sophomoric in its overconfident ambition. It would be more persuasive if it were a bit more modest.

Jonah Goldberg ( is a contributing editor and online columnist for National Review.