A new book by Wendy Shalit (ably reviewed here by Pia Catton) argues that there is burgeoning movement of young women who are repulsed by the crude feminism of their mothers and (now!) grandmothers that implies there is something wrong with being . . . well, good. According to Shalit, girls are getting tired of the hyper-sexualized culture that, ironically, strips them of power as well as of their clothing. They see their so-called "betters" as dupes and wish to revisit an older, perhaps wiser, form of feminine power that embraces rather than rejects modesty.
I certainly hope this is true and I agree entirely with Shalit’s understanding about the real and slavish direction in which the "everything goes" sexual liberation religion is pointing us. But I share Catton’s concern, (from the end of her review), that the advice Shalit offers is a bit unimpressive. First, from where I sit, I don’t see as much movement away from smut/slut culture as Shalit claims to see. And second, in order to promote that movement I think it has to be something more than and even better than a hearkening back to our great-grandmother’s ways. We have to begin to parse out what was eternally good from their ways and separate it out from the things that may not have been so good and, thus, keep it unappealing to today’s young women. Instead of a simple appeal to tradition, in other words, we have to make a deeper and truer case for the good and useful properties of modesty. It must be an appeal not only to judgment but also to interest.
Suggestions about "baking apple pies" rather than undressing to impress may be cute and even contain a glimpse at the true. But metaphorically speaking, what is apple pie? I love apple pie, don’t get me wrong. And I bake a mean one with apples that we grow ourselves. It is sweet, delicious, and wholesome. But it’s also old-fashioned and, we now know, loaded with cholesterol and other things that may weigh you down or even--when overdone--harm you. The problem with a simple appeal to apple pie may be that it subtracts intellect and judgment from the equation. Another way to say it may be that it does not build up the prudence and flexibility of the young woman hearing the advice--it doesn’t give her enough credit. The problem young women still have with the ancient wisdom of their great-grandmothers is that though it is proven to be rather mighty and impressive in its absence--there are still lingering doubts about an unthinking and reflexive commitment to it. They have grown used to and appreciate the sentiment that vocally claims--even if it actually works against it in practice--that our judgment and our thinking is every bit as worthy as that of the vast majority of men. The problem with the feminists who preceded these young women is that they demonstrated (nearly unequivocally) that the judgment and thinking of women is every bit as stupid as that of the vast majority of men’s can be. There needs to be an appeal to reason as well as sentiment, in other words. There needs to be an appeal that flatters the reason at the same time that it starkly confronts its limitations. We need a feminist Federalist in defense of great-grandma’s constitution.