February 2000

A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue.  By Wendy Shalit. The Free Press. 291 pages. $19.99.

In this combination of autobiography and sociological text, Shalit calls for the resurrection of the long-neglected virtue of modesty. Shalit recounts how her conservative Jewish parents’ disapproval of her fourth-grade sex education classes allowed her to spend those periods in the school library, isolated from “how-to” lessons on condom use. She describes campus life at Williams College in the mid-1990s, with its coed bathrooms, with feelings that range from bemusement to sadness — and then to gratitude for her early habit of isolation. She criticizes magazine and newspaper articles that encourage promiscuity. I particularly liked Shalit’s observation about the strippers who regularly appear on Howard Stern’s show: If they’re so proud of their work, why won’t they reveal their real names on the air?

According to Shalit, most women really do crave a certain modesty, in dress, behavior, and relations with men, contrary to what they’ve been told — or have told themselves — over the past three decades. She accurately sees this loss of innocence as a missing childhood, the one that was almost stolen from her in fourth grade and that was taken away from too many of her contemporaries. Shalit predicts a counter-revolution on behalf of modesty, “because it’s a way of affirming our essential innocence.”

Shalit displays a certain excessive modesty about her beliefs and arguments, presenting somewhat apologetically truths that by rights should be shouted from the rooftops. Let us hope that many young women will heed the advice of this wise contemporary.

- Gerard Einhaus





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