Wendy Shalit is an upstart conservative feminist author with a message for the planet: Women and girls should embrace sexual modesty if they want to find happiness and improve their standing in society. By letting it all hang out, by training themselves to seek sexual gratification instead of true love, she argues, women have been false to their own natures; they’ve also helped men to become crude and inconsiderate toward the gentler sex.
“The sexual revolution has been denying female sexual vulnerability–and it hasn’t worked,” Miss Shalit said in a Madison Avenue coffee shop not far from her Upper East Side one-bedroom apartment. “You should protect your vulnerability and your romantic hopes. Modesty makes women equal, truly equal, through difference.”
Miss Shalit looks at women today and sees misery–women with eating disorders, women who cut themselves, women who go from one empty sexual encounter to the next. Instead of casting an evil eye on the white male power structure, however, she blames the it’s-all-right-as-long-as-you-wear-a-condom attitude of the 90’s. To set things right, Miss Shalit, who is 23, hopes to bring about nothing less than a sexual counterrevolution.
In her debut book, A Return to Modesty: Disovering the Lost Virtue (Free Press), she writes: “I propose that the woes besetting the modern woman–sexual harassment, stalking, rape, even ‘whirlpooling’ (when a group of guys surround a girl who is swimming, and then sexually assault her)–are all expressions of a society which has lost its respect for female modesty.”
That’s a brash statement. So the feminists who made their names earlier in the decade are trying to boo her off the cultural stage (“Oh, she makes me sick!” said Camille Paglia), and the conservatives are crowing over their brainy new bombshell (“Imagine Katie Couric with Edith Wharton’s mind,” wrote George F. Will in Newsweek ).
“The reason I write is, I think there are things that are all wrong going on and I want to change it,” Miss Shalit said in the coffee shop. She was wearing a black button-down sweater, a black pleated skirt, black opaque tights and black shoes. In her black mesh bag was a thick Penguin paperback: Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope. “I’m a reformer,” she continued. “I want to make things better. I don’t think it’s enough to describe something, to criticize. It’s to present your own positive vision. I think that’s an obligation of all writers. But the problem is, a lot of writers are smirkers, and they will often smirk at someone but won’t tell you what they believe in.”
While feminists from Erica Jong to Naomi Wolf have argued that women can find liberation in sexuality, Miss Shalit argues something quite different–that modesty itself is empowering. “I mean, the early feminists were very much pro-modesty, temperance,” she said. “With modesty came the power to sort of get the men to do what the women wanted, you know?”
This sounds neo-Victorian, doesn’t it?
“No, just Victorian,” said Miss Shalit. “People accuse me of wanting to go back to the 50’s, and I always say, ‘The 1850’s.'”
She says that the sexual revolution failed not only because it lowered women’s social standing, but also erotically. “The legacy of the 60’s was not an erotic legacy,” she said. “The point of my book is that the 60’s failed not just on moral terms–it failed on its own terms. It just wasn’t sexy. ‘If it feels good, do it’–and then we did it, it no longer felt good. For there to be some kind of an abandonment or surrender , you have to have reticence , and time to get to know the person.” The result in the late 90’s, according to Miss Shalit? “People are returning to modesty, precisely for erotic reasons–because they find the alternative is just boring.”
To Miss Shalit, someone like Monica Lewinsky is almost inevitable, given the climate. “I think she has taken the cultural advice for women, which is that we’re not supposed to care if our partner happens to be married–we’re supposed to pretend that we can be cavalier about sex. What’s interesting is that she went into this thinking she could be just as blasé as Clinton and, of course, she ends up being the one who is more vulnerable. She loses. I think Monica embodies the certain drama of pretending you can be just as casual about sex and discovering that you can’t be.”
Miss Shalit takes on a number of feminists in her book. She chides Naomi Wolf for instructing women in her latest book, Promiscuities , that “there are no good girls; we are all bad girls,” and for encouraging them to “explore the shadow slut who walks alongside us.” (Ms. Wolf had no comment for this article.) Miss Shalit also goes after Katie Roiphe, calling the accounts of her sexual adventures in Last Night in Paradise “just plain sad.” Ms. Roiphe responded with a review in Harper’s Bazaar , saying of her new rival: “She will never have the depressing experience of waking up next to the wrong man, or feeling touched in a deep way by someone you didn’t mean to be touched by, or falling into bed with a close friend in a moment of weakness that disrupts everything. Would I trade places with her? Not in a million years.”
Ms. Roiphe elaborated in an interview: “Frankly, it’s hard for me to feel like I’m being condescended to by this 23-year-old virgin. I just felt, What does this little girl know about life? ”
(As for the virgin issue, modesty would not allow her to comment.)
Camille Paglia is also not pleased with Miss Shalit, saying that modesty was in her territory. ” I’m the one who got abused by the feminist establishment for coming on the scene in 1990, for heaven’s sake, and talking about the double standard as being based not in oppressive convention to keep women back, but in biological and psychological reality about women,” Ms. Paglia said. “It really makes me sick. She makes me sick! Oh, she makes me sick! … This whole thing, we’re going to return to modesty, well, look at her, she’s no different than Naomi Wolf! They’re cut from the same cloth! You know, Daddy’s little girl! All the older men will be very fond of us. We would never dream of being a challenging woman–oh, no, oh, no, we’re going to keep our little tiny chirpy voice, O.K., and we’re going to be a little tiny sparrow in the little tiny family nest, O.K.?”
Miss Shalit’s editor at the Free Press, Chad Conway, defended his writer thusly: “Camille’s just jealous. She can’t stand anyone moving into the spotlight.”
Those Shalit Girls
Miss Shalit came to Manhattan from Milwaukee. She grew up in a big house with seven TV sets. She used to build forts in her backyard. “I was very big on forts,” she said. “This was my early interest in the subject of privacy.” Miss Shalit was the youngest daughter of an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee (Sol, who emigrated from Israel in 1962) and a real estate agent (Liz). When she was 12 years old, her father gave her a paperback copy of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom . “It was the book that first opened my mind,” Miss Shalit said.
One of her sisters, Mina, 25, is a French teacher at Berlitz in Manhattan; her eldest sister, Ruth, 29, had a fast rise at a young age in magazine journalism, as a writer for The New Republic and GQ , until she ran into some plagiarism trouble.
When Wendy was in the fourth grade, her parents pulled her out of sex education class after she came home from school one day curious about the special erotic meaning of the number 69, which the teacher had discussed in class. To this day, Miss Shalit thinks sex education is harmful to girls.
“I want turnaround,” she said. “I want to see the crudest sex education bureaucrats out of their jobs … I don’t want to see them corrupting people who are much too young to be learning about this. If that happens, you can call me a success.”
The cultural brainwashing starts even before sex ed, she said in the coffee shop interview. “A friend, a liberal, had a 5-year-old daughter who came home, and after hearing about the Spice Girls, she said, ‘Mom, am I sexy?’ She’s 5 . We really can’t push the envelope much further. There’s just nowhere else to go. Where can you go? You can’t. I mean, in the womb, prenatal sex ed? There’s nowhere else to go.”
“Can sex ever be an end in itself?” I asked.
“If sex is an end ,” she said, “it means that other humans are means to our ends. When you do that, you usually end up mistreating the human you’re using as a means , but you end up, paradoxically, not even achieving sex in the end, because it’s often depressing and it’s not very sexy. You get what economists call diminishing returns.”
We left the coffee shop. She had a letter in her hand. I asked if I could see her apartment.
“Unfortunately, I just don’t know you well enough.” She laughed. “I don’t let men into my apartment until I’ve known them for weeks.” She stopped outside a stationery store. “I really like to write letters,” she said. “I like to have things in my hand and I like to mail letters.”
At Williams College, Miss Shalit was the Class of ’97’s very own intellectual rabble-rouser. When she was a freshman, she wrote to Neal Kozodoy in search of an internship at the neoconservative Commentary , her favorite magazine. (“This was before ‘intern’ had a gross connotation,” Miss Shalit said.) The editor wrote back, saying the magazine didn’t hire interns but inviting her to submit story ideas. She got to work on an article about a feminist Passover seder; Commentary published it. Her next article was the one that got attention. It was called “A Ladies Room of One’s Own” and it was a rant against co-ed bathrooms in the dormitories at Williams. The piece was reprinted in Reader’s Digest , made national news, and eventually led to the construction of new single-sex bathrooms at Williams.
“We discovered her,” said former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz. “She’s obviously intellectually very precocious and she’s also very brilliant.”
Miss Shalit also made herself a campus pariah by “coming out” as a conservative on National Coming Out Day. Strangers started giving her the finger. She got threatening phone calls. Someone slipped pornography under her door and let mice loose in her room. The college moved her to off-campus housing.
“It was a great experience,” Miss Shalit said. “You learn more when you’re being challenged and attacked.”
Michael J. Lewis, a 41-year-old art history professor who said he’s the faculty’s “only outed conservative,” was her friend through her campus trials. “You know the cruelty of the undergraduate world,” he said. “It’s primarily psychological. The great thing about Wendy is she does not filter her comments to be popular at the table she’s sitting at. Very infectious and innocent in a wonderful way. So this riles people. The American liberal arts college in the late 90’s I don’t think is a place where people speak their minds after coffee.”
But she wasn’t only needling the forces of political correctness at Williams: She also gained respect for feminists, finding herself in agreement with them about the seriousness of eating disorders and low self-esteem among women, as well as sexual harassment and date rape. She started keeping files, taking pictures–documenting the insanity for her book. Adam Bellow, at the time the editorial director of the Free Press, liked the idea of a tract on modesty. At 21, she had a deal.
After getting her B.A. in philosophy, Miss Shalit moved to Manhattan. Since then, she has written for City Journal , a quarterly published by the conservative and libertarian Manhattan Institute think tank, and for The Wall Street Journal , The Weekly Standard and National Review . She has made the scene at the Fabiani Food Chain Society, a monthly gathering of conservative journalists at the Princeton Club, and she dated New York Post editorial page editor John Podhoretz (who ungallantly attacked Miss Shalit’s sister, Ruth, in a Post Op-Ed column).
She lives with a cat, Milton, named for Milton Friedman. She likes the opera and she will not go to R-rated movies or bars, as a rule. On a recent Saturday night, while other people her age were carousing, she was baby sitting.
‘I’ll Always Love You’
On a Monday night, we went to a kosher Greek restaurant, Galil, close to her apartment. She was talking about one of her heroes, Allan Bloom, the late University of Chicago professor who wrote The Closing of the American Mind .
“Here’s kind of a funny story,” she said, blushing. “He talks about how young people very rarely say ‘I love you,’ and they certainly don’t say, ‘I’ll always love you.’ When I read that, I thought, ‘Wow.’ I was very impressed. So I went and got the book on tape. I wanted to see if he would actually say it! And so I would listen to it a lot, I just loved it, listened to him saying ‘I’ll always love you.’ Isn’t that funny? It’s so silly, but I was just a girl then, 12 or whatever. I was very interested in the whole idea that someone can say that they’ll always love you.”
She talked about how she was fascinated by the movie Gypsy as a girl–how the men craned their necks just to get a gander at Natalie Wood’s ankles! What was happening?
In her book, in passages that sound like bits from a naughty 19th-century novel, Miss Shalit describes an incident at Northwestern University debate camp: She was a teenager with a crush on her instructor, and one night he put the moves on her …
“At this point,” she writes, “he started to stroke my hair, and I felt such a queer feeling overtake me … I felt as if I were turning into a liquid version of myself, and as far as I was concerned, if this didn’t stop very soon, when my parents arrived to pick me up they would have a puddle for a daughter.”
She came to her senses, stumbled out and took a “long, guilty shower”–but when she returned to school, she let her classmates believe she was having an affair. “It was interesting to me how I always pretended that I was more experienced than I really was, wearing low-cut shirts,” she said. “Why did I do that?”
Crazy Middle Eastern music was playing. Miss Shalit was having mint tea and chicken. Her cheeks were red. “The most fundamental assumption of the culture is that promiscuity is sexy and virtue is boring,” she said. “And this dates back from the Marquis de Sade, who said virtue is boring, and the only thing exciting is being bad, but he was in jail! So this idea was in currency, but it was a marginal view–and since the 60’s, it’s been the dominant view: Virtue is boring. It’s no fun. Promiscuity is what’s exciting, and I’m challenging that.”
“What would a date in New York be like with you?”
“I prefer that to remain a mystery, George.”
Almost midnight. Outside, we walked the empty blocks. She talked some more about abolishing sex education. She mentioned covenant marriages. We went into her building and sat beside each other, facing the doorman, on a bench in the lobby. We talked about Allan Bloom’s last book, Love and Friendship . Then she handed me a photograph of herself at the age of 10 in a yellow tutu. The picture was taken when she was in the chorus of a professional production of Gypsy . I studied the photo.
“It’s just so fascinating,” she was saying, “that something was valued through most of world history and just was suddenly expunged .”
“What are you talking about now ?”
“Modesty!” she said, laughing. “What do you think I’m talking about? I’m talking about my book! Something that was valued through all of world history, seen to be a virtue for women and for men, too–but it was just tossed out , thought to be evil and sexist. How did that happen? That’s a fascinating story. How did that happen ?”
We shook hands and said goodbye. Her grip was warm and firm.