Moral virtues are good habits that make us strong. Virtues are to the person what nutrition is to the body. “Empowerment” has become a buzz word for radical feminists who want to become strong.
Yet they often go about shunning what truly makes them strong — virtue — in the interest of pursuing a form of liberation that actually liberates them from virtue and the empowerment it provides.
One example in particular stands out: the rejection of modesty in the interest of freedom. Wendy Shalit reminds us, in her book A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue (1999), that modesty is not prudery, but a natural instinct, and one that can save us from ourselves. She cites some authors who argue that modesty is an invented virtue that should be deconstructed and others who contend that modesty is unnatural and serves only to discourage women from dressing whichever way they desire.
Modesty is not prudery, but prudence.
The plain truth is that modesty is a fact of life. Virtue must be pursued. Madonna, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and many others have made careers out of being purposely and blatantly immodest. In so behaving, they are decidedly not good role models. Nonetheless, their influence is considerable. They know exactly what they are doing and cashing in on presenting themselves as sex objects. Shock sells.
Modesty in attire is the way men and women present themselves to others as persons and not as objects. It is both affirmative of personality and protective against exploitation. In this way, modesty is a source of strength. It is also a natural invitation to a person-to-person relationship. The “I-thou” relationship is infinitely more rewarding than that of the “I-it” relationship.
I recall, with some degree of dismay, trying to make this point in class to a group of feminists. They vehemently insisted that women should have the freedom to dress in any manner they so choose and that men should continue to look at them respectfully. They preferred freedom over virtue, even though the freedom they espoused made them vulnerable.
Their attitude toward men was naïve. They believed that the opposite sex should respond primarily to a feminist ideology rather than to a provocative-looking female. Men, however, are not disembodied creatures. This feminist disregard for how they looked and what they provoked did not empower, but endangered, them. Feminism is not always congenial to feminists.
Anne Maloney is an associate professor of philosophy at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. In an article entitled, “What the Hook-Up Culture Has Done to Women,” she bemoans the fact that so many women, tossing modesty aside, have become victims of male lust. After 30 years of teaching and having come to know thousands of women between the ages of 18 and 26, her assessment that contemporary culture is “toxic” to women carries considerable weight.
“It is no coincidence,” she goes on to say, “that the two top prescribed drugs at our state university’s health center are antidepressants and the birth-control pill.”
Given the current situation, professor Maloney is not at all surprised to observe that the number of women suffering from eating disorders, addiction, anxiety and depression is at an all-time high.
It would be an understatement to say that these women are not enjoying their new freedom. But freedom that rejects virtue is really enslavement. Freedom from virtue is self-defeating, no matter how appealing it may appear when it is marketed.
Pope St. John Paul II, writing as Karol Wojtyla, made the following statement in Love and Responsibility:
“What is truly immodest in dress is that which frankly contributes to the deliberate displacement of the true value of the person by sexual values, that which is bound to elicit a reaction to the person as to a ‘possible means of obtaining sexual enjoyment’ and not ‘a possible object of love by reason of his or her personal value.’”
Simply stated, modesty is on the side of personality; immodesty is impersonal. Why would anyone prefer the impersonal to the personal, since we are, as a matter of fact, persons?
In addition, modesty is a way of imperfectly concealing one’s talents. Immodesty is more immediately conspicuous than modesty. That is because immodesty is superficial whereas modesty shuns the ostentatious. When Abraham Lincoln stated, “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here,” his self-effacement was a fine example of modesty. And yet his exceptional modesty did not conceal the splendor of his Gettysburg Address. In fact, it probably added to it. If ever a person rose to the occasion, it was America’s 16th president on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Modesty does not prevent a person’s beauty, talent or excellence from shining through. But it does allow these traits to become evident, slowly over time, in the context of a personal relationship. Moreover, it allows such personal revelation to unfold without the distracting alloy of pride. Modesty opens the door to a relationship; immodesty quickly burns itself out. Modesty is nourishment; immodesty is stimulation.
Hollywood is the world capital of glamor, glitter and glitz. Yet these are not qualities that feed the soul. My modest proposal, especially to young women, is about adopting this virtue that will not only be a source of empowerment, but of attractiveness in the best sense.
Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International.
He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada,
an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut,
and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review.