To some, what is remarkable about Wendy Shalit is how little her ideas and principles seem to have changed over the past six years, despite the fact that she is now only 23.
As a Williams first-year, Shalit posted a picture of economist George Stigler on her door in Morgan Mid-East. She now lives in an apartment in Manhattan with a cat she has named Milton after economist Milton Friedman.
Four years ago, Shalit’s ideas caused debate on a limited scaleâ€”on elite college campuses like Williams and among readers of magazines such as Commentary. But she now has a widespread national audience and has spawned a raging on-line debate.
The ideas may have remained, but the scope has changed.
Shalit’s recently published book, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, has launched her into a national debate on feminist issues and the nature of the sexes. Shalit has appeared on the Today Show; she has been profiled by reporters from Time magazine and Newsweek; and, she has attracted the attention and, in some cases, has debated iconic thinkers on feminist issues such as Kate Roiphe, Helen Gurley Brown and Camille Paglia.
Assistant professor of art Michael Lewis said Shalit was incredibly self-aware when she arrived at Williams.
“To have somebody with that depth of culture in a college dorm looking around is remarkable,” he said. “It is like what we wouldn’t give to have Voltaire in a freshman entry, to see the weirdness of it. Well, with Wendy you may not have Voltaire, but you have a wry and spry and nimble mind observing. No wonder they hated her.”
Shalit’s four years at Williams were not uncontroversial.
She raised the ire of many on campus after publishing a short essay attacking the co-ed bathroom system at Williams. In “A Ladies Room of One’s Own,” which was published in Commentary magazine in August 1995â€”the summer after her sophomore year at Williamsâ€”Shalit railed against the political correctness at Williams, the lack of privacy afforded to students, the “New Canon” approach to learning and literature and such recently adopted Williams traditions as sensitivity training during First Days.
In a recent interview, Shalit said that her criticisms were not levied at Williams specifically, but were more general observations about changes in collegiate life and academia. She also stressed the positive aspects of her Williams experience, noting that she had several wonderful professors here.
“The article was about a larger issue, not Williams,” she said. “I didn’t like some things about Williams, but I don’t know that those things would be different anywhere else.”
Shalit’s outspokenness turned her into a object of attack on campus.
In “A Ladies Room of One’s Own,” Shalit wrote that her door was once plastered with stickers saying “Fâ€”THE PATRIARCHY!” Shalit also reported in the article that during Women’s Pride Week, posters appeared on campus saying, “I never liked the name Wendy anyway: Happy Women’s Pride Week.”
Lewis said Shalit had a good relationship with the administration, yet he also described the campus response to Shalit’s article and presence as “alarming.”
“The fact is that Wendy had enemies here,” he said. “There wasn’t much organized support for her at all. The place was rather unsympathetic to her. As I walked into Baxter this morning, I saw a whole bunch of leaflets taped to the wall of Baxter talking about [two incidents of homophobic harassment]. When a chosen victim of harassment gets harassed, it becomes a campus event. When a campus political pariah gets harassed, people find it funny.”
However, Doone MacKay ’99, who lived in Shalit’s first-year entry, noted that Shalit was not always easy to get along with.
“Wendy was articulate and had control of what she was saying,” MacKay said. “She did raise issues which she wanted to discuss and perhaps should have been discussed, but she did it in such a manner that we didn’t want to discuss them.”
“You don’t interrupt Wendy, but she does interrupt you,” MacKay added. “It seems unlikely to me that personal attacks would have been levied against her without provocation. It takes two to make a fight.”
However, MacKay noted that her observations were based more on her recollection of different personalities then specific events.
MacKay also claimed that some of the facts in Shalit’s article “A Ladies Room of One’s Own” weren’t wholly accurate.
For instance, Shalit wrote in her article that the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian Union (now Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered Union) required all first-years to say that they are gay as part of a community building exercise
Mackay said the BGLU asked, but did not require, first-years to make this statement.
“Most of what she writes in the article is rhetoric, and not facts,” MacKay said, contending that the article has several other subtle distortions and generalizations.
“I do generalize, I ask the larger questions,” Shalit responded. “You have to generalize otherwise you can’t learn from your experiences.”
In response to the specific point concerning the BGLU visit, Shalit said, “You don’t have to require anything for there to be a lot of pressure. This is precisely what makes it such a tense situation. You have a lot of kids who are just coming to college, and no one wants to be accussed of being a prude.”
Shalit said she grew and matured as a result of her experience at Williams.
“I was fascinated by the way people who disagreed wouldn’t present arguments, but would make personal remarks,” she said. “But I think it is good to be in an environment where you find that people disagree with you and even attack you personally sometimes. You learn a lot about your self, about human nature.”
“I wouldn’t have been interested in modesty if I hadn’t seen how much it annoyed certain professors of mine,” she added. “The more horrified people were by my ideas the more I thought they were worth pursuing. Why, if we live in such liberated times, why is modesty not an option?”
Shalit believes that a “culture of immodesty” has pervaded college campuses, limiting the social options for students.
“When dorms were segregated, people could sneak in to have sex, but with co-ed dorms you can’t really sneak out and be modest,” she said. “The counter culture of the ‘60s has been institutionalized.”
Lewis said he has always been impressed by Shalit’s irreverence for established ideas.
“We have the fiction that the modern American college campus is the place for the exchange of ideas and free and open debate,” he said. “And this is not true. We are in a period where people feel unsure of what they can or cannot say, and as a result most people retreat to platitudes or discuss the serious things in the most private circumstances they can find, two friends over coffee. What is striking about Wendy in this atmosphere that is a little stultifying is that she had in her here and has in her now a tremendous independence of mind and curiosity about why things are the way they are. She also has a delightful irreverence about prevailing taboos.”
Shalit attacks numerous “prevailing taboos” in her book.
She starts her book off by describing how she “sat out” sexual education in fourth grade, spending the period reading in the library instead.
She goes on to make an essentialist argument concerning the nature of the sexes by stringing together a long series of anecdotes and references to sources ranging from Cosmopolitan magazine to Kierkegaard.
She contends that women are naturally more physically reticent, more emotionally vulnerable and more modest, than men.
Shalit’s thoughts and words center on her obsession with modesty. Ask her anything, and she is able to bring her response back to the one idea.
“You will always have people who make modesty into a pathology and there is always in a cynical culture a lot of psychological reductionism toward anyone who will bring up the topic,” Shalit says.
She asks women to re-idealize sexual modesty, suggesting that many of the societal ills which plague women todayâ€”including eating disorders, sexual harassment and date rapeâ€”will lessen in severity and frequency with a “return to modesty.”
Critics have attacked Shalit on a variety of different grounds.
Some are philosophically repulsed by her ideas while others condemn her methods. Critics have chastised Shalit for having too much faith in her intellect, for creating an argument that is “too tidy to make sense in the real world.” Many have said Shalit fails to cite the serious problems which can coincide with a “policy” of female modesty, such as passivity and assumptions of stupidity. The list goes on and on.
If Shalit have been anathematized by some, others have praised her for her earnestness, ambition and passion.
George Will, in Newsweek, says that Shalit’s book “is much more ambitious than the banal political agendas of contemporary feminism.”
And Professor Lewis says that Shalit is a “serious thinker who has come out with a serious book.”
“She is not an abstract, formulaic thinker who begins with an ideal set of what the world should be and applies a grid to society and gets upset when things stick out,” he added. “She is a close observer of how people live.”
Shalit has been closely observed herself by critics and admirers wondering how a teenager managed to publish her work in national magazines and turn herself into a public intellectual by age 23.
Although Shalit is more interested in discussing her ideas than her marketing strategies, she did say that the publication of her book was the result of a coincidence of interests.
She had been clipping articles on the subject of modesty for years, and had long thought about writing a book. Prior to publishing the book, Shalit had articles published in The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest and the National Review. She is also a contributing editor at the City Journal in Manhattan, where she lives.
Shalit said she was approached by representatives from the Free Press, a subdivision of Simon & Schuster, who were interested in her writing a book on modesty. She spent a few months in late 1997 writing the book.
Since its publication in January, Shalit has spent the bulk of her time travelling around the country, speaking in a variety of venues.
She says that most audiences are polite and receptive to her ideas, and, when asked about the book’s success, said it might possibly be a sign of the validity of her beliefs.
“If I am right and modesty is natural and has become the last taboo, then it is not surprising that people want to talk about it when finally given a chance,” she said. “Yet you don’t really know until the dust settles whether you will actually make a dent in the culture.”
Some journalists suggest that Shalit’s persona and appearance may also have something to do with her popularity.
Time magazine’s Tamala Edwards wrote that “One reason Shalit is garnering so much attention has to do with, well, who she is: a petit, pretty 23-year-old who has already been labeled brilliant by the likes of conservative icon Norman Podhoretz.”
Lewis says that Shalit is a deep thinker, engaging and witty, and, he added, “She is also very attractive, photogenic and telegenic in a society where the cultural life is more and more determined by the appearance of things.”
Lewis added that there is a built-in niche for young, female conservative thinkers.
Despite the fact that Shalit’s age and appearance may be part of her overall image, few doubt the seriousness and intelligence of her ideas.
Shalit plans to continue writing in the coming years, but is doubtful that this interest will lead her into an academic life.
“I have found that the world of ideas is located less in the academy than I had originally thought,” she said. “In the academy when someone disagrees with you, you can be personally attacked and everything occurs behind closed doors. Through writing everything comes to light, and that is why it is more appealing to me. There is more accountability and you can reach a much wider audience.”
But Shalit still has opinions on some issues relating to life in the academy. For instance, she said she is doubtful as to the worth of the recently nixed proposal to institute substance-free housing options at Williams.
Her solution: allow sex segregated housing instead.