Aug. 28th, 2005

Dear Mrs. Shalit,

I've just finished A Return to Modesty and I had to let you know how much I enjoyed it; indeed, it was, in many ways, a forbidden pleasure and therefore all the more engaging. I'm a forty-one year old wife and mother who also happens to be an English professor and, as you may know, if I were to go public in the academy with my enthusiasm for female modesty I'd probably be killed. Even my husband was nervous when I brought your book home from the library and proceeded to carry it around with me everywhere I went. I was especially taken by your account of a friend who wanted to have children soon after graduation from college and wondered "what's wrong with me."

Because I have arranged to work half time in order to make my children a priority, because I think there are 'essential' differences between men and women, and because I enjoy running a household and ( God forbid, stocking my freezer and changing the sheets weekly), most of the people I work with are faintly incredulous ("My God! Your house is so clean. It doesn't look like anyone lives here!")

While I do appreciate feminism, I'm tired of having to apologize for being feminine, for loving motherhood more than anything in the world, or for wanting to take care of my husband, who also takes care of me.

I have a collection of homemaking manuals from the 1940s and '50s, and I shudder to think what my colleagues would say if they saw them. I guess I'd have to make something up, like "Oh, I'm interested in social constructions of domestic space" when what I'm really
interested in is how to wax the floor. Even my closest friends are a little suspicious (You're just like the redhead on Desperate Housewives!)

Finally, while I'd never confess my domestic sensibilities to my colleagues, (my friends are tolerant) I find that my jaded, gimlet-eyed students tend to be surprisingly receptive to the occasional anecdote about a pink casserole dish, or even to my rants about the twin blights on contemporary society (cell phones and low rise jeans).

I tell the men to sit straight and take off their caps in class and they laugh and oblige (I'd like to tell some of the women to sit up straight and put on their bras, but I can't very well do this). In response to my wary, but joking (if I'm too serious, I might be fired) questions about 'hook ups' they take on a heartily protective, avuncular posture, but really I don't think they mind me acting like a grade school teacher from the early fifties. Judging from the number of them who show up in my office to discuss their personal lives, I don't think they mind at all. What do you think?


Dear Professor Closet,

Thank you so much for your kind words, and for taking the time to write. Your e-mail really cracked me up. Don't worry, I won't reveal your true identity to anyone (except my husband, and he promises not to tell anyone, either).

First of all, kudos to you for surviving--so far--in such a hostile atmosphere.

You must realize that these students you are talking to, not only do they ‘not mind,’ they could not be more grateful to have someone like you on campus.

That is why they are showing up to your office in droves. For the funny thing is, analyzing “the social constructions of domestic space” doesn’t really help anyone with real life.

Your traditional and practical approach, on the other hand, does.

If you were not a professor, I would say it’s time to branch out from commenting on men’s caps to empowering women to wear bras. I’ve personally had a lot of success with the “wouldn’t-you-be-more-comfortable” line, as in:

“Wow, that color really suits you, but wouldn’t you be more comfortable if your stomach were not hanging out of your shirt?”

“What snazzy earrings! You’re always so put together. But tell me honestly, wouldn’t you be more comfortable if strangers couldn’t see your tush cleavage?”

In my experience, the wouldn’t-you-be-more-comfortable tack works incredibly well. A lot of women really do feel a natural discomfort with various fashions, but they assume that this discomfort cannot be trusted. All you need to do is elicit it, and the clothes simply fly back on.

However, since you are a professor, you need to tread carefully. Therefore just doing what you are doing, providing a listening ear and sound advice, is important enough. That is what so many students long for, but never have.

So keep up the good work, and never, ever underestimate the number of traditionalists on campus. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who feel as you do, but are too intimidated to speak up. (I know this because they all write to me.)

Given this, while it is wise to avoid remarks that are too personal--which could very well get you packed off to reeducation camp--I don't see why you can't say the things you believe in. At Williams I had several professors sneak up to me and whisper that they secretly agreed with stances I had taken, but couldn't speak out "because it just wasn't the right time." And these were fully tenured professors. Once they fell into that mentality, it was never the "right time." It used to drive me crazy because all these intelligent but closeted people were letting the exhibitionists drive the college culture.

(Of course I realize you are not this type at all; I’m just trying to embolden you.)

In contrast to the tenured professors who were so easily intimidated, Professor Michael J. Lewis joined the Art History faculty when I was a freshman, and taught me a lot about moral courage. Although untenured at the time, Professor Lewis always spoke his mind, whether to students or in letters to the campus paper. He was--and still is--widely respected for his integrity, even by students who disagree with his (sometimes) unpopular positions.

So I think even though the flak can be dreadful, you should continue to speak up on issues which are important to you. Don't let the Pseudo-Tolerant Ones cramp your style. And before long, who knows? The day may yet come when coeds feel free to wear bras once again. . . .

With respect and admiration,


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