You don't have to signal a social conscience by looking like a frump. Lace knickers won't hasten the holocaust, you can ban the bomb in a feather boa just as well as without, and a mild interest in the length of hemlines doesn't necessarily disqualify you from reading Das Kapital and agreeing with every word. --Elizabeth Bibesco

Friday, March 11, 2011

Can I be a Modest Feminist?

So, I meant to post this on International Women’s Day, but this took a really long time, mostly because I have so many thoughts! ☺Scroll to the bottom if you need a very short cliffnotes version. Also! If you are a dork like me, feel free to check out my links and add your own!

My Woman, when I started all this up, was very worried about how modesty and feminism fit together. Now, I'm not a feminism scholar, so I don't know all the ins and outs of it, but I am a feminist. (Before you go all Ah!-she's-a-man-eating-lesbian-after-all on me, I'm going to give you 2 quotes to exemplify my feminism.) Rebecca West once said: "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat." Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler are quoted as having said, "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people."

There. That is why I'm a feminist. I believe that women are people. But! The feminist ideology is more than that, I think. It's the radical notion that everyone is a person and deserves to be treated as such. This isn't very far from the Christian idea of seeing Christ in everyone and serving Christ in everyone. I am a feminist because I'm a Christian. I see Christ in women. I see Christ in black people. I see Christ in Jews. I see Christ in Muslims. I see Christ in poor people. I see Christ in queer people. I even see Christ in Fred Phelps. With difficulty.

Okay, so that defense of feminism may seem unnecessary --and perhaps it is-- but as I searched around the internet about modesty and feminism, I discovered that pretty much nobody thinks you can be modest and a feminist. Or if they do, it's because they've redefined feminism into something I don't recognize (and even that is rare).

Different Feminists’ Opinions on clothes

So how do feminists view clothes? Well, the answer to that is it depends on who you ask.
One group –that I think of as Old-School Feminists (and, I've found confirmation --and here-- that this is indeed the majority thought of Second Wave Feminism)-- insists that you can’t be a feminist if you wear revealing things. Eg. Or says that wanting to be sexy and successful is anti-feminist. Eg. The idea was revolutionary at the time-- women didn't have to shave every day or wear make-up to please their men? That kind of clothing made a statement.

Another group (in my social circle, this group is often made up of lesbians, but it is certainly not only queer people) insists you must be willing to march down Main Street naked or you’re uncomfortable with your body. You can find that attitude in this protest and this one. I'm told here and here that this is mostly Third Wave Feminism. The idea was we are sexually liberated and so we should be treated like human beings no matter what we're wearing.

Many of the above get downright obnoxious when someone else claiming to be a feminist supports something that –God forbid-- might be considered modest. (Like this rant about Burkas or this one about "the modesty movement".)

Now, the funny thing is, I like the clothes they offer on and I think blaghag’s boobquake is, at the very least, an interesting social statement, but neither of these groups’ opinions sound like mine. I like looking pretty. But I do have limits to the amount of skin I’ll show. And I’m a feminist, right? Right?

Plain(s)feminist, Naomi Wolf, and a few others would say, "Right." Apparently, this is a sub-genre of Third Wave Feminism called Choice Feminism. There is a middle ground between frump and slut. And it's important that we have that option, they'd add-- even if the fashion industry is out to get women. (Now I sound like my old dietitian who thought the fashion industry was conspiring against women. When I was 16, I thought she was crazy-- now, I think she's right.) We also should have the choice to be modest or the choice to dress sluttily or any combination of the two. Some say it's the beginning of a new Fourth Wave Feminism. Choice or Fourth Wave, it's a minority right now, but you could say that feminists are slowly beginning to understand that clothes don't necessarily make the woman.

Different Modesty Groups’ Opinions on clothes
In order to prove my point: namely, that one can be modest and a feminist, I think I shall have to look at what different proponents of modesty think about clothing. Now, one of these days I’d love to detail all the different rules—from what Mormons think is a modest swimsuit to what hijabis would consider a modest swimsuit—but I don’t have time to do that here. I’d like instead to look at women’s general ideas of why modesty is a good idea and how it should be followed in a more general sense than “These Are The Rules.”

One of the most vocal groups seems to think that dressing modestly protects a woman from the dangerous gaze –and subsequently, actions—of men. I refuse to buy this. (Catholic sources, Pentecostal sources, Muslim sources and many others here and here. I don't know what the name is. Modesty proponents don't have clearly identified "Waves" that they belong to, tragically.)
Things I find wrong with this line of thought:
1) IT’S VICTIM BLAMING!!!! It assumes that if I’m wearing a mini-skirt, I’m less of a person of value than if I’m wearing a maxi-skirt. It actually sounds a lot like’s assertion that you can’t be a feminist if you’re wearing a thong bikini.
2) It implies that men have absolutely no control over their sex drive or their actions. Ok. As someone who is attracted to women, I have to say: I don’t lose all ability to control my actions when a pretty woman walks by. On the rare occasion, I’ll lose my train of thought (okay, maybe it’s more than rare), but I still manage not to rape her… or even to have “impure” thoughts (unless awe is impure). Don’t say it’s because I’m a woman. I assure you, my sex drive functions as well as any straight male. I think we should give our men a little more credit for, you know, control of their actions.
3) It teaches our young women that they are in charge of who they have sex with, which is an ideal to be sure, but it’s not reality. And it leaves rape victims feeling guilty for having somehow caused it.
4) It teaches our young men that any woman who is dressed like X wants to have sex with them, no matter what she actually says, so “no means no” gets a lot more complicated.

I don’t think this one can be feminist, but feel free to argue with me!

Other reasons people advocate modesty are as:
  • A sign to ourselves that we value our bodies, according to this Jewish website and this Muslim one.
    • I like this one—sometimes I really need a reminder that I (and my Woman and my God) value my body. While not my primary goal for my Lenten discipline, I see this as a side-effec that could be almost an antidote for the giving-up-food aspect of Lent.
  • A sign of our devotion to God or so saith both Quaker Jane and another blog.
    • I like this one too, although I worry about it. For people who work very hard on their humility, this is probably a wonderful thing. Quaker Jane describes elsewhere on her site how she get asked about religion by total strangers. While being publicly devoted to God does encourage you to act in a way that would represent God well (I personally think this involves being kind to other people and holding hands with my Woman), it also is a fine line to walk in Christianity. I actually think it was our Ash Wednesday reading where Jesus says don’t pray in public (check out Matthew 6:1-6:20), because God sees in secret and rewards what we do in secret. When I do public acts of religiosity, I definitely worry about being a hypocrite like Jesus talks about in this passage. I guess it is all about the spirit in which you undertake these endeavors. And I’m still working on that—I think it’s a work in progress for everyone.
    • A sign of belonging to a particular religion, according to Quaker Jane again, a Muslim website and an interview with Muslim hijabis.
      • I’m not sure how I feel about this, although it seems inevitable if you’re wearing a style of modesty that is denomination-specific. I think my worry about it would go back to Matthew 6—why do I want to advertize that I belong to this faith? But I definitely think it would keep you on your toes as far as acceptable behavior goes.
      • To glorify God. At least according to the Mormons and these Catholics.
        • If you believe God requires it, this is a pretty straightforward answer.

      Are these contradictory?
      Well, here’s a radical concept:
      Neither feminism nor modesty is really about what you wear!

      Feminism is about believing that all people have the right to be treated like people. Modesty (at it’s best, in my opinion) is about valuing our bodies, showing our devotion and honoring God.

      I don’t think those are contradictory!

      Need a cliffnotes version of all of this? Both feminists and modesty proponents need to get over themselves. Not all feminists look the same and not all modesty proponents think the same, but one can still be a feminist and modest. I guess this makes me a Fourth Wave Feminist, huh? Let's get the revolution started!


      surprise said...

      I'm feminist, agnostic, heterosexual, and, for the most part, have always dressed modestly. I've always worn loose pants and dresses with longish hemlines. I've never worn stilettos, and don't wear make-up. In fact, I've always dressed far more modestly than my more religious mother, who sported short skirts, a lot of make-up, and long, painted fingernails.

      I don't believe that I "value" my body any less or any more than my mother, or, indeed, other, more covered women in religious traditions.

      My personal take on dress is that is should be appropriate to context. Short skirts, a lot of make-up, and long, painted fingernails are not appropriate in most public spaces most of the time. If you're working in a professional office, you wear professional clothes; if out on the streets, you wear comfortable clothes and flat shoes (who knows when you're going to need to run to catch the bus). On the beach, you wear bathing suits that cover your breasts, private parts and buns.

      However, if you're going to a formal dance or bar where attracting the opposite sex is the point, a little cleavage or a little leg might be alright. Notice I did say "a little."

      What I abhor though, is the ubiquitous images of scantilly clad young women in advertisements and movies. It's taking sex out of the private space and forcing it into the public sphere. It also reinforces the idea in young women that their only value is sexual.

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