Modesty isn’t a virtue, it’s a tool to keep women in their place

“Still I rise.”
“Still I rise.”
Image: EPA/ Matt Campbell
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Judging from Shakespeare, the very sight of a modest woman pushes men into extravagant fantasies of matrimony. “I burn, I pine, I perish,” cries Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew, “If I achieve not this young modest girl.”

Modern men are less explicit about their desire for demureness, but there’s still a tendency to denigrate self-assured women as immodest. Writer and actress Mindy Kaling, who’s frequently questioned about her confidence, responds succinctly: “My parents raised me with the entitlement of a tall, white blond man.”

Kaling would likely be portrayed as a shrew by Shakespeare, but I adore her lack of modesty. Sure, talking incessantly about personal accomplishments can be self-centered and annoying. It doesn’t follow, though, that hiding all achievements, rejecting compliments, and displaying modesty is moral.

Modesty is clearly a gendered notion. The word means both self-effacing and sexually chaste, neither of which is inherently virtuous, and both of which are applied to women more than men. These concepts are used to keep women in their patriarchy-ordained roles—compromising their progress in the male-dominated realms of professional achievement, and locked into a passive role when it comes to sexual desire.

Sandy Grant, a philosopher at the University of Cambridge, says modesty is deeply entwined with power. “White straight men have, among other facets of their privilege, carte blanche to think they are the bees knees and are expected to manifest extraordinary levels of self-belief, self-esteem, even to boastfulness,” she writes in an email. “Whereas confident, self-enjoying, self-rating minorities are seen by the privileged as wholly unpalatable, enraging.”

Grant points to Maya Angelou, who describes this double standard beautifully in her poem, Still I Rise:

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard’

Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own backyard.

When it comes to morality, there has always been one rule for women and another one for men. Moira Weigel, junior fellow at Harvard University whose research focuses on gender, media, and social theory, notes that the very word “virtue” originates from the Latin word “vir,” for man. (It came to mean “valor” before transitioning to its current meaning.)

“It’s so deeply baked into this idea, which goes back to Ancient Greece, that men belong in public and women belong in the household,” she says. “The classical idea of virtue is about winning honor in the sphere of men in the world. There’s a very deep sense in which men seek honor among other men in public and women do not belong to that and are not part of that.”

Modesty, meanwhile, asks women to be quiet about their accomplishments, harkening back to the idea that a women’s professional successes are an affront. Women are also under pressure to perform the related definition of modesty, meaning moderate or qualified: We’re careful not to offend, wary of how our behavior could be misinterpreted, rarely flippant or sarcastic or forceful in a way that men are allowed to be.

Those who buck this pressure, even a little, are often told we have “strong personalities”—which is code for a woman who’ll say she disagrees with you and why. “There’s an expectation that women hold themselves small and only men are entitled into full self-expression, which is obviously deeply problematic,” says Juliet Williams, gender studies professor at UCLA.

Though women who acknowledge their achievements are viewed as unlikeable (case in point: Hillary Clinton), failing to do so makes it harder for others to recognize our success. There are no group toasts to successes that are kept secret. And in the workplace, the pressure for modesty allows women to be overlooked.

“When you’re told not to show off your wit or intelligence, or be a bit cheeky, that also means you don’t get to perform the behavior that makes you noticeable,” says Weigel. “Or make senior people think, ‘I want to have a beer with that person, I want to advance that person.’”

The expectation that women should be modest about achievements is so widely held it often goes unquestioned—just as sexual modesty has become an instinctive pose for many women. There’s a long-held, deep-seated belief that women should be pure and virginal. The Latin word for female genitalia, pudenda, is a gerundive instruction, Weigel explains, and goes a step further than modesty. “It literally means, ‘that of which you must be ashamed.’”

Today, in parts of the West, there’s a rejection of the imposition of sexual modesty on women, and a celebration of displays of womanly desire. But Williams argues that, for true gender equality, neither being sexually forthcoming nor reticent should be portrayed as inherently superior.

Women shouldn’t be forced to wear a burqa—but nor should they be prohibited from wearing one. Women should be allowed to wear modest clothing, but such a choice shouldn’t be interpreted as a reflection of ideal womanhood, as seen in the internet’s adoring frenzy over Ayesha Curry, the Instagram-famous wife of the basketball player Steph Curry.  This same freedom—to be either modest or immodest about achievements as women choose, rather than enforcing one mode as the ideal—should be the ultimate goal.

“The West has framed liberation around the rejection of modesty,” says Williams. “But just because compulsory modesty is a problem, it doesn’t mean that compulsory exposure or aggressiveness is the solution.”

Modesty would be less problematic if men largely shared this trait. But that’s not the case. Research shows that men tend to overestimate their performance on tests, whereas women are more accurate. “The question for feminism is whether we want to be entitled to immodesty or whether we want recognition for the fact that women have got it right and men have got it wrong,” says Williams.

Certainly, women who feel comfortable talking about their achievements should not be punished for doing so. Grant notes that “the most interesting women in history,” weren’t constrained by ���proper feminine modesty.” She points to Frida Kahlo, the great Mexican painter who famously said, “I am my own muse.” This self-assurance isn’t arrogant. It’s simply accurate.